Reviewing the predictions in this column for what would happen in 2018 creates a conundrum. Trump stayed consistent, proclaiming an “America First” foreign policy and taking disruptive steps consistent with what he promised. But he achieved few of his objectives. One is tempted to believe that the disruption, not the outcome, was the objective.
A year ago, this column distilled Trumpian foreign policy into the following seven categories: (1) abjuring multilateral trade agreements in favor of one-on-one agreements where the United States can leverage its greater power; (2) withdrawing unilaterally from our country’s international obligations if domestic politics dictate; (3) encouraging the break-up of international institutions such as the European Union, NATO or the United Nations; (4) avoiding military or diplomatic engagement abroad and favoring military power over diplomacy, i.e., waving a big stick while shouting loudly; (5) creating the strongest personal ties with and preference for authoritarian leaders, and (7) sowing uncertainty among friend and foe alike.
Let’s do a report card measuring how well Trump did on his own terms.
On trade agreements, Trump earned a D-Minus on abolishing NAFTA and an Incomplete elsewhere. He replaced NAFTA, our signature trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, transforming it into the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA). The new agreement differs minimally from the old in substance (USMCA calls for higher wages for Mexican workers and forcing Canadian health care to pay higher prices to a few big American Pharma companies. But the name change? HUGE! As for the Trans Pacific Partnership, China has taken Trump’s withdrawal to the bank expanding economic ties and political influence over the same countries we hoped to keep out of Peking’s orbit. As for the other transactions, the jury is still out. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum provoked retaliatory foreign tariffs on selective goods produced mostly in States that voted for Trump rather than submission. Negotiations with our biggest trading partner, China, remain stuck. In the meantime, Trump’s measure of success, lowering the US trade deficit with all countries, has instead risen significantly.
Trump did far better on withdrawing from America’s international obligations. He rates a C+ or even a B- for withdrawing unilaterally from the JCPOA, the agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It would have been a better grade if he had convinced even one (1) other signatory to withdraw. Now Trump has pledged to impose the “worst ever” sanctions on Iran but without the leverage of the alliance that Obama so carefully created, he is doing it alone. (Iran’s foreign minister noted that his country has resisted fierce American sanctions for the last 38 years and hopes to sell the intellectual property acquired to other American enemies.) Trump upended seven decades of American policy in the Middle East by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem without getting anything in return (despite being the world’s best-ever deal maker). Had he succeeded in forming an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel to crush the Palestinians and Iran he would have gotten good grades, maybe a B+. However, he chose a callow, incompetent bloody-handed murderer as his Saudi ally while Israel’s government has taken positions that no Saudi leader can support. By year’s end it looks like Russia and Iran have moved into the driver’s seat in the Middle East as the United States heads for the exit.
Trump continued Obama’s military interventions and, if anything, doubled down on the previous administration’s efforts. Literally at the 11th hour, he remembered his campaign promises a few days before Christmas and Trump announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria neglecting to inform our allies or even “his generals.” This provoked the first formal resignation in protest by a U.S. Secretary of Defense in our history. Depending on which tweet one reads, he also ordered half the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan … or maybe he didn’t. The Taliban welcomed the tweet enthusiastically. Trump then took Melania on a quick visit to U.S. forces in Iraq and, in another first for a U.S. President, delivered a speech to the troops pouring vitriol on his political opponents. So far, “the student makes an effort” on campaign promises and gets a solid F on accomplishments.
He gets a better grade, a C, on disrupting the elaborate network of alliances his predecessors constructed following World War II. The European Union faces a host of problems including the farce about to become the disaster of Brexit, an upsurge of wannabe dictators in former Warsaw Pact countries and the revival of antisemitism across the continent. For the first time, responsible European leaders have suggested the creation of a European alternative to NATO because they no longer trust the United States. As for the UN, Trump nominated a Fox News anchor as our next Ambassador. Trump gets partial credit for inspiring many of the problems, but EU leadership failures should get most of the kudos followed by Putin’s army of bots.
Trump gets an A- on building amicable relationships with dictators. Putin may have earned the enmity of the entire American national security establishment, but he still can count on the man he helped make President of the United States. The above-mentioned Saudi leader, nicknamed MBS, has survived with only minimal consequences a bipartisan assault from the U.S. Senate and worldwide opprobrium because of Trump’s firm support. Turkey’s Erdogan can now boast that he told Trump to leave Syria so he could slaughter our Kurdish allies and the American President went along. Moreover, Trump’s administration offered Turkey Patriot air defense systems to go along with the F35 aircraft so he can change the balance of power in the Aegean against Greece, the only neighbor against whom Erdogan might need these weapons. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Duterte in the Philippines and Sissi in Egypt form a short list of other leaders with very bloody hands who enjoy Trump’s confidence. Trump has earned a solid A in destroying America’s reputation as the “City on the Hill.”
Finally, Trump rates a not so solid A- in sowing distrust and uncertainty among our friends and foes. The minus allows for the possibility that the same distrust and uncertainty could in fact cause a foreign leader to miscalculate and launch us into a major international disaster.
And then you expect predictions for 2019?