The Erratic State of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Trump
U.S. foreign policy under Trump does not appear to have a consistent logic. Trump has promised to put “America First,” and pursued that end in a variety of ways. At the same time, he has stocked his Cabinet with hawkish interventionists. While adopting a more unilateralist approach, Trump has neglected the institutions that help formulate and execute U.S. foreign policy.
As he nears the end of his first term in office, President Donald Trump’s administration still does not appear to have seized on a consistent approach to dealing with the world. Instead, U.S. foreign policy under Trump has become erratic and seems predicated on somewhat random factors. Decisions often seem to depend on the ability of an individual—whether a world leader, a Cabinet official or an informal adviser—to sway Trump’s opinion. Trump himself seems to revel in any opportunity to undo the accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama, as well as any chance to right a perceived slight against the United States.
Trump entered office promising to put “America first,” which he has pursued by lambasting America’s traditional allies, tearing down international institutions and attempting to cut foreign aid. He has criticized NATO members for not meeting their commitments to defense spending, and both threatened and imposed tariffs against allies. He promised to impose steep sanctions on Mexico unless Mexican authorities manage to stop the flow of immigrants across the United States’ southern border, despite the fact that the move could have upended the renegotiated North America Free Trade Agreement and hurt the U.S. economy.
Despite Trump’s disavowal of America’s global role, he has stocked his Cabinet with hawkish interventionists, who have pushed for a tougher U.S. line on Iran and Venezuela. Unfortunately, that tougher line has often made delicate situations more precarious, without arriving at viable solutions. Trump’s most significant foreign policy effort, which revolved around efforts to convince North Korea to denuclearize, similarly offered scant returns before eventually fizzling out.
In adopting a more unilateralist approach, Trump has nevertheless neglected the institutions that help formulate and execute U.S. foreign policy, identify and respond to potential crises, and pursue diplomacy. The State Department was gutted under Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and it remains understaffed under Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo. His hostility toward multilateral institutions and collective international responses to global challenges have proved especially costly during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
WPR has covered U.S. foreign policy in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. How will Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic affect America’s global leadership role? Will the Trump administration escalate in the face of heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf, or reverse course on its hardline Iran policy? Can trans-Atlantic ties survive Trump’s presidency? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
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Should Joe Biden win the American presidency on Nov. 3, the world will experience whiplash, as the U.S. performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. A Biden triumph would repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.
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Trump entered office touting his skills as a negotiator, but his administration has demonstrated a blundering approach to diplomacy. After backing out of the nuclear deal with Iran, U.S. officials sent mixed signals about what steps Tehran could take to reopen discussions, before going to the brink of war in January. Talks with North Korea collapsed after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on what denuclearizing means. And the administration has repeatedly used international gatherings to criticize and bully allies.
- Why the U.S. can’t afford another four years of Trump, in To Defend Its Interests at Home and Abroad, America Must Vote Trump Out
- How the recent coup in Mali revealed the failures of U.S. policy there, in Why the U.S. Needs a Different Approach in Mali
- What a Biden presidency would mean for Latin America, in How Biden Would Change U.S. Policy in Latin America
- Why America should embrace immigration, not demonize it, in To Undo Trump’s Damage to America’s Reputation, Embrace Immigration
Trade and Aid Policy
While using tariffs as a blunt weapon in his diplomacy, Trump has turned away from foreign aid. He has threatened to cut major U.S. programs, including critical bilateral support to combat HIV in Africa and elsewhere. Meanwhile, abortion has increasingly become a litmus test in U.S. aid policy, with agencies that provide or refer patients to abortion services cut off from funding and international agreements that mention it subject to U.S. obstruction.
- What’s at stake in the U.S. presidential election for trans-Atlantic trade relations, in How the U.S. Presidential Election Looms Over Trans-Atlantic Trade Ties
- Why the Trump administration’s hostility to liberalized trade could spell the end of the WTO, in Preparing for a World Without the World Trade Organization
- How Trump’s approach to trade is blurring the distinction between the U.S. and China, in On Trade, Trump Is Turning the U.S. Into a Cheap Copy of China
- How Trump’s trade wars, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, are reshaping global trade, in Trump’s Trade Wars, and Now COVID-19, Are Unraveling Trade as We Know It
While Trump has cozied up to despots, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, he has repeatedly and publicly criticized America’s democratic allies, often accusing them of taking advantage of the United States. In addition to his hostile rhetoric, he has both threatened and imposed tariffs on close partners. Meanwhile, many of the traditional U.S. allies and partners that Trump does seem to get along with are known for their poor human rights records at home.
- How Europe has reacted to the Trump presidency, in ‘The World Has Moved On’: Carl Bildt on the EU in the Trump Era—and After
- What deepening ties with Taiwan mean for U.S. relations with China, in As U.S.-Taiwan Ties Flourish, China’s Discontent Grows
- Why Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Germany makes sense, in Don’t Fear a U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Germany
- Why America’s alliances are worth saving—but need updating, in Rethinking America’s Alliances for the 21st Century
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WPR is increasing its focus on how U.S. foreign policy is likely to change under the Biden administration. While Biden would undoubtedly repudiate Trump’s approach, which was itself a radical break from U.S. foreign policy traditions, it’s unclear whether a restoration of the United States global role is even possible. What immediate challenges will the Biden administration confront? And how will he successfully pivot policy in key areas? This report is just a sampling of our coverage so far of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Download your FREE copy of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden to learn more today.
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As the Biden administration takes over, the world is experiencing a sort of whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. The Biden administration will repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.
The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Trumpism will remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around foreign policy for years to come.
Download U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden today to take a deeper look at these trends and get a glimpse at what the future may hold.
In this report, you will learn:
- What Biden's presidency will mean for the future of multilateralism
- What is in store for U.S. policy on human rights
- How the new Nuclear Weapons Ban treaty will be an early trial for Biden
- What Biden's policy toward North Korea is likely to look like
- Whether Turkey's frayed ties with the West are likely to improve under Biden
- How the Biden administration may try to clean up the mess in Afghanistan
- And more . . .
Download our free report and better understand the future direction of U.S. foreign policy.
With your copy of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden you’ll also gain free registration to the WPR newsletter, delivering uncompromising news and analysis directly to your inbox. Your FREE registration includes access to select articles, early announcements, and periodic discounts on our full-service subscription.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.
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