Photo: Young Ho/SIPA USA/PA Images

In defence of Trump's foreign policy

Past form suggests the china shop will be no safer with the bull gone
December 7, 2020

know, I know. Joe Biden’s victory was greeted with relief across most of the democratic world. As of 20th January, happy days will be here again: no madcap adventures, no war-mongering tweets; the US might even have another go at global leadership. 

Except that the world won’t be back to what European nostalgics might call normal; nor should it be. Donald Trump may not have pursued a foreign policy in any conventional sense, but he got a lot right. Some of what he tried and failed to do will one day come to pass. Much of what he did will endure. 

Let’s start with Nato. Trump was right first time around when he described it as “obsolete.” It is a Cold War institution that has been casting around for a purpose since the Soviet collapse. But when something happened that was right up its street—when Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine—Nato’s impotence was exposed. Casting around for something to do, Nato’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, talks up the China challenge as if he were running the North Pacific Treaty Organisation. 

The US, though, really is a Pacific power. Trump was right to confront China, and right to choose economic rules rather than the high seas as the field of battle. He may even be proven right in some of his disdain for multilateral agreements. Like China, the US is a big country: why not deal with it directly? 

Trump was right about the shortcomings of the Nafta free trade agreement: hence the renegotiation was a breeze. History will vindicate him, too, on arms control. The treaties he is pilloried for leaving may have fostered confidence in the later Cold War, but with cyber and unmanned aerial vehicles and the rest out there, arms control as we knew it is, sadly, over.

Trump was especially right, in his inimitable way, about North Korea. He saw the country as a source of instability, and gambled on giving Kim Jong-un something he wanted: recognition. Barack Obama had the chance, but flunked it, ignoring Kim’s plea for a phone call. And to those who say Pyongyang will remain a threat until it disarms, remember: there was a time when the world woke up every day, afraid that North Korea might have obliterated Seoul or Tokyo overnight. We don’t do that anymore—because “Little Rocket Man” knows he has a channel to Washington, where there is a nuclear button “bigger than his.”

Trump’s tweeting brought “diplomacy” into the modern age. For all his bombast, he honoured his pledge against new foreign wars. He understood that America, now self-sufficient in energy, had no need to bestride the Middle East. The first qualitative improvements in Israel’s security for decades—normalised relations with Bahrain and the UAE—took place under his aegis. His defence chiefs bewail his accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, but staying served no purpose except to provide target practice for the locals.

On the negative side, Trump’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal was petulant, but hasn’t yet proved as catastrophic as foretold. Revoking Obama’s opening to Cuba was a sop to the exile vote. And what should have been his greatest success was his greatest failure: Russia. He was right to see Vladimir Putin as the key to a new, mutually advantageous east-west detente. But the Washington establishment ganged up to stop him. This could prove to be a tragedy for Trump’s presidency, for US-Russia relations and for the wider world.