Will he stay or will he go? Looking Back at President Trump’s Foreign Policy Actions Between 2016-2020

Written by Selma Bardakci and Pinar Gezgec, THO Advisory Board Member and THO Contributor

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of the Turkish Heritage Organization


With a presidential legacy punctuated by fragile peace deals, ongoing trade wars, and border wall postulations, the last four years of Trumpian politics has had a significant impact upon the nature of US foreign policy and confidence in US diplomatic efforts abroad. President Trump has spent his last four years in office building a legacy largely defined by protectionism, populism, and polarization. Should he remain in office, we can expect these characteristics to remain with him. However, with the upcoming November elections, the question on everyone’s mind is: will he stay, or will he go? 

Looking back at President Trump’s foreign policy actions, it is quite clear to both his critics as well as his supporters that he stands in marked contrast to his presidential predecessor, Democrat President Barack Obama. Amongst Obama’s most prominent legacies during his two terms in the presidency include negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal, re-opening ties with Cuba, and ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement. Many of  President Trump’s campaign promises focused on withdrawing from those policies of President Obama. After President Trump won the elections, his presidency has been marked by sensationalizing his follow-through. From his first 100 days in office to present, his actions might indicate that President Trump was less concerned with building his own legacy and instead focused on  erasing President Obama's. Apart from this, there appears to have been little to no coherent long term, substantial or holistic approach directed towards foreign policy issues from the President Trump Administration. Regardless, November is just months away, and the public stares in the eyes of two outcomes: President Trump’s departure or his re-election. If President Trump stays, can anyone foresee what the future of American foreign policy holds? If indeed he is bested in the upcoming elections, what conditions should the new president be prepared to walk into? 

When President Trump took office in 2017, few expected that he would be so quick to unravel the existing diplomatic cadences surrounding the traditional practice of foreign policy. However, within his first year in office, President Trump authorized a limited cruise missile strike on the regime-controlled Shayrat Air Base, revisited multiple foreign policy deals with Iran, and left the Paris agreement. Further, President Trump also broke the bar between Israel and Palestine by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital…all within his first year. 

 While trying to fulfill his campaign promises, President Trump’s actions in the Middle East was mentioned amongst news headlines almost daily. His orders of first and second airstrikes in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of the chemical weapon, Sarin, in an attack against civilians awakened the world (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). However, President Trump’s sincerity in Syria was quickly questioned when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of 2017 thus grinding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to a halt (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). With further regard to Syria, after receiving a call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Trump abruptly decided to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Turkish troops were sent into Syria to combat YPG/PKK terrorist groups (New York Times, 2019).

 While trying to fulfill his campaign promises, President Trump’s actions in the Middle East was mentioned amongst news headlines almost daily. His orders of first and second airstrikes in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of the chemical weapon, Sarin, in an attack against civilians awakened the world (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). However, President Trump’s sincerity in Syria was quickly questioned when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of 2017 thus grinding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to a halt (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). With further regard to Syria, after receiving a call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Trump abruptly decided to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Turkish troops were sent into Syria to combat YPG/PKK terrorist groups (New York Times, 2019).

Iran has been another key factor within the President Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda. To cite a recent example, President Trump’s authorization of a drone strike led the death of Iran's military commander Qasem Soleimani which made relations more tense with Iran. While it doesn’t appear that President Trump has any immediate or looming plans for Iranian-U.S. relations in the near future, it is plausible that he is seeking sensational, short-term ‘quick action’ headlines that can bolster the press and help him feed stories to his audience in advance of the election year. Regardless of intention, the death of Soleimani marks a sharp shift in the US-TR  relationship from the Iranian nuclear deal brokered by Obama only a few years prior to President Trump.

After President Trump’s trip to Asia, the bilateral relationship between the United States and China shifted as well. In early April 2018, China imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products with an estimated worth of $3 billion, escalating a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. As their relationship is still in the process of being tested, both the U.S. and China see each other as competition rather than partners. At the Munich Security Conference this year, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper mentioned that China was the Pentagon’s “top concern” as he warned the international community about this issue. Echoing these sentiments in his article “The Changing Fundamentals of US-China Relations,” Evan S. Medeiros states that, “China is rising and challenging US interests at the same time that Asia as a continent is increasing in long-term importance to the United States and world.” Asia is now home to half of the 20 fastest growing economies, generates two-thirds of global growth, and accounts for 40% of global GDP. Asia no longer reflects underlying global dynamics as it did during the Cold War, nor are countries of the region full dependent upon economies outside the region. As President Trump’s China policy has evolved, some Asian leaders have come forward and shared their concerns such as Singapore’s prime minister and foreign minister both stressed the need for Washington and Beijing to understand the costs of permanent long-term conflict. In order to challenge China’s influence in the region, the U.S. needs to seek different levels of engagements with the countries in Asia, not just on the security level but trade, civil society, and public diplomacy instruments should be included in its grand strategy for the region.

Perhaps the most prominent character trait of President Trump's foreign policy approach is that he (deliberately) appears not to have one. Lack of any consistent strategic blueprint has characterized the President Trump administration’s handling of US involvement, for example, in Syria and other regions in the Middle East or dealing with China. One of President Trump's hallmark campaign promises was diminishing US involvement in wars overseas, such as by withdrawing troops from Syria (amid much controversy, he did so in September 2019). Most recently, the deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, if fulfilled, will also mark the (conditional) reduction of U.S. troops in the region long-term. President Trump has also been known to use his foreign policy actions to leverage his power at home. He will most likely use this rhetoric (ending the longest-fought war in Afghanistan) to promote other aspects of his policy agenda as he dives deeper into the 2020 reelection campaign. Critics and concerns have surrounded the timing of his decision to facilitate this deal, particularly since many have argued that he did not acquire the necessary level of input from Congress.

In addition to creating ambiguity at home, he also stirs confusion amongst U.S. allies from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific, including, of course, Europe. President Trump’s approach towards NATO and the entire concept of his burden-sharing approach has raised a question that formerly needed no asking: what’s the value of being in an alliance with the United States?  

Since the presidential candidates began their respective campaigns, the attention they’ve allocated to foreign policy discussion has been negligible at best. As seen in the recent debate in Las Vegas, none of the prospective commanders-in-chief of the United States of America received a single question regarding foreign policy issues. Disturbingly, it would appear that foreign policy (FP) related issues are not of top concern or priority for the American voters and public. However, such themes are deserving of high attention. It is crucial to follow the ongoing foreign policy approaches in America who acts as a reluctant actor for involving global issues under the President Trump leadership.

Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, mentions in his1994 book Diplomacy, “What is new about the emerging world order is that, for the first time, the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.” In many ways, this not only applies to but explains today’s international geopolitical atmosphere. With the emergence of the ‘Multiplex World,’ some analysts project that we will see more conflict, uncertainty, and instability regardless of whether President Trump wins or loses the upcoming November 3rd election. How the United States will adapt to the prevailing world order remains to be seen. The answer will be found once the goals of its foreign policy in world affairs is made clear. The decline of American leadership and involvement over the last four years is central to the loss of America’s credibility in the international arena. In spite of the recent US-Taliban deal, the de-escalated conflict in Afghanistan remains quite present, looming in the collective memory of the United States as its longest war. Paired with the rise of extremism, the ongoing war in Syria and Yemen, assertive strategy of China and NATO. 

Unwilling to take a leadership role in shaping international rules and institutions, the absence of the U.S. has created a vacuum that other international actors are anxiously waiting to fill. This poses a significant danger to U.S. allies in different regions. The "America First" approach has made U.S. allies confused, and thus both concerned domestic groups and international allies have raised strong criticisms to President Trump and his actions. Germany's president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, raised his concerns at the 56th Munich Security Conference and said, “Our closest ally, the United States of America, under the current administration, rejects the very concept of the international community.” This sentiment has been shared by many European countries since President Trump came to power and has only intensified over the last four years.

Under the President Trump leadership, diplomatic lines have been blurred in ways that have been unprecedented by former presidents. The majority of his communication can be boiled down to a pithy pile of shortsighted, transactional, and incoherent tweets. His unpredictability is un-backed by any relevant experience nor does he enlist the expertise of career diplomats for their insights on specialized issues. Further, his habit of tweeting important decisions has created more than a few domestic and international troubles. He has not exhibited any acknowledgment of the distinction between what needs to be done domestically vs internationally, or at a minimum, if this awareness exists, he does not appear to care. Prioritizing nationalism over patriotism amongst the US citizenry has prompted fewer and fewer people to believe in the international liberal order. At moments, President Trump has been known to use foreign policy issues to leverage his power and consolidate his “achievements.” President Trump revels in his unpredictability,  and as one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, he drove a wedge into American society when it needed unity. 

Taking a step back to analyze what President Trump and his administration have ‘accomplished’ over the past four years, one can only wonder whether the momentum of his twitter-led presidency will spill into another term of tumultuous foreign policy or if a new president will take up the reigns. Likewise, will Trumpian foreign policy patterns be extended over the next four years or exchanged for the agenda of a new leader?


References 

Blackwill, Robert D. “Trump Deserves More Credit for His Foreign Policies.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, May 7, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/07/trump-deserves-more-credit-for-his-foreign-policies/ .

Crowley, Michael, and Lara Jakes. “Trump Claims Credit for a Syria Cease-Fire and Says U.S. Role in Region Is Over.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 23, 2019. 
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/us/politics/trump-syria-turkey-ceasefire.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage .

Heilbrun, Jacob. “Has Trump Altered the Course of American Foreign Policy Making” The National Interest, February 2020. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/has-trump-altered-course-american-foreign-policy-124101.

Hubbard, Ben, and Carlotta Gall. “Turkey Launches Offensive Against U.S.-Backed Syrian Militia.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 9, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/world/middleeast/turkey-attacks-syria.html?module=inline .

Medeiros, Evan S. “The Changing Fundamentals of US-China Relations.” The Washington Quarterly42, no. 3 (March 2019): 93–119. https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660x.2019.1666355 .

“Trump's Foreign Policy Moments.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 5, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/timeline/trumps-foreign-policy-moments .

“What's At Stake With the U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 5, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/whats-stake-us-recognition-jerusalem .

“Will Syria Yield to the Chemical Weapons Ban?” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 5, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/interview/will-syria-yield-chemical-weapons-ban .