Trump’s Erratic Foreign Policy Continues in 2020

Last month, the Trump Administration announced a “historic deal” to normalize relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Did the Trump administration solve Middle East conflict? No. While the merits of the deal will be debated in think tanks and foreign policy circles with overplayed game theory stereotypes, the deal does fall into Trump’s erratic foreign policy. This isn’t to say some of the administration work has been a failure. Diplomacy and foreign policy are a risky game, so it could turn out that the administration’s unique strategies will have a positive impact.

But the coronavirus and COVID-19 induced global shutdown has not stopped a Trump administration hell bent on keeping everyone guessing about its next foreign policy move.

The Israel and United Arab Emirates may not be the peace deal Americans were expecting, but having an Arab country recognizing Israel with normalized diplomatic and economic relations is something worth celebrating. Some have even gone as far to nominate Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. We’ll let the armchair diplomats argue the details and say this adds a new development to peace in the Middle East.

Middle East peace talks are the original boogeyman of United States foreign policy. Modern negotiations between Israel and Palestine have been happening since 1978 in Camp David and the peace talks held by President Jimmy Carter with Israel and Egypt. President Bill Clinton probably got the closest in the 1990s and 2000 with his Camp David meetings, Oslo Accords, two-state solution, and Clinton Parameters. Unfortunately, hope for a lasting peace was replaced by assassinations, stalling, and fighting again.

It is clear that the presidential administration who successfully secures peace between Israel and Palestine, and recognition from other Arab nations, would win the “super bowl” of foreign policy prizes. Is Trump’s latest deal a worthy prize? Hardly. But it is not the only deal the Trump administration announced.

The Trump administration also secured a symbolic and temporary agreement between Kosovo and Serbia for economic incentives, as well as an agreement that pushes aside long-standing disagreements about the Balkan nations official recognition in the United Nations and European Union. The agreement is a holdout from another Clinton era conflict, the Bosnian War in the 1990s. This deal is a work in progress and gives the Balkans and Americans about a year to work toward a more realistic, long-term agreement.

Trump’s foreign policy is a mixed bag with success depending on which side of the political aisle you sit. If you analyze American foreign policy up to this point, American strategic objectives overseas can be labeled as unpredictable.

While the Obama administration pursued “strategic patience” with North Korea, Trump pursued a style all his own that included a summit in Vietnam, a “bromance” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and a laundry list of nasty insults between the two men. North Korea can take a backseat to the country that the Trump administration thinks is the biggest threat to the United States and the west: China.

The Trump tariffs started way back in 2018 after threats and posturing between the United States and China. Before a preliminary agreement was reached in December 2019, the Trump Administration saddled the People’s Republic of China with more than half a trillion dollars in tariffs in what can best be described as tariff’s on steroids.

Pacific Research Institute’s senior economist Wayne Winegarden hinted that the trade wars impact on business investment was a bad sign. Winegarden noted that gross private domestic investment declined a combined 7.8 percent in the second and third quarters in 2019. Unfortunately, the worries about a pending a recession and lagging business investment paled in comparison to what COVID-19 would bring.

But tariffs on China are now the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative at the center of Chinese negotiations, seems to have moved on and is focused on how he can overhaul the World Trade Organization. The Trump administration’s focus on China is perhaps it’s most consistent foreign policy strategy, but who can really say what the strategic goal is beyond checking the Chinese with soft power.

And we cannot forget to sprinkle in the tense run-ins the United States has had with Iran and the elimination of ISIS’ infamous leader. Both missions seemed to be defining moments for Trump. Remember, Obama’s decision to green light the raid to get Osama bin Laden was a crucial part of his reelection message. Trump’s takedown of American enemies doesn’t seem to have the same appeal to Americans.

It is not a stretch to say that Trump and his administration have pursued a large amount of objectives and made a litany of foreign policy decisions that impact allies and enemies around the world.

But it is a stretch to call these actions and decisions pieces in a grand strategy. The Trump foreign policy doctrine is more erratic, undisciplined, and prone to distraction by new shiny objects like a summit, drone strike, or forgotten peace deal. And the worst part is Americans are mostly oblivious are obviously to it.

Foreign policy is never a winning issue, especially during an election. It regularly polls in the single digits, or not at all, for most voters. This election year is no different, with voters putting it in the middle in their list of top issues.

According to Pew Research, Americans are also split on how the country should pursue a foreign policy doctrine. Half of Americans think the U.S. should play a more active role, while a little less than half think we should adopt a more isolationist policy.

I would be the first to say foreign policy is one the more important roles in American government. It fails to get the same attention, especially during global pandemic, as many domestic issues, but it is just as important. The Trump administration’s embrace of a “big tent” policy that nothing is an exhaustive game of geopolitical whack-a-mole that look to be offering many short-term wins coupled with long-term challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic and pending election have made a bigger impact on when, what, and how Trump chooses its next foreign policy decision.

What will that decision be? We will just have to wait and see.

Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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