This brief analyses US President Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy in 2020, to examine the extent to which he succeeded in re-imagining America’s role in the world.


First published in October 2020.


Trump in 2016 offered a stark revision of the role of the US, which has been seen by its leaders as both a natural economic and military and moral leader for the world. While the approach has shifted from more unilateral leadership (e.g. Pres. Bush Jr.’s invasion of Iraq and the war in Viet Nam) to a more multilateral approach (e.g. the management of key international economic organizations, particularly the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, where leadership was shared with the EU), the US’s role as a promoter of the postwar vision of security and stability through fighting communism, state sovereignty, and respecting the rules of embedded free trade and finance, was unquestioned.

Trump’s approach is difficult to characterize, though it was superficially be compared to turn of the 20th-century isolationism, which led America to avoid entering into World War I until 1917 and abandon the League of Nations. I argue in my 2019 book, The Great Disruption: Understanding the Populist Forces Behind Trump, Brexit, and LePen (Peter Lang) that there are much deeper forces behind Trump than the force of his personality, or swing voters such as suburban white moms, as popular analysis tells us. One of those forces is globalization, which can be linked to the rise of China and the related acceleration of the haemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs. Trump did not exactly propose a retreat from the globe, as some critics allege. What becomes most apparent in examining Trump’s foreign policy approach is that he lacks a coherent perspective; thus, the events during the past four years similarly deny the logical approach of comparing goals to achievements. To be sure, as reflected in Trump’s phrase, “American carnage,” his focus was on domestic policy with clear goals of restoring manufacturing jobs and reducing immigration. Foreign policy, such as “securing borders” and confronting China, is primarily seen through this, not a global security lens.

Trump was clearly against the policies of his predecessors, at various times assailing the Iraq and Afghan wars, highlighting the unfairness of existing trade and security deals whereby partners were “ripping us off,” and promising to restore American “greatness,” which is a position somewhere between isolationism and unilateralism. His perspective is summarised by his “America First” speech in April 2016 during the campaign.[1]

In this speech, he offered a take on foreign policy that fits within his modified Manichean view of “winners” and “losers” in life and history. America was a winner when it won World War II and the Cold War, he states in his speech. He attacked the results of “nation-building” intervention, from Iraq to Libya, blaming it for creating ISIS and the spectre of “radical Islam”. In saying “our rivals no longer respect us” and that the US had suffered a “list of humiliations,” he concluded that the nuclear deal with Iran was one that reflected US weakness at the bargaining table, while he strongly supported Israel, evoking their loyalty. He also complained about the unfair burden of the US in its defence alliances, including NATO, where partners were not paying their fair share. He mentioned the industrial espionage of China as a further sign of weakness. He then linked this external weakness to economic weakness, evoking “the theft of American jobs.”

Trump’s solutions, as revealed in the speech, are fairly simplistic. He wants to rebuild the military, renegotiate our deals with partners and adversaries who do “not play by the rules”, using access to the US economy and security assistance as leverage to overturn bad deals and trade deficits, and will deliver “a disciplined, deliberate, and consistent foreign policy” that puts American and Western, not “universal” values, first. There is also the curious suggestion that he could reach a new rapprochement with the Russians, part of a string of many inexplicable events in that relationship as recounted in the press and tainted by their interference in his election.

Foreign audiences were left aghast at this seemingly radical shift in US foreign policy, which appeared to threaten the postwar stability based upon U.S.-E.U. cooperation and mutual gains. However, as I argue in my book, they fail to see that such a shift is clearly plausible from a longer-term perspective. First, we have to recognize from an international relations perspective the continuing long-term relative decline of the US from a hegemonic to a relatively declining power. The triumphalism of the “end of history” moment from 1989 when the Soviet Bloc changed its nature and the subsequent shift from communism by China that marked the end of the Cold War have been replaced by an emerging bilateral order between the West and China. Second, the nature of superpower rivalry is less focused on minimizing the potential for nuclear conflict and proxy wars around ideological differences and much more focused on economic rivalry, and particularly, as I document, the declining plight of the middle class in the West and the clear increase in income inequality. Third, the defeat of ISIS and the decline of the immediate threat of Islamic fundamentalism have reduced the purported “clash of civilizations” to more of a secondary concern, at least for now.  The possible shift in resources and orientation from the Pentagon to the Dept. of Homeland Security and its counterparts in the West seems arrested, if not reversed, for now. Finally, the internet has created a new dynamic for international rivalry that allows new conflict on the domestic level, through cyber-espionage, including wholesale theft of intellectual property and personal information; the potential for crippling cyber-hacking of crucial security systems such as basic infrastructure, financial markets, and the leaking of classified communications; and the ability to interfere in democratic processes, including elections and more broadly public opinion; all through anonymous and deniable sources.

In the remainder of this brief, I highlight core foreign policy initiatives by Trump, examining the results of his new approach. What we find is a few gems but, for the most part, an inability to achieve the vision he set out. I deliberately avoid discussion of the relationship with Russia, since there are evidently missing pieces and it would require a full-length effort data that are presently unavailable.

The Art of the Non-Deal

Trump’s reputation in the campaign was that of a billionaire who made his fortune on making “great deals.”  It is not our purpose to scrutinize this very mixed record; his entry into the downtown New York real estate market showed great timing, his failures at Atlantic City casinos and a host of other businesses suggest Trump is more of a brand than a business genius. The specious claim being that Trump’s personal negotiation skills could improve the position of the US, which played well in the campaign.

In practice, Trump’s negotiations with North Korea, Iran, and China have nothing substantial to show in the way of progress. His renegotiation of NAFTA and NATO, on the other hand, did yield improvement. In NAFTA, he was able to wrest additional concessions from the Canadians and Mexicans, and in NATO, to push allies to increase their defence expenditures. The difference in the two outcomes relates to his unorthodox but effective use of tariffs to impose sanctions. Access to the US market is so important that economically integrated countries in the West could not afford to lose it, thus leading to gains such as the slight opening of the Canadian dairy market for American producers. Already isolated, North Korea did not see the carrot of developing a prosperous market-based economy as incentive enough to give its nuclear weapons, which the regime must think, along with economic control, are necessary for survival.

What is more concerning over the long-run is the potential effects his actions might have on the postwar Bretton Woods sets of rules around free trade and investment and Western security. Logically, rules only make sense if all parties agree to take losses as well as wins to uphold them, a principle Trump has clearly violated in pushing the use of tariffs in a way not seen since the disastrous tariff wars capped by the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which raised the average US import tax to 40%, touching off reciprocal actions that helped to usher in the Great Depression. Indeed, the WTO (World Trade Organisation) in Sept. 2020 ruled Trump’s use of tariffs against China for unfair trade practises was illegal. Since the Trump Administration has chosen to ignore the ruling, it will undermine the WTO, in the same way, that the WHO, the UN, and most importantly NATO have been undermined in his tenure.

Since the Trump Administration has chosen to ignore the ruling, it will undermine the WTO, in the same way, that the WHO, the UN, and most importantly NATO have been undermined in his tenure. | Flickr – The White House

Similarly, China’s vast and growing internal economy, its huge foreign reserves including major holding of US stocks and bonds, and its ability to create crippling reciprocal sanctions, such as those on US farmers outweighs any leverage Trump has, for now. China appears to be in the waiting game of hoping for a Trump loss. Nor is there any evidence that China has ceased its security operations in the South China sea, its currency manipulation, or its cyber-espionage. Trump’s battle with Huawei as a security threat promises to bring technological rivalry to a new level; however, it is undermined by his incoherence in terms of tariffs on Chinese products, whose market share in the US shows no real signs of abatement. In fact, it has created a series of parallel international organizations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt One Road initiative that offer cooperating parties a serious alternative investment and aid vehicle to the West.

There is no doubt that Trump used sanctions in an innovative and more effective way, extending them to third party partners who do business with the sanctioned country. In this sense, the sanctions on Iran have had a clear effect on the economy there. Paradoxically, it seems to have hardened the regime’s determination to create nuclear weapons, a natural response to insecurity à la North Korea, and to have rallied the population, at least for now, to the regime’s side in the face of an external threat and scapegoat for poor economic conditions.

Trump’s decision to pivot to the Sunni side against Iran as well as to increase military sales to such partners may have cemented the Sunni-Shia stalemate for now, and helped to open up UAE and Bahrain-Israeli rapprochement, but in the longer run it could simply lead to a regional arms escalation. Does the US really want to take one side in a situation of effective stalemate, as illustrated by the Yemen War, and align itself so clearly with Saudi Arabia, the source of the most fundamentalist version of Islam? Iran’s domineering influence in Iraq, Syria, Western Afghanistan, and its ties to Hezbollah are not to be underestimated. Indeed, the one-sided approach to Israel, including moving the embassy to Jerusalem and tacitly accepting increased settlements, left the Palestinian question and Jared Kushner’s peace plan adrift, creating the potential for more, not less, conflict down the road. The concessions that the UAE and Bahrain (with the Saudis’ blessing) made to Israel are most likely to undermine the Palestinian position and only put a temporary hold on settlements, not push Israel towards a needed accommodation, most likely a two-state solution.

What becomes clear here again in seeing the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, and the understandable drawing down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that simply withdrawing from the world stage without a plan for what comes after is no more effective than invading without a plan for building institutions. The vacuum is not left to domestic forces, but filled by groups that have quite different and inimical interests to the West, from the Russians to the Iranians to the Taliban. The lesson should not be to abandon all hopes of democratic and popular government, along with effective institutions in the Middle East simply because the US ignored such questions in its Iraqi, Afghan, and Syrian interventions focusing only on a military approach.

The real challenge is to learn how to build domestic institutions in weak states, not to abandon the project altogether, which will simply recreate the conditions around radicalism that led to the intervention in the first place. Perhaps equally important and underestimated is the slow transition away from petrol and fossil fuels which will eventually delink and generally reduce the Middle East’s prominence in global affairs, and likely create considerable turmoil there.

The bigger question around the art of the deal is whether the use of tariffs as a weapon will erode the rules around fair play Trump said he wanted to restore. While the threat to those rules by China is clear, what makes no sense is why Trump would simultaneously pick a fight with allies and China at the same time. Clearly, the right approach would have been rally the West around a common front and reach an agreement with China around a new approach to trading and finance rules that, in the end, depend in good part on self-enforcement. Similarly, the NATO and South Korean/Japanese contribution question could have been handled without planting the seed of doubt that the US would counter Russian interference in Eastern Europe, or Chinese or N. Korean threat escalation, which has already happened. Whether EU countries and Japan are ready and willing to start providing their own security and whether China’s parallel international organizations and attempts to pick off EU allies through its major infrastructure investments in Eastern Europe (such as the largest Greek port and rapid railways from Beijing), remains in doubt, but the point is that the postwar arrangements are melting away along with US hegemony. What we don’t know is what replaces them.

The question we are left with, then, is renegotiating towards what end state of international relations? That question appears unanswered in Trump’s mind; restoring “greatness” is inherently subjective (and so useful for him, but not the nation); the bottom line is that Trump only stands for destruction of the existing order, not for a vision of what would take its place.

Does the Bretton Woods Order Still Make Sense?

In 2020, we are left with the question; if Trump correctly if unconsciously identified the main challenges for the post-Cold War era, his myopic approach still leaves us with the question of how to address them. If Joe Biden wins in November, he will still have to face China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian question, as well as the existential issues of climate change and migration, which were largely ignored by Trump beyond some flailing attempts to crack down on refugee claims. As alluded to above, the questions around China require a united front. While the Chinese have strong leverage in financial terms, the weakness of their domestic economy, still reliant on exports, means that the West, if united, can potentially use market access as a potent weapon. Thus far, the West has been too divided, both internationally and domestically, with individuals and companies still dreaming of making vast fortunes in the potential Chinese market, to create a new post-Bretton Woods playbook for global trade and finance. In fact, the Chinese have made strong inroads in the South and in Eastern Europe as traders and financiers, offering different terms for their deals to mixed success. The result is an emergence of parallel systems of trade, aid, and international organizations and agreements that could, along with cyber-espionage and the eroding competitiveness of Western companies, lead to a new era of nationalism and protectionism. This would be impossible to achieve completely, given the complex intertwining of global production and finance, and thus lead to a reduction in global welfare, with incoherence impeding global trade, aid, and investment, including perhaps parallel internets, if US technological security concerns are acted upon.

The real solution is to arrive at a new system of world order with the Chinese without abandoning consideration of legitimate aims such as labour rights, environmental preservation, and institution building in the South could instead open up a new era of prosperity that would finally lift all boats. An existential question for US foreign policy has always been whether one can support oppressive governments. In practice, the WTO’s sole focus on trade and the feebleness of the UN security council have led to the separation of trade and finance from democracy and human rights. Trump has started to blur these lines in bringing domestic issues around trade into the multilateral forum. Is it plausible that democracy could make a return, after the Iraq debacle? While such may seem far-fetched at the moment, the fact is that Russian undermining of elections and China’s alternative development, finance, and trade institutions, also bring into question the wider ethos of democratic participation. We could, with more space, elaborate farther, in pointing out that radical terrorists tend to be born under oppressive and/or volatile regimes, such as that in Saudi Arabia and Somalia, and that trade and investment ties tend to reduce conflict (e.g., France-Germany; U.S.-Vietnam). In the end, Trump and America’s desire to retreat from the world is bound to backfire. In plain view, one can see, more importantly, that closing the Hungarian border or separating Central American parents from their families does nothing to stop the overall push factors of migration. Until the West understands the simple fact that things have to improve in the South for migration to reduce, its efforts will continue to fail, simply raising domestic costs for a futile war that does nothing to address the underlying incentives.

A closer look at the military expenditures and global reach show that neither China nor Russia pose a real threat to Western security order. Obama’s attempt to encircle China with an alternate trade agreement, for that matter, did nothing but enflame its historically-based concerns around encirclement, a sentiment shared by Russia. If the nature of warfare is moving towards drones, cyber-hacking, and special forces, Trump’s emphasis on building shiny new conventional weapons should be seen as a fading anachronism. The lessons from the limitations of legitimate governance in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Colombia, and in large parts of Africa, is that here too the domestic and the global are becoming increasingly intertwined. For example, as I noted in a recent chapter on offshore finance, the existence of such centres not only helps tax evasion, undermining Western budgets and exacerbating inequality but also provides a ready conduit for all forms of illegal and conflictive financial flows.[2]

In the 21st century, then, the age of institution building is the agenda for the day, one that recognizes the value of legitimate, stable, responsive, and participatory governance (not Western democracy in rigid form) and access to basic human needs that works in compatible layers from the local to the domestic to the global. What we see in terrorism, covid, and climate change, is that all problems are increasingly global. Trump’s foreign policy, based on domestic grievances and supremely limited in its overall logic and understanding of the world, confirms this in spades.🔷


Further Reading:



Professor Andy Hira, Professor of Political Science, Simon Fraser University.


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[This piece was originally published in The Screaming Moderate and re-published in PMP Magazine on 25 October 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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