US foreign policy under previous presidents was generally coherent and predictable, deriving from a clearly defined strategy and relying on relevant agencies’ analysis of national interests. However, President Donald Trump has eroded the influence of the relevant administration agencies and significantly reduced their impact on decision-making. Most experts in this field feel helpless in their efforts to understand and forecast US policy, which often stems from the President’s capricious and mercurial conduct.
Nonetheless, a careful monitoring of his decisions provides several guiding principles, which we will try to describe here, keeping in mind that some are inherently contradictory and therefore cannot guarantee exact forecasts of his moves although they do supply a certain level of predictability. Psychological tools may be more effective in analyzing Trump’s decisions, but I will try to do so using the tools of a former diplomat.
Four principles have shaped Trump’s foreign policy to date.
His belief in being the ultimate negotiator and his desire for credit in this regard have underpinned many of Trump’s initiatives. Such was the case with his effort to orchestrate the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians (the Holy Grail of all conflicts) without realizing that there are two sides to every conflict, and with his unprecedented and bizarre summit with the President of North Korea.
Trump’s attitude toward foreign leaders also stems from the extent to which they shower him with the accolades that he believes he deserves. This explains his coolness toward Angela Merkel, for example, despite the clear US interests in its relationship with Germany. Trump tends to gravitate toward like-minded narcissists – Hungary’s Orban, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and The Philipines’ Dutarte, while giving a cold shoulder to leaders with more restrained egos.
2. The opposite of Obama
Trump sought to brand himself as an Obama opposite throughout his election campaign and has shaped his presidential decisions accordingly. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal engineered by Obama, although he would have embraced the JCPOA and trumpeted the achievement had someone presented him with the agreement and told him he could take credit for it.
Trump pulled the US out of Obama’s free trade Trans Pacific Partnership even though it perfectly corresponded with his China isolation policy in the Pacific Rim region. He eventually opted for a trade war with China, which, rather than isolating China is harming the US and global economy. Trump abrogated the NAFTA deal with Mexico and Canada, only to sign a similar agreement under a different name. Trump abandoned US leadership on climate change issues, and domestically sought to overturn Obama’s healthcare reform, attempts for which the US is paying dearly as it confronts Covid-19.
3. “America First”
This approach is in fact an extension of his personal narcissism to the national arena. Trump has dismissed the traditional US preference for operating through international organizations and promoting alliances – because they require concessions vis-à-vis the interests of other states.
The “America First” approach differs innately from the attempt for exceptionalism that guided US foreign policy, embracing an international role for the US in advancing its values around the world. Trump views the traditional exceptionalism approach and advancement of American values as a waste of resources. Trump’s decisions are guided solely by the potential economic value of relations with other countries rather than by global leadership ambitions. That was why he avoided leading an international campaign against Covid-19, tried to blame China for the virus and pulled the US out of the World Health Organization – in marked contrast to the Obama Administration’s successful world leadership in confronting and eradicating the Ebola virus before it reached American shores.
4. Appeasing the political base
Trump regards the evangelical right as a loyal base of support and seeks to appease its theological interests in the international arena, not out of identification with its values but out of pure political opportunism. The same goes for key conservative donors such as Sheldon Adelson. Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights are telling examples of this attitude. The embassy transfer was designed in part to help a Republican candidate running for the Senate in special Alabama elections where the Evangelical vote is critical.
Trump’s guiding principles often clash, reflecting his tendency to zigzag and change his mind. The high turnover rate and firings of key officials in foreign policy contexts also stems from this flip-flopping on various issues.
Under pressure from evangelist supporters and Adelson, Trump backed Netanyahu’s annexation intention, which backfired when confronted with his desire to advance major US arms sales to the Gulf (some claim his economic interest was personal, too). Economic interests eventually overcame his annexation support. Trump’s decision might have also stemmed from his conviction that the evangelists would vote for him in any case and not for the liberal, Catholic Biden, and from the fact that most are not from the key swing states that will decide the elections. Such states would appreciate jobs and deals generated by arms sales, especially in the corona-induced economic downturn.
Trump’s policy on the US presence in Iraq and Syria was another case of contradicting decision. He was inclined to stop the investment of US resources and abandon regional leadership but because this policy fit in with the Obama-led trend (Pivot to Asia), it became less attractive. On the other hand, his base was advocating an aggressive policy on Syria and Iran. These contradictions explain the firing of 59 cruise missiles at Syria and on the other hand the decision to avoid retaliation for the Iranian assault on Saudi oil facilities. The contradiction also explains the flip-flop between his declared decision to pull US forces out of Syria and the opposite decision that followed to maintain forces there to protect oil installations.
In the Asian context, a clash was also evident between Trump’s narcissistic ambition to achieve an unprecedented agreement with North Korea and the need to display a tough policy toward China and other states in the region. The narcissism prompted the summit with Kim Jung Il, but the event was not prepared properly because Trump believed his very presence and personality would achieve a breakthrough. Trump cancelled joint military exercises with South Korea, undermining the traditional US alliance with Seoul, in order to achieve that breakthrough vis-à-vis North Korea, but the summit ended in a stinging failure.
A Biden victory would restore US policy to its past rational, predictable path. A Trump victory would leave us guessing, and hopefully the principles described here might be of help. We must understand that Trump’s support for the current Israeli government positions does not stem from ideology or strategy, since these terms are not relevant to his decisions and there is no guarantee of its continuity should he win a second term.
(The article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 12 October 2020)