While Trump’s obvious reluctance to get caught in an Iraq-style quagmire might keep him from initiating a large-scale catastrophe, his foreign policy is essentially a series of small- to mid-scale errors and blunders, degrading the U.S. position piece by piece.
This has happened because Trump is, as he sold himself, an outsider unconstrained by tradition or the views of the “establishment.” Unfortunately, he’s also unconstrained by even a cursory understanding of history, any interest in knowing what motivates both friends and foes, or a commitment to the kind of values that the United States has attempted to propagate throughout the world.
What’s left are his own inclinations, impulses and prejudices. If he were a man of unusual wisdom and creative vision, that might not be a bad thing. But he isn’t. He’s Donald Trump.
Take, for instance, the president’s ratcheting of tensions with Iran. When Trump took office, we had an agreement, painstakingly negotiated with Great Britain, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, and China to restrain the Iranian nuclear program, an agreement that, by all accounts, was doing exactly what it was supposed to do.
Armed with no apparent grasp of what the agreement consisted of other than the fact that it was negotiated by the Obama administration, Trump abandoned it and imposed sanctions against Iran. But the president seems only dimly aware that the hawks within his administration are interested not just in keeping Iran from having nuclear weapons, but also that Iran abandon its strategy for influence in the region and, ultimately, that its regime be overthrown.
Trump thinks that by beating his chest he’ll get Iran to bow down before him and promise never to develop nuclear weapons. But the people around him, who are encouraging him to take increasingly provocative actions, have much more ambitious goals.
So Trump tweeted on Tuesday: “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!”
You could almost see John Bolton nodding in approval. Trump’s national security adviser knows that every new threat increases the chances of a response from Iran, which can then be used to urge Trump to take action lest he look “weak,” which brings us closer to war.
In the best-case scenario, it winds up being just a lot of bluster and fist-shaking (while we work to destroy Iran’s economy and immiserate its people, whose welfare we claim to care deeply about) but not a genuine disaster. Or it could spiral into another tragic Middle East war. Trump goes back and forth on things such as ordering military strikes because he’s all impulse and reaction, without any coherent idea about what our long-term goals should be.
Meanwhile, he continues to create hostility and despair wherever he turns his gaze. In Cuba, Trump undid the Obama administration’s policy of opening up ties and encouraging economic development, the result being more misery for Cubans for no purpose whatsoever. Any ability the United States might have had to act as an honest broker between the Israelis and Palestinians is gone. He continues a trade war with China that has so far done nothing but damage the U.S. economy. The leaders of other countries view him as erratic and unpredictable.
Around the world, the image of the United States has plummeted, especially among our most stalwart allies. According to the Pew Research Center, between the end of the Obama years and late 2018, favorable views of the United States fell 27 percentage points in Germany, 26 points in Canada, 25 points in France and 11 points in Britain. In the 25 countries surveyed, a median of 70 percent of citizens said they had no confidence in Trump to do the right thing in foreign affairs.
To return to where we began, Trump is apparently displeased with our long-standing security agreement with Japan because it isn’t paying us enough money. “Trump regards Japan’s repeated efforts to move a large U.S. military base in Okinawa as a sort of land-grab,” Bloomberg reports, “and has raised the idea of seeking financial compensation for American forces to relocate.”
Maybe Japanese leaders can arrange a licensing agreement for him to slap his name on a hotel there as a way of maintaining the alliance. Or maybe, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, they can write him a “beautiful letter” showering him with praise and get whatever they want that way.
One thing people say about Trump’s foreign policy is, “Well, at least he hasn’t started World War III yet.” Which is true. And it’s possible that all of the ways Trump has degraded and diminished the United States’ position in the world will be easier to undo than if he created one giant cataclysm such as the Iraq War. But it’s still going to be a long road back.