A regional analysis of Trump’s foreign policy

By Jack Tenney, Young-Kyun Kim and Matt Slade

The past three years of American foreign policy has been marked by a preoccupation with fair trade policy, a general retraction from global frameworks, and shifting responses to long-sworn adversaries and allies. In a review of the Trump administration’s engagement with various regions, Global Policy Institute fellows have highlighted a number of Trump’s key foreign policies that have shaped American influence since his inauguration in 2017.

REGIONS DISCUSSED: ASIA, Europe, middle east, africa, latin america

Asia

A hallmark of President Trump’s foreign policy strategy in Asia has been a persistent fear, suspicion, and hostility toward China. Trump’s accusations toward China range in scope and validity – from claims of currency manipulation to theft of intellectual property. Thus, a top priority in the Trump presidency has been showing China that the U.S. is “not playing games any more.”

In a move that showcased his lack of political experience, President Trump aggravated U.S.–China relations before even taking office. In December of 2016, Trump accepted a phone call from the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen – something an American president or president-elect had not done since 1979.  The move was perceived to have legitimized Taiwan’s independence from China and was met with tremendous Chinese hostility. Since this incident, President Trump has attempted  to re-foster a relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and has reasserted the U.S.’  stance that Taiwan is not a sovereign state and that there is only one China.

In terms of trade, President Trump has employed extremely aggressive economic policies with China. In 2018, the administration launched a devastating trade war, due at least in part due to protectionist views of foreign trade. Other motives for the trade war include reducing U.S. dependence on Chinese exports, punishing China for its alleged (?) theft of American intellectual property and Chinese working conditions. Overall, Trump imposed tariffs on over $360 billion in Chinese goods, and China responded by placing tariffs on over $100 billion in American goods. While initially met with widespread skepticism, Trump has claimed victory in the trade war, signing a “phase one” trade deal with China that will boost U.S. imports and reform intellectual property policies. “Phase two” of the U.S.–China trade deal is forthcoming.

Trump’s administration rounded out its aggressive strategy against China by condemning China’s claims of sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea, banning U.S. companies from working with Huawei on 5G technology amid espionage claims about the firm and authorizing sanctions against China for human rights violations against Hong Kong protestors.

President Trump’s foreign policy strategy in Asia has also been defined by an unusual and inconsequential relationship with North Korea. Early in his presidency, Trump expressed a willingness to meet with the chairman of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jung Un. Vice President Mike Pence declared that “the era of strategic patience is over” with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

Despite weeks of name-calling, observed North Korean missile tests, and escalating tensions between the two leaders in the summer of 2017, Trump and Kim ultimately decided to meet in Singapore in 2018 and Vietnam in 2019 to discuss improving the U.S.–North Korea relationship,  as well as denuclearizing North Korea. Each of these long-awaited meetings ended with no tangible progress toward denuclearization.

President Trump and Chairman Kim’s most recent meeting occurred when Trump visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone along the border of North Korea and South Korea in June of 2019. Though, this meeting was aimed at reinforcing the positive relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, rather than achieving tangible political or economic goals.

The remainder of President Trump’s activity in Asia has been largely goodwill tours and photo opportunities. On Trump’s first Presidential trip to Asia in 2017, he received a boisterous welcome from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, before meeting with controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Now, Trump is taking his Asian foreign policy strategy in a new, less tense direction, having made his first Presidential visit to India in February of 2020 in pursuit of a bilateral trade deal and an improved security relationship with India.

Europe

Since even before his election and inauguration, President Trump has upended the transatlantic relationship and exposed rifts in the U.S.-Europe partnership that has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II. At the center of this turmoil are disagreements about technology, security, and economic policy and more broadly, the future direction of Europe.In the United Kingdom, Trump enjoys the closest personal relationship with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but even this relationship seems to be deteriorating in the midst of post-Brexit trade drama and the UK’s slight pivot away from the U.S. With the exit of the UK from the European Union, President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson are facing the prospect of forging a new trade deal, one that is of critical importance to both countries. 

However, one particular disagreement comes over the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which the UK chose to embrace. The U.S. has been leading a global effort to reject the company and Chinese 5G for fear of the security risks and possible interference that come with Huawei’s proliferation outside of China. Despite these difficulties, the U.S. and UK still remain committed partners, and recent spats between Johnson and Trump should not be taken as indicative of the full extent of their relationship. 

In France, Trump and French President Emanuel Macron have publicly fought about European involvement in NATO and economic sanctions from Europe. At last year’s 70th anniversary of the organization, Macron blasted it for experiencing a “brain death,” a statement which Trump and other leaders were quick to criticize. Trump has also ridiculed the French president for the weeks of protest in France over a proposed gas tax and pension reforms that the government has struggled to contain. A more recent exchange concerned the possibility of a French tax on U.S. tech, which President Trump assured would be met with tariffs on French imports.

In Germany, the relationship between President Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel has been consistently rocky, starting with his attacks on her during his 2016 campaign. Since then, the two have had several disputes and with Merkel’s plan to step down from her position in the near future, it seems it may stay that way. Trump has some of the lowest favorability ratings in Germany, at only 13%. Public criticisms of Germany’s military spending and the country’s refusal to follow the U.S. in rejecting Huawei have strained this relationship even further in recent months. 

In Eurasia, Russian President Vladamir Putin and President Trump seemed to enjoy warm relations after the 2016 election, which saw Russian meddling in an effort to put Trump into office. Despite this and some early signs of cordiality, the relationship has mellowed and even though the two leaders talk on the phone with some frequency, as they did in late December of last year, the Russo-American dynamic remains tense. Trump has instituted new sanctions on Russia and condemned the actions of the Russian military in Syria. These political maneuvers have played out in the background of the Mueller investigation that questioned the role of Russian influence in the Trump administration. 

The Middle East

In the Middle East, Trump has some of his staunchest supporters and his most vehement enemies. Through his actions in the region, the President has changed existing dynamics and sought to carve out a legacy for himself. This is most visible in  Israel 

In Israel, President Trump enjoys some of his highest global approval ratings, and his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one that seems to be steadily improving. The latest development of this was the announcement of a plan for comprehensive peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict that put Trump front and center and allowed Netanyahu to tout his close ties with the U.S. Trump also relocated the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as a sign of recognition of the city as the capital in the eyes of Israelites. While good relations between the U.S. and Israel are nothing new, the personal dynamic between Trump and Netanyahu is strong and seems to be improving.

In January of 2020, the Trump Administration assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleiman at Baghdad International Airport. This move set off a chain of events that saw Iran and the U.S. come dangerously close to open conflict, and attack on US soldiers stationed in Iraq, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khameni calling President Trump a “clown”. This exchange is only the latest in the fraught U.S.-Iranian relations that have degraded substantially since President Obama and his work on the Iranian nuclear deal. It is hard to imagine a scenario where President Trump changes his hardline stance towards Iran and we see a thawing of tension between the two powers.

Besides Israel, the center of President Trump’s Middle East policy revolves around his support of  Saudi Arabia. After the Suadi government was accused and eventually admitted to the killing of  journalist NAME, Trump criticized the government but stopped short of any sanctions of repercussions for the country, instead choosing to remain allied for strategic and economic reasons. When bipartisan Congressional bills to punish Saudi Arabia were introduced and passed (were they passed?), President Trump blocked these in an effort to preserve the relationship with the country. In a region that rarely sees many constants in terms of U.S. foreign policy, President Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia seems to be unwavering.

Africa 

To the Trump administration, Africa only matters as another arena in which to counter the encroaching movements of China and Russia. When then-National Security Advisor John Bolton rolled out the Africa strategy in December of 2018 a little over a year ago, he addressed the three prongs of America’s new approach: prosperity, security, and stability. However, the policy was largely received by the American foreign policy community as a foot in the door to keep China from edging out American influence within those three areas. 

Prosper Africa, a new initiative addressing African and American prosperity, will bring $50 million dollars in technological aid to companies seeking to invest in Africa, as well as synchronize 15 government agencies including the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Small Business Administration to expedite the process and maintain engagement on both sides of the Atlantic. It seeks to reverse the significant decline of America’s economic influence within the continent through a permanent framework to invest and better engage with African companies. Since 2014, American exports to Africa have dropped at least a third, and trade with China, India, and France is making up for America’s drawback from the continent with loans and contracts worth millions of dollars. The Trump administration understands that unless they make a move fast, American companies will be cut out of the $6.7 trillion consumer and business spending in Africa by 2030

But Prosper Africa’s programming is not nearly on the scale at which other nations are engaging African nations. The European Union has already signed Economic Partnership Agreements with 41 African nations, and has even begun discussions around a new free trade deal between the two continents. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) previously enabled African nations to export goods into the U.S. with minimal trade barriers, but that relationship is set to expire in 2025 with no replacement in sight. President Trump has accelerateda draft Free Trade Agreementbetween the U.S. and Kenya that might set a precedent for other African nations to engage with the U.S. 

But efforts will have to ramp up significantly if Trump wants to see American businesses become truly competitive in a country severely in need of more and even long term investment. While China and other nations are willing to provide those funds without strings attached, American governments have historically struggled to maintain consistent foreign policies because of term limits and other accountability measures.

While able to maneuver the administration into leveraging Africa’s economic potential, Trump has not just ignored but also insulted the political standing of his African counterparts. He has yet to make a single state visit to an African nation. He spent a year and a half before appointing a new ambassador to South Africa. He curbed immigration from Nigeria and blithely made remarks about a country called “Nambia.” Abrupt changes in administrative staff contributing to the Africa portfolio, including the firing of John Bolton himself, has fomented political uncertainty on both sides of the relationship.  Alternatively, USAID and the State Department continue to make slow progress in their long term relationships with Africa, including USAID administrator Mark Green’s Private Sector Engagement Strategy, which aims to consolidate USAID resources to continue investing in African private enterprises.

Latin America 

In Latin America, trade continues to dominate the narrative between the relationship with Mexico and Canada. The US-Mexico-Canada trade deal is considered one of Trump’s foriegn policy victories. Likely to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement once Canada signs on, the USMCA will encourage the domestic production of cars as well as impose new regulations across all three nations. 

However, in general, political inconsistency has largely eroded trust in Trump’s ability to navigate the shaky politics of the region. Immigration has been another key policy in the Trump stance towards Latin American countries, but is severely undermined by institutions at home. His Remain in Mexico policy, which pushed asylum seekers back over the border with Mexico as their requests were being processed, has recently been overturned by a federal court. However, the widening rifts between the American judiciary and the White House has created a human rights and humanitarian disaster largely renounced by non-governmental organizations. 

Trump has also failed to bring U.S. assurance to the table to protect millions of citizens who are negatively impacted by turmoil at home. In Chile and Venezuela, where regimes are cracking down amidst large popular revolt, American influence has teetered between continuing to support protesters like Venezuelan President Maduro and allowing regimes to continue trending towards dictatorial policies. 

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