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9 February 2021

What will Donald Trump’s foreign policy legacy be?

Despite some belligerent moments, it is worth recording that Trump did not actually start any new wars.

By Lawrence Freedman

The four years of Donald Trump’s presidency were in turn bizarre, engrossing and terrifying. He mounted a direct challenge to the assumptions about the virtues of alliances and free trade that have long shaped US foreign policy. The natural communiqué-fillers for summits of western governments, such as references to the “rules-based international order” and expressions of concern about climate change, were summarily dismissed. America’s natural international partners were left wondering whether they must now learn to live without its leadership and become more self-reliant.

There was dismay as Trump appeared more at ease with authoritarian than with democratic leaders, envious of their ability to become presidents for life. So envious in fact that when he became just the sort of loser that he could not abide after the 2020 election he looked for every possible way to overturn the result to stay in power. During the last shameful months of his presidency, with the pandemic raging out of control, he mounted a full-blooded attack on the US electoral process, culminating in a mob attacking the US Capitol on 6 January. 

[See also: Why Trump isn’t a fascist]

All the drama and controversy surrounding Trump makes it hard to get a perspective on his foreign policy record. There is a case for the defence. He drew attention to strategic challenges, such as that from China, that needed to be addressed; he helped improve relations between Israel and the Arab world, albeit not with the Palestinians; he obliged allies to consider whether they were taking American largesse too much for granted; he took risks in talking to assumed enemies such as Kim Jong-un; despite some belligerent moments, he wanted to withdraw US troops from places where they had been stuck for years; and he did not actually start any new wars.

A three-part BBC Two series from the estimable Brook Lapping team, Trump Takes on the World, with its first episode on Wednesday 10 February, provides an excellent basis for an assessment of Trump’s foreign policy. They have a knack for getting people who were “in the room” when key decisions were made to speak on camera. In this series we therefore hear a lot from those trying to implement Trump’s policies, with both pride but often exasperated dismay at the erratic behaviour of their boss.

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Fiona Hill, who served on the Russian desk at the National Security Council, describes her horror as Trump, with Vladimir Putin sitting beside him, was asked about interference in the 2016 US election. Trump reported Putin’s assertion that “it’s not Russia”, adding that “I don’t see any reason why it would be”. Appreciating at once how bad this looked, Hill wondered whether she should distract the media by “throwing myself backwards with a loud blood curdling scream”.

Trump’s self-image was as the great deal maker. His advisers note that he is the product of New York’s real estate world – wholly transactional, unsentimental, and ruthless in the pursuit of the best deals. In fact, as is often pointed out, Trump’s belief in his business brilliance was not justified by his record and he did no better in office. Yet he was convinced that all he needed to do was to be given the opportunity and he could find common ground with anybody. At one point, after lambasting Iran at the 2017 UN General Assembly (“a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy”) he spontaneously tried to arrange an immediate meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in his hotel room, and even enlisted Emmanuel Macron to try to act as a go-between. The Iranians dismissed the idea as an insult. 

Trump was more successful when he sent word (through a UN official) that he might be interested in meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and when a summit was offered he accepted with alacrity. The US president clearly enjoyed the drama and the attention when they met in Singapore, and developed an embarrassing affection for the young tyrant. But he set an objective – the denuclearisation of North Korea – that was never going to be achieved. In the process he showed himself ready to undermine the US alliance with South Korea.

Moreover, having relied on China up to this point to pressure Kim into making concessions he now decided he no longer needed to do so. Having promised great deals with Xi Jinping when he welcomed him to the garish splendour of his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, Trump now entered into a tariff war to force changes in China’s unfair trade practices. 

Where he had more success was in the Middle East. Here Trump was offered a clear way forward by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told him that a set of new relationships with Arab states could be forged on the basis of a shared fear of Iran. This led to the Abraham Accords, which saw the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalise diplomatic relations with Israel.

Meanwhile, the agreement reached by Barack Obama, along with the European allies, to restrict the Iranian nuclear programme was dumped. Because it was not replaced with anything better, despite intense economic pressure, the Iranians are now much closer to attaining a nuclear weapon. Nor despite Trump promising that his son-in-law Jared Kushner would achieve a historic breakthrough in the Israeli- Palestinian dispute, was any progress made. The only benefit to the Palestinians from the accords was that Israel held back from annexing territory on the West Bank.

The accords may be one of Trump’s few lasting legacies. Joe Biden has said he welcomes them, although he is also interested in reviving the nuclear deal with Iran and less inclined to give the Gulf States and Israel the sort of latitude they have enjoyed over the last four years. The US is back in the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the World Health Organisation, getting close to its allies, and taking strong stands on human rights. Calm is starting to return. 

Yet another legacy is that confidence in the US has been shaken. Macron still urges the EU to develop more strategic autonomy, although he has not quite worked out how to manage without an active American presence and most Europeans would rather not try. So they must hope that Trump was aberrant and not a warning of worse to follow. It is nonetheless hard not to wonder: what would happen with a future Trump-like figure with more intelligence, competence and discipline?