A lifetime ago—January 2017—I sat down to assess outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy performance. Obama inherited a global financial panic and two unsuccessful wars, behaved with exemplary poise and dignity throughout his two terms as president, and achieved several clear foreign-policy successes. Yet despite having voted for him twice, I concluded that “in foreign policy Obama’s record was mostly one of failure.”
Now, as President Donald Trump’s single term staggers to a chaotic and undignified close, it’s time to perform a similar evaluation. Having run for office calling U.S. foreign policy “a complete and total disaster,” was Trump able to right the ship of state and chart a better course? Compared to other countries, did America’s power, prestige, and global influence rise on his watch? Or does Trump’s handling of foreign policy call to mind his bankrupt casinos, the Trump Shuttle, Trump University, or other failed business ventures?
It’s worth recalling what he promised to do. Like most of his political platform, Trump’s foreign policy sprang from a sense of grievance. He thought the rest of the world was taking advantage of the United States; he was going to put “America first” instead. Allies would pay full price for U.S. protection, adversaries would be confronted and vanquished, and the United States would pursue its own self-interest with scant regard for diplomatic niceties. He’d stop China from “stealing” American jobs and take the United States out of “bad deals” like the Paris climate accord and the nuclear agreement with Iran. Portraying himself as a master negotiator, he promised to reach “beautiful” new trade deals that would restore U.S. manufacturing and usher in a new era of prosperity. The United States would play the sucker no longer: It would get “out of the nation-building business,” crack down on immigration, rebuild a supposedly weak defense establishment, and get Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern border.
In sum, Trump offered a seductive vision that promised unbroken success with little or no additional effort. Restoring U.S. dominance wouldn’t require personal sacrifice, national unity, or even a well-conceived strategy—putting a “very stable genius” at the helm was all it would take to “make America great again.” Once he became president, Trump promised, Americans would “be so sick and tired of winning.”
So how did this all work out? Although Trump can claim a few foreign-policy successes, his overall record is dismal. America’s adversaries are more dangerous than they were in 2016, the United States is weaker, sicker, and more divided, relations with many U.S. allies are worse, and any aspirations to moral leadership that Americans might have harbored have been badly tarnished.
To be fair, Trump can claim a number of genuine achievements. For one thing, he didn’t start any new wars or create any new failed states. That might sound like a low bar, but none of his three predecessors can make a similar claim. The administration also negotiated a new trade agreement with South Korea and an updated version of NAFTA, although neither deal marked a dramatic improvement over the prior arrangements. By repeatedly hinting that he might take the United States out of NATO, Trump encouraged European efforts to take a bit more responsibility for their own defense and may have convinced some fence-sitters to accede to U.S. requests not to employ the Chinese firm Huawei to construct their digital infrastructure. Some observers would also give his administration credit for midwifing the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states, although these steps did little to advance the cause of peace or justice in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, this modest list of successes must be matched against a long list of more consequential failures.
For starters, consider how he handled relations with China. He tried to get Chinese President Xi Jinping to put more pressure on North Korea; Xi refused. He tried to get China to make major structural reforms and end its predatory trade and investment practices, and he eventually launched a costly trade war in an attempt to force Beijing to comply. That didn’t work either, because China retaliated and adapted; U.S. businesses, consumers, and farmers bore most of the costs of Trump’s tariffs; and Trump chose to pressure China unilaterally instead of lining up other countries alongside the United States. The administration’s escalating campaign against Huawei, ZTE, TikTok, and other Chinese technology firms has hurt these firms in the short term, but it has also spurred Chinese efforts to reduce its dependence on U.S. technology and may eventually cost U.S. firms a lot of future earnings.
Not surprisingly, relations with China have spiraled steadily downward over the past four years.
That decline is not entirely Trump’s fault; it is in many ways hard-wired into the emerging structure of the international system. What is Trump’s fault is America’s deteriorating position within that structure and its failure to take advantage of Beijing’s own missteps. China has cracked down in Hong Kong and on its Uighur minority (reportedly with Trump’s approval), clashed with India along the Himalayan border, continued its territorial encroachments in the South China Sea, and gone to considerable lengths to bully Australia, a longtime U.S. ally. It has taken advantage of Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to negotiate and sign a new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 other Asian nations, and it just completed a new investment agreement with the European Union. After mishandling the coronavirus outbreak at the start, China now appears to have the pandemic under control within its borders and has reopened its economy. The United States, meanwhile, continues to add tens of thousands of new cases each day and remains in partial lockdown.
Trump’s handling of the other Asian great power—Russia—was no better. He told supporters back in 2016 that “we are going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia,” and Trump’s steadfast deference toward Russian President Vladimir Putin remains something of a mystery. Yet Trump never made a serious effort to improve relations or drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, even though doing so would have made good geopolitical sense. Apart from sanctioning a few more Russian officials, however, Trump didn’t do very much to challenge Russia either. Instead, Trump got himself impeached for trying to bolster his reelection prospects by withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine until Kyiv dug up some dirt on the Biden family.
The result? Russia is still interfering in Ukraine today, still supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and still conducting murderous attacks on perceived threats at home and abroad. Moscow is also the likely perpetrator of the massive cyber-breach that compromised U.S. government computer networks, including the Defense Department, State Department, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the National Security Agency. Can you imagine what Trump might have said had this happened on Obama’s watch?
Trump’s amateurish handling of North Korea offers another example of foreign-policy ineptitude. After exchanging some childish taunts on Twitter with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump had the good sense to turn to diplomacy instead. Instead of orchestrating a systematic negotiation to limit North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, however, Trump opted for a pair of “reality show” summits with Kim that were long on spectacle and short on substance. Convinced that his personal charm and deal-making skills could convince Kim to give up the nuclear deterrent on which the survival of his regime depends, Trump ended up getting nothing. Although the summits produced the sort of media attention that Trump craved, they succeeded only in enhancing Kim’s stature and underscoring Trump’s gullibility. The president lost interest in the issue as soon as his PR stunt failed, and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities have continued to improve ever since.
And then there are the more obvious blunders. It was a mistake to leave the Paris climate accord, which was at least a useful first step toward addressing the greatest long-term peril humankind is facing. It was a mistake to abandon the TPP while simultaneously trying to balance China, and an even bigger blunder to leave the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and hard-line elements of the Israel lobby keep insisting that Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” is working, but such claims are blatant nonsense. Yes, a lot of ordinary Iranians have suffered as a result of U.S. sanctions, but the clerical regime is still in power, hard-liners have gained more influence, and Iran has resumed enriching uranium, increased its stockpile eightfold, and cut its breakout time in half.
Finally, one cannot omit Trump’s corrosive impact on the core elements of U.S. power, on which its security and well-being ultimately depend. With respect to COVID-19, Trump has provided a master class in how not to handle a serious emergency. He allowed pandemic preparedness to languish before the coronavirus emerged, then denied that it was a serious problem, openly discouraged mask-wearing and other preventive measures, insisted the virus would disappear “like magic,” and proved incapable of coordinating a testing-and-tracing system that might have contained the pandemic months ago. Not only has his failure cost more American lives than World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War combined, but it has also done enormous damage to the U.S. economy and badly damaged America’s image of competence.
Furthermore, despite his early pledge to rebuild the sinews of American power, Trump did little to improve U.S. infrastructure, and his immigration policies made it harder for U.S. firms to recruit the best talent from overseas. Instead of encouraging national unity and a broad sense of patriotic respect for our fellow citizens, he spent his four years in office sowing greater divisions. He has presided over an unprecedented hemorrhaging of senior officials in the Department of State and other national security institutions, leaving key positions either unfilled or staffed with poorly qualified loyalists. In the world brimming with complex challenges, this was nothing short of unilateral diplomatic disarmament.
The end result is both ironic and tragic. Trump had reasonably sound instincts on a number of issues and a refreshing willingness to challenge certain well-established but dubious orthodoxies. He was correct to accuse Europeans of neglecting their defenses, correct to accuse China of reneging on some of its trade commitments, and correct to oppose endless efforts at nation-building in distant lands of little or no strategic importance to the United States. Public support for a less ambitious, more realistic, and more successful foreign policy was widespread. Yet he was unable to translate his instincts into a successful foreign policy. Why?
To be fair, Trump faced a major dilemma from the start. His criticisms of U.S. foreign policy had alienated most of the existing elite—including dozens of veteran Republican officials—and left him with few experienced aides to staff his administration. Hiring inexperienced outsiders would inevitably lead to a lot of rookie mistakes; appointing people who knew how to make the government machinery run would enable them to continue the policies he had promised to end. This problem was especially acute in the area of national security, where Trump’s knowledge was particularly limited, and it helps explain his erratic responses to issues like NATO, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan.
Second, Trump was a poor judge of talent. He repeatedly picked top officials who either had little or no government experience (e.g., Rex Tillerson, Jared Kushner), checkered personal histories (Michael Flynn, Larry Kudlow), profoundly goofy ideas (Peter Navarro, Steve Bannon), or a long history of prior policy failures (Elliott Abrams, John Bolton). His more conventional appointees (Gary Cohn, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster) eventually fell out of favor, leaving foreign and national security policy in the hands of second-stringers or die-hards like Robert O’Brien or Richard Grenell.
Trump also proved to be a petulant, unpredictable, volcanic, and ungrateful boss, who managed to burn through four chiefs of staff and four national security advisors in less than four years. One staffer called Trump’s White House “the most toxic working environment on the planet,” and turnover rates inside the administration remained at historically unprecedented levels throughout his term in office. Trying to manage a complex world in the midst of such chaos would have taxed a Bismarck, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt, and Trump was a far cry from those canny and subtle strategists.
Last but by no means least, Trump’s handling of foreign policy succumbed to his own defects of character. His genius for self-promotion and remarkable ability to defy existing norms could not overcome his ignorance of most areas of policy, distrust of genuine expertise, short attention span, incorrigible dishonesty, and inability to place the national interest ahead of his own need for attention and adulation. Qualities that had sometimes worked in his up-and-down business career, in reality TV, and even on the campaign trail proved wholly unsuited to the tasks of governing, especially in the unforgiving world of foreign policy. In the end, even America’s many remaining advantages could not make up for Trump’s innate incompetence.
Fortunately, American voters seem to have figured this out, too. Trump is the only president whose approval ratings never exceeded 50 percent—not once—and he lost his bid for reelection even though the Electoral College currently makes it much easier for Republicans to win. Indeed, Republican candidates for House and Senate seats did better than expected in the November 2020 election, while the man on top of the ticket went down to a decisive defeat. Trump has no one to blame but himself, which may be why he’s refused to accept it.
In many ways, Trump’s presidency was a missed opportunity. His predecessors had mismanaged the unipolar moment, and Trump had the chance to put U.S. foreign policy on a sounder footing. The general public had made it clear that they didn’t want isolationism, but they did want a more restrained and successful foreign policy. Trump could have built on that base of support and worked with U.S. allies to bring the country’s commitments into better balance. He could have built on the Iran nuclear deal to move toward a more even-handed, balance-of-power posture in the Middle East and ended the Afghan War promptly. He could have worked with other advanced economies to confront China together and worked to reform the World Trade Organization instead of trying to gut it. Properly implemented, a shift to a more realistic grand strategy would have kept the United States secure and prosperous, and freed up resources needed to address pressing priorities at home. Had Trump moved in that direction, the country would be much better off today, and he wouldn’t have to find a new place to live in three weeks.
But it was more than a missed opportunity, because Trump’s blunders have left the United States in much worse shape than when he took office. For President-elect Joe Biden and his team, the bad news is that they have an enormous amount of repair work to do. The good news, such as it is, is that it won’t be hard to do better than the people they are succeeding.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.