Trump’s foreign policy – lots of bark, little bite

By Michael Vadon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Michael Vadon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump’s tough talk seemingly always leads to controversy. Time and again the bombastic rhetoric of candidate Trump and now  the 45th President has created controversy and global headlines. Trump’s mantra isn’t Rooseveltian at all – speak loudly and carry a little stick.

While domestically Trump continues to push an extreme agenda that conflicts with American values, from a foreign policy perspective despite tough talk, Trump is continuing a pattern of backing down in the face of pressure. The latest instance of this is Trump’s sudden reversal on his policy towards Taiwan and China.  Time and again on foreign policy which Trump doesn’t quite understand his rhetoric has led to reversals after scrutiny from abroad. We saw this during the 2016 campaign where Trump changed his position on multiple foreign policy issues when pressed by the media or foreign leaders.

For what it is worth, I do believe a great deal in US foreign policy needs to change and while Trump’s domestic priorities are largely contrary to American values, the foreign policy goals he’s articulated aren’t from my perspective any worse than what we have gotten under the previous three administrations. His comments to Bill O’Reilly last week about US foreign policy in the past were accurate – even if they should not have been delivered by an AMERICAN President.

Trump’s rhetoric is designed to garner media attention but is clearly not set in stone. He is undoubtedly an amateur whose self-assured authoritarian behavior may give a strong domestic presence and in the polarized American political climate create an “us” vs “them” mentality, but in the difficult minefield of foreign affairs, Trump is already finding his tenor does not work and like a scared child is backing off his tough talk regularly.

On China, Trump has handed over the pacific region to them by following through on a campaign commitment to abandon TPP but also now has empowered them by flirting with Taiwan and publicly backing off – strengthening China’s efforts to bully its neighbors and perhaps emboldening mainland China to take military action against Taiwan without fear of serious American reprisals.

President Trump’s promise of something amounting to a hard reset in relations with Russia seems to have been muddled despite the media’s continued obsession with all things Vladimir Putin or Russian. The United States needs to cultivate better relations with Russia and understand that western actions have in many ways been responsible for the growth of Russian nationalism and aggression. Trump seemed poised to make this recognition but now seems ready to continue the basic failed US policy toward Russia (with perhaps some tweaks) despite the media’s implication of a connection between  the new President and the Kremlin. It must be remembered George W. Bush looked in Putin’s eyes and trusted him and Obama was committed to a “reset” which in fact meant five years of a soft policy toward Russia until a hard shift occurred in 2014. Trump’s early policies and words toward Russia really aren’t very different despite the media hype about it.

The new President has doubled-down on anti-Iranian sanctions something that surely must not please Putin and his allies in both Tehran and Damascus. Any thought that Trump was somehow a Russian agent should have ended with his commentary about Iran – a nation that has been driven to alliance with Russia by hostile and somewhat irrational US policies particularly under George W. Bush.

It will be fascinating to see how Trump handles the United Kingdom. President Obama unwisely came out strongly against Brexit and made a comment about the UK having to go to the “back of the line,” that should never be uttered by a US President. Multilateralism in Europe has become an American policy as has encirclement of Russia (which has allowed Putin to exploit American and NATO policy, something any basic reading of history could have advised against) but a relationship with the UK with an open and fair trading agreement would be in best interests of both parties. The UK is already taking steps to make more favorable trade deals with the likes of China and India than the EU maintains, and probably will be open to doing the same with the US. But given Trump’s tough talk on trade, will he seize this opportunity?

In the transition period, Trump made an effort to cultivate a better relationship with Pakistan who had been the victim of a ruthless drone campaign in the Obama years. But Trump’s Muslim ban and unwillingness to back off this policy jeopardizes any opening to Pakistan which can serve as an effective buffer against India, who is becoming a regional superpower on the Chinese scale. Balancing India v Pakistan without tilt or religious bias should be an American priority, but Trump’s ban of Muslims something that was probably quietly cheered on in the halls of power in New Delhi inevitably will give India an upper hand in this balance of power.

Trump faces a difficult and dangerous world – and one where his word already cannot be trusted.

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