The Erratic State of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Trump

The Erratic State of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Trump
President Donald Trump at a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the White House, May 13, 2019. Cozying up to dictators like Orban has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy under Trump (AP photo by Evan Vucci).

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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What a Biden Win Would Mean for the Future of Multilateralism

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.


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.

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.


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.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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