I have a confession to make: I was wrong about President Trump’s ambition regarding foreign policy. At the beginning of his presidency, I assumed — sometimes in The Post — that Trump would pursue a modest program in international affairs and focus instead on his larger domestic agenda, much touted during the 2016 presidential campaign.
"Make America Great Again " would require a laserlike focus on infrastructure projects, job retraining, border security and working-class tax cuts — or so we were told, at least. That seemed to leave little bandwidth for major foreign policy lifts. Moreover, foreign policy experts in the Trump administration were going to constrain the new president’s creative — some would say erratic — ideas regarding international affairs. Early on, I even traced some continuities between the Obama and Trump administrations in national security affairs.
Nearly three years into the Trump administration, however, I now admit I was wrong. Instead, Trump has initiated not just one but multiple grandiose diplomatic projects: denuclearization in North Korea; a better Iran nuclear deal; peace with the Taliban; a fundamental restructuring of economic engagement with China; detente with Russia; Mexican underwriting of a massive wall; new trade deals with Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and Europe; and permanent Middle East peace. I cannot think of a president who aspired to do so much during the first phase of his term — and all at the same time.
I also underestimated Trump’s creativity in adopting new strategies to achieve this ambitious list of objectives. As a businessman and author of “The Art of the Deal,” Trump has boasted about his special negotiating abilities. Fans and foes alike must all agree that Trump has deployed new modalities of diplomacy that previous presidents never dared try.
He made overtures to a North Korean dictator with an in-person visit, imposed massive tariffs on our then-largest trading partner, invited the Taliban to Camp David, expressed fawning admiration for an autocrat in Moscow and (though the details are still murky) appears to be running a wildly novel play to secure peace between Israel and Palestine.
In another departure from previous presidents, Trump also does not follow the same strategy to achieve similar ends. To secure denuclearization with North Korea, Trump has deployed engagement. But to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Trump has adopted the exact opposite strategy: comprehensive coercive pressure. That’s unusual.
More generally, in a radical departure from conventional diplomacy, Trump is not afraid to give something for nothing, at least in the short run. He gave Kim Jong Un a presidential summit, moved a U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, reduced our NATO defense spending in Eastern Europe and nearly hosted the Taliban at Camp David during the week of 9/11. All in return for no obvious, tangible benefits — or, in State Department parlance, no “deliverables” — for the United States. These are not normal diplomatic plays.
With the departure of John Bolton as his national security adviser, Trump will be even more liberated to pursue original diplomacy. In another first, a Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York later this month may even be in the works.
At some point, maybe this creative diplomacy will produce results. But almost three years into his presidency, Trump has initiated many foreign policy plays but completed almost none of them. He has no deals on denuclearization with Iran or North Korea. His trade war with China has yet to yield results. Mexico has not paid a peso for the wall; instead, the Pentagon has been authorized to divert $3.6 billion from 127 military projects. His oddly amicable relationship with Vladimir Putin has produced no concrete outcome regarding arms control, Ukraine or U.S. election security. Peace seems far away in both the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Trump’s only achievement has been a slight amendment to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ironically, several of the changes in the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, most importantly the new language on the digital economy, were clauses lifted from Barack Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. U.S. diplomats did help to mediate an agreement between the Sudanese government and opposition leaders earlier this summer but, notably, without any help from creative Trump diplomacy. (It is not clear whether the president was involved at all.)
Trump still has at least one more year to go in his presidency, keeping open the possibility that his creative diplomacy might still produce tangible results. If Trump does close even half of the deals he is now pursuing, then his big ambition and unique style of diplomacy should be applauded.
But here’s the thing: You don’t score points in diplomacy for originality. You tend to achieve results through patient, painstaking effort that involves large amounts of information-gathering, travel, homework and detail-oriented conversations with foes and allies. Generally speaking, Trump’s diplomacy so far has been conspicuously short on all of these fronts.
Trump and his team’s diplomacy must be judged by concrete results, not creative form. So far, his unique diplomatic moves have generated headlines but no clear wins for the security and welfare of the American people.