The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tuning out of Donald Trump

In many ways, the president has become more predictable and less potent

People walk at the El Chapparal port of entry on their way to enter the United States on Sunday in Tijuana, Mexico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Recently, a reporter contacted me about whether President Trump would have a strong foreign policy story to sell as the 2020 campaign heats up. This reporter suggested that there was at least the makings of a success narrative: the Islamic State defeated, a harder line on Iran and Venezuela, better relations with North Korea, the chance of a diplomatic breakthrough in Afghanistan and NATO allies spending more. What did I think?

Because I was at a conference last week, I was never able to get back to him. If I think hard about this narrative, however, I think three things. My first cut is that the reporter might be correct. Ejecting the Islamic State from Syria is no small thing. Trump has avoided entangling the United States in any new wars. Venezuela and Iran are appropriate enemies. Mostly, the implicit message that Trump’s campaign should sell is that Trump has been president for a full term and, despite repeated caterwauling by the foreign policy community, the world has not blown up yet. To the extent that Americans care about foreign policy when they vote — and they normally do not care all that much — this might be good enough.

My second cut is that Democrats should have an easy time picking apart the Trump campaign’s “truthful hyperbole” in foreign policy. Yes, the Islamic State was defeated — by continuing the policies that the Obama administration laid down. Yes, NATO allies are spending more on defense — but that has nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Sure, the administration has ratcheted up sanctions against Iran and Venezuela — but both regimes remain unbowed and the administration’s strategy for both countries is starting to seem stale. As for North Korea, not even Republicans are shameless enough to claim any accomplishments in that negotiation.

My third cut is that there is a deeper problem with the president’s foreign policy, and it is a problem that might affect his 2020 chances. Simply put, the Trump administration has frittered away its ability to cow or coerce anyone on the global stage. It is not just that the rest of the world hates Donald Trump; it is that they neither respect nor fear him.

The tricks that Trump deployed in his first few years to try to coerce allies no longer seem to work. U.S. corporations no longer fear the wrath of Trump’s tweets, for example. the New York Times’s Alan Rappeport reported last month that “the president’s scattershot attention span has diminished his power to persuade the business world to bend to his will, corporate communications experts say, as once fearsome tweet storms have devolved into ephemeral annoyances.”

The same is true for U.S. allies, as well. The NYT’s Julian Barnes and Adam Satariano reported last month that the Trump administration’s efforts to cajole allies into blocking Huawei from building their 5G networks have failed, and failed badly. See whether this description sounds familiar:

Over the past several months, American officials have tried to pressure, scold and, increasingly, threaten other nations that are considering using Huawei in building fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, has pledged to withhold intelligence from nations that continue to use Chinese telecom equipment. The American ambassador to Germany cautioned Berlin this month that the United States would curtail intelligence sharing if that country used Huawei....
But the campaign has run aground. Britain, Germany, India and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries signaling they are unlikely to back the American effort to entirely ban Huawei from building their 5G networks. While some countries like Britain share the United States’ concerns, they argue that the security risks can be managed by closely scrutinizing the company and its software....
The United States is not ready to admit defeat, but its campaign has suffered from what foreign officials say is a scolding approach and a lack of concrete evidence that Huawei poses a real risk. It has also been hampered by a perception among European and Asian officials that President Trump may not be fully committed to the fight.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly undercut his own Justice Department, which unveiled sweeping criminal indictments against Huawei and its chief financial officer with accusations of fraud, sanctions evasion and obstruction of justice. Mr. Trump has suggested that the charges could be dropped as part of a trade deal with China. The president previously eased penalties on another Chinese telecom firm accused of violating American sanctions, ZTE, after a personal appeal by President Xi Jinping of China.

This is not just about European allies. Pacific Rim partners feel similarly, as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the South China Morning Post:

If forced to take sides in the high-stakes geopolitical rivalry and trade war between the United States and China, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would prefer the economic largesse of Beijing.
He pointed to the current state of unpredictability of the American superpower as a negative factor when asked about the impact of Sino-American tensions on other, smaller nations in the region.

Meanwhile, the narrative that NATO allies are spending more on defense hit a serious snag two weeks ago when Germany reversed course in its budget plans. Fox News’s Kathleen Joyce’s write-up of the Trump administration’s anger at this move demonstrates the precise limits of U.S. influence over its NATO ally:

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz’s budget plan, which was presented to the nation’s cabinet ... foresaw Germany’s defense spending rising to 1.37 percent of national income in 2020, but decline to 1.25 by 2023, according to the dpa news agency, which reviewed a copy of the proposal.
Following the news of Germany’s expected contributions to NATO, U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell said, “NATO members clearly pledged to move towards, not away, from 2 percent by 2024. That the German government would even be considering reducing its already unacceptable commitments to military readiness is a worrisome signal to Germany’s 28 NATO allies.”
Following his comments, Wolfgang Kubicki, the deputy chairman of the ... Free Democrats (FDP) said Foreign Minister Heiko Mass should declare the ambassador “persona non grata,” saying Grenell interfered in the country’s sovereign affairs.
“Any U.S. diplomat who acts like a high commissioner of an occupying power must learn that our tolerance also knows its limits,” Kubicki said, according to Deutsche Welle.

There is a pattern here: When the rest of the world is not laughing at Trump, they are ignoring him. As I feared in 2017, Trump has become more predictable and less credible in foreign policy.

Will any of this matter for the 2020 election? Probably not. That said, the one time foreign policy did play a significant role was in 2008, when Americans had grown concerned about the loss of U.S. standing under President George W. Bush. If that concern manifests itself again in 2020, Trump will have to explain why the United States is no longer respected in the world. He will try to blame everyone else. That dog won’t hunt.