A glimpse of US foreign policy under President Trump

The last four years have constituted significant diplomatic phenomena and events in the international community. This is due, according to some, to the behavior of the US administration of President Donald Trump towards international actors and its views on dealing with complex issues in the regions of hotbeds of tension. This article provides a summary of the most prominent US foreign policy approaches under Donald Trump.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Oct 20, 2020

* This is the first article in a series of articles and papers to be successively published, discussing certain aspects of the internal and external dimensions of the upcoming US elections.

How was US foreign policy shaped during the era of US President, Donald Trump? Did the foreign behavior of the United States represent an "unprecedented" aviation from the traditions of previous administrations? How efficient is Washington handling of the critical international files and issues? What is Trump administration’s perception of Washington’s role in the international system? Will the US administration continue to follow the same approach if Trump wins the next elections?

These questions, among others, come to the minds of the knowledgeable, scholars and even decision makers, regardless of the region of residency. This is due to the approaching of November 3, 2020, the date of the next US elections, for which preparations have been undergoing an intense political and societal polarization among competing currents. Certainly, the results of these elections in general are of great importance to all actors and non-actors in the international community, given the economic and political weight of the US, which would affect the course of events around the world.

On the eve of the end of President Trump's fourth year in office, many observers believe that the world is living in a state close to that of the Cold War between the two largest economies in the world (the United States and China) against the backdrop of the trade dispute that began in March 2018, which affected all economic activities around the world. In one way or another, this conflict indicated that the imbalance in the global unipolar system prevailing since 1991 has reached advanced stages. This imbalance is no longer controllable only by the magnitude of the US military and economic power as a guarantee of Washington’s position in the world arena in light of the rise of other countries the regimes of which have invested in the development of specific fields or areas in their own economic and social structures.

The slogans raised by President Trump with his officials and experts, or by his public supporters -which have to do with “Making America Great Again”, "America First", securing borders against immigrants, and calling for the position of the United States in the world to be center stage– all have shown that the US administration, being in the White House since January 20, 2017, will seek to create the state of isolation and self-centeredness that characterized the United States policy prior to WWI. Yet, it is inaccurate to compare the conditions of historical eras with each other; however, the practice of Trump's team at the external level has shown that the desire of the American administration by way of its orientation towards upholding the country's interest above any consideration has led to a closer association with the components of the international community as a whole, with an emphasis on bearing in mind that the results of this link do not necessarily have to be positive about the issue in question.

In order to understand the nature of the relationship that Trump administration has established with the international community, the following lines will discuss the most prominent American methods that have been recently followed in the arena of foreign policy with the resulting global political events.

Permanent members of the Security Council

Over the past four years, the relationship between the United States and China has by and large changed the contours of the international community at all levels. The hallmark of this relationship is still confined to the economic and geopolitical competition that is not limited to a specific region, in addition to the trade war and investment competition over/in most regions of the world.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries have witnessed their worst development since the 1970s. Before the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced, in July 2020, the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston based on the accusations of carrying out espionage activities, it had never happened that an American administration ever closed a Chinese diplomatic facility. This incident is but one manifestation of a long series of escalatory measures fueled by the coronavirus outbreak which Washington counts China responsible for.

It seems that the US administration has abandoned long-term strategic planning in favor of tactics and reaction in foreign policy; because the long-term policy of containment (which was used against the Soviet Union) is no longer effective against an economic and political power -like China- significantly integrated in global supply chains. For despite Washington's endeavor to close alliance with Southeast Asian countries, especially those in the South China Sea, as well as investing in the historical differences between India and China, this has not led to tangible results for China whose economy is considered one of the few economies that began to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

As for Russia, which the United States tried to win over in its favor against China, the matter which is demonstrated in Trump’s announcement that he is considering inviting Russia and other states to attend the G7 summit that was supposed to be held in September 2020. This global power does not seem to have a good relationship with Washington due to many considerations, the most prominent of which is the competition in the energy market, especially the European gas market, in which the United States wants to increase its share through the supply of liquefied natural gas, which will be at the expense of gas transported by pipelines.

The arms control treaties are another problematic issue between Washington and Moscow. For the future of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty "START III" is still, to date, unknown. It is worth mentioning that this treaty was signed in 2010 and will expire at the beginning of 2021 in light of international calls to extend the period of its applications, because otherwise it would inevitably stir up the arms race in which China is already involved, as China refuses to join the treaty in a clear defiance of the American will; because it believes that it is unfair to join a treaty that deals with it the same way that it does with the United States and Russia, which have much more stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

It is not ruled out - in the event that Trump administration remains - that Washington will withdraw from the treaty by refusing to extend it or by being intransigent with the aim of expanding it to include countries other than Russia in addition to new classes of weapons. This scenario is logically not excluded, given that the United States has withdrawn in August 2018 from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987 with Russia, a step that raised anxiety and apprehensions about the fate of global peace and security.

To keep on the military context, we will move to NATO, in which disputes have been escalating among its member states on both sides of the Atlantic during Trump administration. For the latter wants to expand the alliance by including other countries so that it is not limited to the European continent and North America, in addition to his pressure on the European states to increase their financial contribution to support the alliance's budget, and the call to play a greater role in the military and security operations in the world with no limitation to securing European borders from the east; in other words, pushing for Washington's partners to play a greater role in areas of US military activity.

It should be noted that expanding the NATO activities to suit the American trends was a point of contention during Obama administration as well. France (a member of the Security Council) and Germany seek to strengthen European independence far from being dependent on Washington. Hence, we can appreciate the calls for the establishment of a European army that made headlines after the French President, Emmanuel Macron, described NATO as "brain dead" on the occasion of its seventieth anniversary.

On the other hand; the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement in November 2019, besides that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is still suspended and under discussion, and it is not expected to see the light - under Trump administration - unless it is formulated in accordance with the economic approaches of Washington. Otherwise, this proposed agreement will meet the same fate of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership from which the United States withdrew in January 2017, or the same fate of the NAFTA agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, which was amended in October 2018 after repeated American threats to withdraw, noting that it was signed in 1994.

Trump administration does not prefer to deal with European countries as a single bloc, but rather bilaterally, as this would provide a wider possibility for negotiations with the concerned state. This explains why Trump, during his election campaign in 2019, supported the United Kingdom exit from the European Union, and the public statements and indications that followed, implicitly asserting "Brexit" under arguments such as strengthening NATO through the presence of independent and strong European states like the UK. He even called on the British government to leave the union without an agreement, the matter which was met with widespread condemnation among the British political circles as interference in local affairs.

While the United States imposed tariff restrictions on some European exports in May 2018, Trump heralds a massive free trade agreement with the United Kingdom once it leaves the European Union permanently. On the other hand, Boris Johnson government showed a good response to US interests manifest in the official decision to dispense with the services of the Chinese company "Huawei" in July 2020, let alone the unstable relations with Russia.

It can be said that the European continent, with the advent of Trump to the White House, has become - to some extent - an arena for conflicts of American, Chinese and Russian interests, which may lead to a breach of European unity in the context of forming alliances and weaving cooperative relations.


The Middle East

The American behavior in the Middle East can be understood by examining the controversial issues and crises that plague the region. For example, the American forces (which lead the international coalition against what is known as ISIS) bombed a number of military sites of the Syrian army between 2017 and 2018, as a message to Damascus allies in Tehran and Moscow on the one hand, and a message to Ankara, on the other, that Turkey cannot freely move in the northeast of Syria without coordination with Washington which contributed to the establishment and arming of the Syrian Democratic Forces that Turkey regards as a threat to its national security from the south.

Trump administration sought to assert that the era of diplomacy and negotiations is over with Obama's exit from the White House. This is because these methods did not work with a country like Iran that was not prevented by the nuclear agreement from stopping the pursuit of strengthening its military arsenals, including the nuclear weapons, in addition to the increasing Iranian penetration in the region, to the belief of the US administration. Accordingly, US took the step that shook the region; i.e., the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement in May 2018, then adopted a campaign of maximum pressure against Tehran, which has begun to face difficulties in managing its influence in Iraq during the recent period as a result of the awareness of some circles of the ruling elite in Baghdad that strengthening Iraqi-Iranian relations at the expense of building balanced foreign relations with regional and international states would plunge Iraq into a state of near diplomatic isolation.

The US-Iran conflict is at the bottom of the forms of relationship with other countries. Syria, for example, is subjected to a set of harsh economic sanctions represented in the Caesar Law imposed in June 2020, which targets high profile members of the regime in Damascus and those dealing with them whether they were local or foreign individuals and institutions. American approach–indirectly- requires Lebanon, as well, to besiege Hezbollah and prevent it from participating in leadership positions in the legislative and executive powers, if the political elite in Lebanon wanted to receive American assistance to solve its economic and social crises.

Trump was keen to prove that the Obama administration was (once again) wrong in the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011, which led to a security vacuum that allowed the growth and development of terrorist groups. As proof of its fight against terrorism, the American administration announced the assassination of the head of the so-called "ISIS" organization, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in October 2019. However, this act did not come in this context only, but it fairly indicated that the American military presence has not decreased, but rather returned to carry out specific operations targeting important figures, as in January 2020, when the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, was assassinated in Baghdad.

The current US administration considers Israel to be a central state in the region that preserves Washington’s economic and security interests. Therefore, absolute diplomatic support must be provided to it by preparing the regional environment for a number of countries to normalize relations with Tel Aviv, and thus besiege Iran, at least politically. In the context of this support, the American administration presented its own approach to resolving the Palestinian cause in what has become known as the Deal of the Century, which changed the concepts of managing this pivotal Middle Eastern issue, not to mention the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of “Israel” and not taking a clear position on the continuation of settlement in the West Bank.

What do American voters expect from foreign policy?

The voters in the United States are divided according to their social, economic, and cultural views that are represented in the Democratic and Republican parties competing to run the country. The extent of popularity and acceptance of the mechanisms by which US foreign interests are managed is of a high degree of importance to voters, because it is more or less related to the conditions of the American daily life.

In this context, the way Trump administration deals with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus occupies the headlines in the press and local and foreign media; between those who accuse Trump of the failure of this method, and supporters of criticizing China as the cause of the spread of the virus on a global scale. Thus, the health crisis in the country has acquired the status of foreign policy concern  evidenced in the Pew Research Center surveys, published in late July 2020. A report stated that 78% of American adults blame China for the outbreak of the Covid-19 due to the inadequacy of the Chinese authorities response to contain the virus, whereas 73% of them had an unfavorable view, which is considered the most negative indicator over the past fifteen years, according to the aforementioned source. These figures call on the contestants in the election race to escalate the rhetoric against China at all levels, all in their own way.

Donald Trump's popular base support for the continuation of protectionist policies and economic retrogression. Whereas the advocates of his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, support finding a formula for reintegration into the international community, similar to the one that was in the era of former President Barack Obama, bearing in mind that this reintegration does not mean that the United States does not take the leadership role in it, as seven out of ten Americans believe that their country must play a major role in the international community. This democratic advocacy may this time bolster some protectionist policies by pushing for reform of the World Trade Organization, which has terrible relations with the current administration.

Finally, American foreign policy is considered a backdrop to the American social movement and its contradictions, of which Trump and his administration were one of the consequences that could be long-term rather than momentary. Consequently, it is not possible to deal with the supporters and the popular base from a rigid analytical standpoint that tinted them with unchanging views and aspirations non-interactive with external events and their repercussions on the American interior in general.


Policy Analysis Team