Perhaps the biggest amount of collateral damage from his playing to the “base” has been Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Which is a shame because in theory it was the most original aspect of his administration. But as he has hit pothole after pothole on immigration and race, Trump has seen his vision of an independent foreign policy distorted by hawks such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.
Indeed, they brazenly ignore Trump’s often wise cautions concerning intervention. Trump’s quip that Bolton wanted “war with the whole world” was astute and on point. Forget the negotiations with North Korea — no sooner than Trump marvels at a letter sent by Kim Jong Un, the United States participates in military maneuvers with South Korea. No detente there and increased tensions arise as a result. Even Trump’s approach to Iran is disrupted by Boltonian saber rattling.
It can be said that the president has better instincts than his two advisors. In Yemen, U.S. policy has been so confused that two supposed allies, the Saudi Arabians and the Emiratis, fight each other on the streets of Aden. Bolton has also managed to make Iran look like a victim, no mean feat. Now France negotiates independently with Tehran, German seems to be following behind. Meanwhile Turkey, despite its government’s fondness for Trump, is still being threatened with sanctions.
Although, at present, Trump does not appear a very sympathetic figure, he deserves some points. With scheming advisors nixing his initiatives, Trump is denied success in those very areas in which he reads the situation well. He has smartly refused to enter the Hong Kong dispute, yet the American consulate stirs up trouble. No country can function with two foreign policies simultaneously executed. But with Bolton and Pompeo, they seem to be content with disobeying the president.
And, he could do a better job. Trump’s non-interventionist instincts are sound. He denounced the joint military exercises with South Korea as a “waste of money,” and he is correct. In the Philippines, he courted the government of Rodrigo Duterte only to be undercut by his advisors, and the sanctions happy Congress acting uncharacteristically bipartisan. Now the Chinese tech giant Huawei is getting a big deal with the Duterte government. Trump saw that possibility, tried to prevent it, got undercut at home, and as a result, China won and the United States lost.
With Republicans, they have a habit of encouraging Trump’s worst instincts while blatantly discouraging his best ideas. Despite his thumb, Trump is at base a man of peace on international affairs. Mainline Democrats and Republicans both agree on an aggressive foreign policy based on a nation of moral superiority. Trump’s approach is based on concrete proposals, not ideological presumptions.
Trump’s personal actions are the most enlightened on foreign policy since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger promoted detente in the seventies. But, like Nixon, Trump cannot restrain his temperament and he constantly “gives his enemies a sword,” which is a shame for his foreign policy, because Trump had constructive ideas.