The first term of Donald Trump as President of the United States will end in January 2021. It is still to be seen whether he will take the oath of office on the Constitution four years after he first took it, or whether it will be his Democratic Party rival Joe Biden who will be sworn in at his inauguration. In either case, it is clear that in the months leading up to the November 2020 election there will be time to analyze and evaluate the policies pursued by the Trump administration in all areas. And, without a doubt, foreign policy will be one of the most discussed topics.
During the 2015 Republican Party primary election and the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton, Trump managed to stand out among several candidates due to his very untraditional methods and a belligerent discourse against Washington's political elites (an elite of which he is a part), which appealed to millions of disenchanted voters across America. In terms of foreign policy, Trump made his voice heard with an isolationist discourse, proposing that the United States should either withdraw from multilateral institutions (such as NAFTA, which it did after its re-election) or reduce its presence in them (as in the UN or NATO). This discourse broke with the "globalist consensus" adopted by previous presidents since the collapse of the Soviet Union, whether they were Democrats or Republicans.
In practice, Trump's foreign policy in his first term has been, to say the least, inconsistent. His administration has been lurching, sometimes promoting isolationist positions and at other times using a militaristic discourse that evokes the times of George Bush's interventionism. But, above all, Trump's foreign policy seems to be more defined by his opposition to Obama's legacy than by his own coherent and reasoned vision.
Trump promised that he would end the eternal wars in the Middle East and Asia in which the U.S. military has been involved since the 1990s. He accused previous governments of weakness in the face of U.S. enemies, especially Obama's, and, thus, he forced the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA). Trump intended to restore Washington's strength, something that, according to him, previous administrations had denied: hence his well-known campaign slogan, Make America Great Again.
Iran, a country whose economy is stagnant and besieged by economic sanctions imposed by Western countries for decades, has committed itself to limiting its uranium reserves to 98% for fifteen years and thus drastically reducing its capacity to build up a nuclear arsenal. In return, the United States and the European Union would lift sanctions on the Iranian regime, giving it a chance to open up its battered economy to global trade and investment. This treaty, signed in 2015 after years of difficult negotiations, was one of the symbols of both Obama's foreign policy and multilateralism, as it involved not only the EU and the United States, but also China and Russia. Already on the campaign trail, Trump criticized the JCPOA, fearing that Iran could not guarantee that it would meet its end of the treaty and continue to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Following Washington's withdrawal from the JCPOA, relations between the two countries have intensified. This has led to a great number of tensions in the Persian Gulf, where the US Fifth Fleet operates. These tensions led to the murder of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020 on Trump's orders. Although the escalation of hostilities appears to have cooled by now (in part because of the coronavirus pandemic that has paralysed the planet) it is clear that the stability brought about by the 2015 nuclear deal has evaporated, and it will be difficult to return to the path of dialogue and international cooperation.
The current administration's belligerent stance on Iran clashes with the policy of rapprochement carried out with North Korea. This unprecedented rapprochement with the government of Kim Jong Un left the gallery with a series of iconic photographs in the summer of 2018: a US president and the Great North Korean leader holding hands. However, the rapprochement between Pyongyang and Washington has been little more than that: just a photo. Trump and Kim Jong Un have not reached an agreement in which North Korea commits to put aside its nuclear project. In fact, Kim Jong Un announced earlier this year that his government would continue to expand its nuclear arsenal. Trump criticized the nuclear pact with Iran for the lack of guarantees Iran could offer, but he has not even reached an agreement with North Korea that would force Kim Jong Un to put his nuclear ambitions aside.
Trump's inconsistencies don't end there, however. He has always prided himself on being a deal-maker, a tough negotiator from the harsh world of business, and he has promised to bring his negotiating skills to the world of international politics to strengthen America's position in the world.
As a result, his administration reached an agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan to end U.S. involvement in their war, which began in 2001. Trump has sold this agreement as the fulfilment of his election promise to end eternal wars on foreign soil and reduce military presence abroad, and he reaffirms his position as a great negotiator in a country as unstable as Afghanistan. But neither of these two premises is true. Firstly, the military presence in Afghanistan will fall from 12,000 to 9,000, a change that is just symbolic. Secondly, Trump has obtained no real guarantees from the Taliban militias to indicate that the pact will be maintained. The Taliban have pledged not to carry out terrorist attacks against U.S. positions, but nothing seems to indicate that they will keep that promise. Once again, the double standards of the Trump Administration come to the fore. Due to the lack of real guarantees, it withdrew its country from the Iran nuclear deal, but it has no qualms about reaching an agreement with terrorist militias without real promises on the other side of the table.
This sharp contrast between what Trump says and what he actually does can also be seen in other regions of the world. He promised that the military would return home, but Irak and other countries around it have seen thousands of troops arriving from the U.S. in 2020, in an effort to contain Iran's aggression. He promised that the United States would be respected by its allies, but after the assassination of General Soleimani, Iraq's own parliament voted to call for the expulsion of American troops from its territory. It promised to end wars abroad, but the fact is that the military presence in the Middle East increased by 30% in the first two years of its mandate, and the administration itself predicts a further increase in the coming months.
Donald Trump is undoubtedly a polarizing figure, but there seems to be a relative consensus that he is an impulsive person. And this seems to have shaped his foreign policy. This is why it is very difficult to reach a coherent conclusion about the current president's vision of America's role on the planet. The Trump Administration seems determined to destroy any glimmer of Obama's legacy (whose greatest paradigm was the Iranian nuclear treaty). No doubt Obama made some gross mistakes in his foreign policy, but Trump has not offered a clear and coherent vision in return. The few achievements in his foreign policy have been either cosmetic (such as the rapprochement with North Korea), or unstable and uncertain (such as the agreement with the Taliban militias).
Destroying the legacy of a previous administration is relatively simple, but building a legacy of your own is an arduous task that requires much more effort than making provocative statements and repeating an empty slogan.