Presidents running for reelection should be judged by their accomplishments, not promises. As President Trump seeks a new mandate from the American people, it’s time to give some grades for what he has achieved regarding foreign policy during his first four years in office.
China: D+. Trump — or more precisely, some of his former national security team — deserves credit for more accurately diagnosing the challenge in the 2017 National Security Strategy. In 2020, however, his team then exaggerated this threat, claiming that the Chinese Communist Party seeks to export Marxism-Leninism and undermine global freedom.
Trump’s prescriptions resulted in few tangible benefits. His trade war, resulting in a “phase one” deal, caused damage to American farmers, workers and manufacturers. In this weak agreement, Trump failed to compel China to meet its commitments. The more ambitious “phase two” is dead in the water.
Although Trump’s team has rightly taken a tougher line on trade with China, the decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a major mistake, denying the United States a useful mechanism for containing Beijing. Trump’s silence on human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong makes it difficult for his government to frame our fight with China in moral, ideological terms. Trump’s greatest “success” has been inadvertent — how ineptly Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken advantage of Trump’s mistakes.
Russia: F+. In his quest to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump has downplayed or dismissed countless belligerent actions, including the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, Russian support for Bashar al-Assad’s cruelty in Syria, the alleged bounties paid to kill U.S. troops, and Russian intervention in U.S. elections in 2016 and 2020. Trump’s embrace of Putin has not achieved a single beneficial outcome for the American people. (The “+” is for his administration, not Trump personally.)
I’ll raise the grade to D- if Trump and Putin extend the New START (President Barack Obama’s work) before it expires in 2021. The Trump administration continued several Obama-era initiatives to contain Russia, including levying sanctions. The Trump administration’s laudable decision to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine was undermined by Trump’s personal efforts to pressure the country’s president to help his reelection campaign — a foreign policy act for which he was impeached and did serious damage to U.S.-Ukraine relations.
Iran: F. Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, promising to secure a better deal and roll back Iranian influence in the region. Episodically, U.S. officials hinted at a larger objective — regime change. None of these goals have been achieved; instead, Iran continues to enrich uranium and has produced on Trump’s watch enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.
North Korea: D. To eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat, Trump experimented with a novel strategy: direct diplomacy with Kim Jong Un. Regarding the North Korea dictator, Trump said, “we fell in love.” But this bromance has not produced any reductions in North Korea’s threatening deployment of nuclear-armed missiles. To date, Trump’s creative approach has failed miserably.
Syria/the Islamic State: C-. Trump continued the U.S.-led military operation against the Islamic State launched by Obama in 2014. Trump flirted with using force to stop Assad’s atrocities, but pumped the brakes after a day of missile strikes and withdrew U.S. troops from Syria, triggering the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel: B. Trump deserves credit for helping to establish diplomatic relations between these Arab monarchies and Israel. But it’s not “Middle East peace.” These agreements contribute little to ending actual conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The security, economic and moral benefits to the United States are minimal.
Israeli-Palestinian peace: F. Trump’s grade here is shared by many presidents. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, did float a novel approach. But presidents get judged by results, not originality.
NATO: D-. Trump has expressed more disdain for the transatlantic alliance than any other American president since its creation in 1949. Tensions between the United States and several NATO members remain high. The frequently discussed goal of spending more on defense — 2 percent of gross domestic product — was set by NATO leaders, including Obama, in 2014, not by Trump.
Africa: F. Trump’s only major policy initiative was to call them “shithole” countries. Enough said.
Latin America: F. Mexico did not pay for the border wall. The attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan dictatorship has failed. New restrictions on travel, and relations more generally, with Cuba have produced no tangible security or economic benefits for the American people and haven’t spurred democratic regime change. Trump’s cruel treatment of refugees on the border has deeply damaged the United States’ image in the region.
The pandemic: F+. Trump has grossly mishandled the domestic response to the novel coronavirus, resulting already in more than 200,000 deaths, and did next to nothing to organize a global effort. The United States has provided some humanitarian assistance to other countries. Trump’s poor response to the pandemic has helped to drive American favorability ratings across the world to record lows.
The global economy: C-. The Federal Reserve has played a positive role in helping both the U.S. and global economy recover. The new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico is an incremental improvement over NAFTA (ironically, much of its language was lifted from the TPP drafted by the Obama administration!). But Trump’s assault on the World Trade Organization, overuse of tariffs, and threats to divide the global economy between China and the United States do not serve long-term American economic interests.
Democracy promotion: F. Trump does not even define advancing democracy abroad as a U.S. objective. He often brags about his friendly relations with dictators.
Final grade: a gentleman’s D–.
As a foreign policy maker, Trump has performed poorly, hasn’t put in the work to get better and doesn’t seem to care about much of the portfolio. It’s time for him to change majors: He should drop out of international relations and go back to (television) communications.
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