Donald Trump meets with twenty-eight of America’s closest allies this week, for a NATO summit in London, with less leverage than he’s had at any time in his Presidency. Trump is floundering as much globally as he is at home—and they all know it. His foreign policies—from North Korea and the Middle East to Venezuela—have, so far, largely flopped. Even in areas where allies support U.S. goals, many view the President as tactically reckless, rhetorically vulgar, and chronically disorganized in day-to-day diplomacy. In July, the media in London quoted cables from the British Ambassador in Washington in which he called Trump “insecure,” “incompetent,” and “inept,” and the White House “uniquely dysfunctional.”
Whatever his verbal bravado, the President is now running out of time to prove his bona fides in foreign policy to voters. “He calls himself the great dealmaker, but he hasn’t closed any deals,” David Gordon, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me. “I give him credit for trying, but these are not real-estate deals. They need time, energy, and collaboration with other governments. He’s not good at those things.”
The diplomatic disarray was evident again on Thanksgiving, when Trump made a quick trip to Afghanistan—his first. He spent less than four hours on the ground with the troops who are fighting America’s longest war, now in its eighteenth year. In his 2016 campaign, he vowed to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but his policy has gyrated in recent months. This fall, after months of quiet diplomacy with the Taliban, through a special envoy, the President proposed sitting down with the jihadi movement at Camp David, the Presidential retreat, three days before this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Days later, he abruptly withdrew the invitation, after a U.S. soldier was killed in a car bombing in Kabul, and terminated talks. “As far as I’m concerned, they are dead,” Trump told reporters on September 9th. The decision was striking, given that fifteen other Americans had died this year during nine rounds of negotiations. In the ten days before Trump’s announcement, the U.S. had killed more than a thousand members of the Taliban.
When Trump arrived in Afghanistan last week, he reversed course again. He announced that peace talks with the Taliban had resumed—with “tremendous progress”—on terms that the Taliban had never before embraced (and that exceeded the expectations of other U.S. officials). “They didn’t want to do a ceasefire, but now they do want to do a ceasefire,” Trump said. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly.” Previous talks had centered on the smaller goal of reduced violence: a U.S. drawdown of troops in Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban pledge not to support terrorist attacks on the United States. A ceasefire would be left for later talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But Trump appears to have overstated his own diplomacy. After he left Afghanistan, the Taliban told the Washington Post that its terms had not, in fact, changed. “We are ready to talk, but we have the same stance to resume the talks from where it was suspended,” a Taliban spokesman said.
In the three years since his election, Trump has certainly redefined diplomacy. Quick-hit photo ops have replaced long-term engagement; snarky tweets have replaced the steady slog of negotiations. Decisions often seem based more on personal impulses than on historic practices. But the President’s unconventional tactics are taking a toll. His imperious rants no longer intimidate adversaries; his bullying no longer gets them to cede diplomatic turf.
“Even when Trump says he’s going to get something back on track—Afghan peace talks, last week—it turns out no one knows what he’s talking about, and nothing happens,” John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the C.I.A. who’s now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me.
In the past three months, the President has been rebuffed—conspicuously—by both friend and foe on other pivotal initiatives. On Thanksgiving, North Korea launched its thirteenth missile test of 2019, making it one of the busiest years for testing missiles. So much for Trump’s comments, last summer, that he had a “very special bond” with Kim Jong Un. “We fell in love,” he mused. With every Trump concession, Kim has upped the ante rather than complied. After three summits, there is still no shared definition of what “denuclearization” means, much less how to achieve it. In October, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, spurned repeated appeals from Trump—by phone, in a letter, and during an Oval Office visit—not to invade Syria or install sophisticated Russian missiles that could jeopardize U.S. aircraft and technology. So much for Trump’s praise, in 2017, of the U.S. and Turkey having a “great friendship . . . as close as we’ve ever been.” And, at the U.N. General Assembly, in September, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, refused to take a call to his hotel suite from Trump, instead holing himself up in his bedroom. So much for Trump’s tweet, last year, that Rouhani was surely an “absolutely lovely man” and his prediction that Iran would engage.
The list of failures gets longer by the month—and increasingly dangerous for the President. As the campaign season heats up in January, vitriol is sure to focus on his diplomatic shortfalls. Even his political crisis at home stems from the messy shadow policy run by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine, a country on the military front line with Russia. In mid-September, Ukraine finally received nearly four hundred million dollars in U.S. military aid that was held back by the White House, but Trump has done nothing to get Moscow to end its annexation of Crimea or its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. And, as State Department officials testified during the House impeachment hearings last month, Ukrainians are still dying in the fight to hold Russia back.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s quest to reassert Russian influence in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa has gone largely unchecked. In October, Trump precipitously announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, which effectively turned back control of the oil-rich northeastern third of the country to President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons—before the end of ISIS and before peace talks to protect U.S. allies in Syria. In war-ravaged Libya, the U.N.-backed government last month accused Russia of fuelling the war and deploying mercenaries to expand its influence in another oil-rich country. Meanwhile, disarmament treaties between the U.S. and Russia are ending. In August, Trump formally withdrew from the first treaty, signed in 1987, that required both countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals. “We’ve gotten to the end of important arms-control regimes, like the I.N.F., but we haven’t negotiated any replacements,” Gordon, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me.
Some Trump initiatives have backfired. His first big diplomatic push was a Middle East peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians, which was launched during his first overseas trip, in the spring of 2016. “It’s something, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” the President boasted at the time. The plan was designed to create a new order in the volatile region which would merge the interests of Israel and the Gulf Arabs—and, in turn, isolate Iran. Almost three years later, the plan still hasn’t been unveiled. In September, the chief negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, quietly quit. The White House doesn’t even talk about the plan anymore. Meanwhile, Iran’s influence has grown across the region.
Trump’s foreign policy has also been costly—to the U.S. and to the global economy. A trade deal with China has repeatedly stalled and now seems unlikely this year; next year, the best-case scenario may be a deal in phases. The U.S.M.C.A. trade deal with Mexico and Canada—a replacement for the North America Free Trade Agreement that isn’t all that different—may not make it out of Congress this year, either. The Administration expected its diplomatic squeeze and economic sanctions to force the collapse of President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela. It hasn’t. Latin America’s first democracy has instead imploded in an existential economic and humanitarian crisis, and on the U.S.’s doorstep.
“It isn’t just one thing that’s off the rails—it’s everything at once, something I don’t recall ever being the case,” McLaughlin, the former C.I.A. deputy director, said. “Even when things are going well, there is always some part of our foreign policy that is troubled. What’s unique about today is that, issue by issue, everything seems either stalled, failing, or out of focus.”
Since taking office, Trump has also alienated traditional American allies—including many who will be at the NATO summit—in public insults or Twitter slurs. “Our allies take advantage of us far greater than our enemies,” the President said in August. This summer, after the Prime Minister of Denmark refused Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland, Trump described her comments as “nasty” and cancelled a visit. He threatened to unleash imprisoned ISIS fighters in Europe if their home countries refused to take them back. In July, he called the French President, Emmanuel Macron, foolish due to a tariff dispute and threatened to reciprocate by taxing French wines. “I’ve always said American wine is better than French wine!” he tweeted, even though he claims never to have imbibed even a drop of liquor. Last year, after the G-7 summit of major economic powers, Trump tweeted from Air Force One that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the summit’s host, was “very dishonest & weak.” And, at a NATO summit last year, Trump charged that Germany was “controlled” by Russia.
“Trump’s attempts at diplomacy fail across the board for several reasons, but his basic lack of respect for the other side is an important factor in all of them,” Daniel Larison wrote in The American Conservative, in October. “Because he knows so little, he doesn’t grasp what the other governments want, and he seems to think that the only thing anyone else cares about is money because that is what matters most to him. He threatens economic ruin of whole countries in the way that he threatens to sue people, because he cannot imagine that there are interests and values more important to others than lucre. His complete lack of empathy means that he cannot understand how others perceive the world, and that means that he frequently misjudges how others will view his reckless and abusive behavior.”
Trump does have some successes, as he is sure to emphasize in London. He has squeezed NATO allies to ante up more than a hundred billion dollars in defense spending, as a senior Administration official said during a briefing last week. The goal is for NATO allies to spend two per cent of their G.D.P.s on defense. In 2016, only four of the twenty-nine nations reached that goal; now it’s nine, with eighteen others projected to contribute that much by 2024. The President also still has time to secure trade deals that could sustain a strong American economy, which is always a major election issue.
However, Trump still has a basic structural problem in his approach to foreign policy. “His biggest negative is that he’s made everything transactional, which means our traditional long-term relationships in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are now under a cloud of uncertainty,” Gordon said. “And, by creating uncertainty, he has given space to our adversaries—Russia, China, or Iran—to act in ways that draw other countries away from the U.S.”
Yet, unlike several of his predecessors, the President has not launched a new war or had to deal with a major terrorist attack. “The President has proved himself to be what many critics have long accused him of being: belligerent, bullying, impatient, irresponsible, intellectually lazy, short-tempered, and self-obsessed,” Eliot A. Cohen, a counsellor at the State Department during the George W. Bush Administration and now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs this year. “Remarkably, however, those shortcomings have not yet translated into obvious disaster.” Not yet. And there’s still a year until the election.