Trump Foreign Policy & Alliances: President's Record More Complex than Observers Admit

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

One important aspect of the debate over foreign policy leading up to November 3 has been taken for granted. That Joe Biden has an uncontestable edge over Donald Trump when it comes to America’s standing in the world and reassuring U.S. allies of steady leadership has become an almost indisputable narrative.

There’s ample evidence from Trump’s first three years in office to support the contention that he has done great damage to U.S. alliances. Progressives have made hay not just of standard conservative policy positions adopted by the president — exiting the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal — but also of moves that most Republicans find to be concerning as well. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some: The president’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reluctance to endorse NATO’s commitment to collective self defense, abrupt troop drawdowns in such places as Germany and Syria, and decisions to levy tariffs on key partners.

Biden surrogates have taken all of this to argue that while four years of this is reckless but reversible, eight years would do irreparable harm to American global primacy.

But the Trump foreign policy legacy is a tricky thing to evaluate, not least because for all the policy choices that have alarmed conservative national security staffers, administration officials have otherwise strived to run a fairly conventional foreign policy. From the Iran maximum pressure campaign, to the White House’s handling of Venezuela, there remains plenty that the president’s opponents have criticized, but a not insubstantial number of their targets are decisions that could have come from a more conventional GOP president.

This makes the president’s record on alliances more complex than many political and media observers would admit. Many of them fixate on the transatlantic rift, which is notable but not as unprecedented as they make it out to be. And looking elsewhere, the situation isn’t exactly hopeless. For one, his administration’s tough stance on Iran almost certainly reassured the Gulf states made paved the way for the recent normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries.

The critics also overlook some key developments, mostly over the past couple of months, that have demonstrated the administration’s ability to marshal support behind confronting Beijing.

With Trump’s renewed focus on China has come a push to institutionalize arrangements such as the Quad grouping and the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. To be sure, the Chinese Communist Party’s transgressions have created an environment in which the U.S. can rally an international effort, but the Trump administration deserves credit for recognizing this and acting accordingly.

Multiple senior Trump administration officials have visited Taiwan to show their support for the fledgling democracy, and the White House recently approved three separate arms packages for the island territory as it faces more pressure from Beijing.

All the while, U.S. diplomats have traveled the globe to promote the Clean Network program, which is a set of technological standards explicitly geared toward protecting networks from Chinese interference. Dozens of the world’s democracies have endorsed it. Europe has started to turn away from Huawei, with several governments taking steps to sideline the Chinese state-owned 5G vendor. Beijing’s troubling activity abroad contributed to this, but so too did American leadership.

And all of this has been compounded by the work of the new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, whose efforts to extend financing to projects in developing countries have been an understated but significant part of the emerging U.S.­-China competition.

These moves haven’t gone unnoticed by America’s friends. For all the foreign leaders who express their frustration with Trump (there are many) and yearn for the relative normalcy of a Biden administration, some also reportedly worry that the former vice president might soften U.S. policy toward China, according to this week’s edition of Politico’s China Watcher newsletter:

The Australian government and national security bureaucracy have an ambivalent feeling about the election,” says the Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor. “They would largely welcome the defeat of Trump, but they are not sure what to expect of Biden. They want a U.S. government which restores a degree of normalcy, predictability and competence, which Biden — partisan divisions notwithstanding — should deliver. But they are wary of his ability to execute a tougher China policy which brings in allies and helps modify Beijing’s behavior.”

How to square all of this with Trump’s apparent disdain for multilateralism and his disregard for some of America’s longstanding alliances? The answer might be that for the president’s reflexive focus on leaving international organizations and multilateral treaties for the sake of it, his administration’s stance has been one of deliberate multilateralism, which is to say doubling down on what works and jettisoning what doesn’t. This looks all the more reasonable in light of the administration’s efforts to strengthen certain partnerships and alliances.

Although some top Trump officials have made this argument, the president has effectively let his opponents define his handling of America’s allies for him. This isn’t to argue one way or this administration has been a net positive or a net negative for America’s standing in the world. It’s just to say that the Trump team, contrary to conventional wisdom, has standing to reasonably contest the conventional wisdom about the president’s handling of alliances. But that’s just not been part of its closing message.

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