Why you should care
The U.S. president has used his blunt rhetoric to reshape trade deals and alliances across the globe.
Oren Cass, a former domestic policy director for Mitt Romney, hasn’t forgotten how the 2012 presidential candidate was “lambasted” by major financial publications and others at the time for suggesting the trade relationship with China wasn’t acceptable. Cut to the present, and that perception stands largely altered, though many aren’t happy with the trade war Washington has launched with Beijing to reset that equation. China hasn’t changed, but the man in the White House has. Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump, his straight talk and its influence on his foreign policy strategy are reshaping the world, according to a growing number of former officials and experts.
For decades, successive U.S. presidents have followed a set of common principles as their lodestar for diplomacy: long-term plans to further America’s strategic goals; an avowed — though selective — push for values like human rights and democracy; and a clear distinction between allies and enemies. Trump has shredded that playbook. Yet his rare transparency and frankness on the global stage are yielding surprising results that may not have been possible with the approach his predecessors followed, say many neutral analysts.
In some cases, such as in North Korea, Trump’s initial tough talk has evolved into an easing of tensions. When it comes to foreign trade deals and alliances, his criticisms of China, the North American Free Trade Agreement and NATO have reset the debate on arrangements previously considered necessary evils by establishment experts even if they had clear negatives for the United States.
What he’s doing is saying that there are all these realities we all know, but we make policy as if they are not a reality.
Mike Doran, former senior director, the National Security Council
Trump’s decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan only if Kabul and New Delhi meet a set of conditions has forced India, in particular, to invest more heavily in bringing peace to its war-torn neighbor. And in the Middle East, his willingness to eschew hand-wringing over human rights has allowed him to maintain relationships with problematic (yet tactically useful) nations such as Saudi Arabia. The end result is a scrambling of conventions that fits perfectly with the Trump brand.
“What he’s doing is saying that there are all these realities we all know, but we make policy as if they are not a reality,” says Hudson Institute fellow Mike Doran, a former senior director for the National Security Council under George W. Bush. “I think a lot of this blunt talk will be seen to have had a beneficial effect in bringing public opinion and the foreign policy elite back into sync.”
Just consider Trump’s escalation of his tariff battle with China. The president has levied $200 billion in tariffs against Beijing, demanding that it reduce its trade deficit with the U.S. and end intellectual property theft, as well as reduce its policies of closing Chinese markets to foreign producers while artificially propping up its own companies exporting worldwide. Before Trump, the nearly unanimous view from economists was that more free trade was better and that the more “cheap stuff we got, the better,” says Cass, now at the Manhattan Institute. Today, many agree that it’s not that simple.
“It’s not very good for your economy, or the wellbeing of your citizens in the long run, if you let your industrial base be hollowed out,” Cass says.
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Since the formation of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, every U.S. president has had a tense relationship with the world’s most populous nation. Trump is no different. Yet the equation he has pursued with China is fundamentally different. Bill Clinton helped China get into the World Trade Organization, while relations improved under Bush as both nations focused on counterterrorism cooperation in a post-9/11 world. Barack Obama helped limit Chinese currency manipulation and tried to pressure China from the outside through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but otherwise wasn’t willing to shed his WTO restrictions to engage in a more dramatic intervention.
But both sides were clear that U.S. efforts to integrate China into the global economic and strategic order were aimed at softly converting China from a socialist state into a mainstream democracy by gradually introducing Chinese society to Western liberal ideas and laws. That long-term strategic approach of the U.S. aimed at changing China — also evident in Obama’s military pivot to Asia, which China viewed as part of efforts to limit its rise — meant Beijing’s communist regime has always had existential concerns about Washington’s motivations.
Speaking quietly publicly while raising concerns loudly in private [under previous presidents] didn’t exactly yield strong results.
Brad Setser, former Treasury Department economist
Trump, on the other hand, has directly called out Chinese trade practices as unfair and has been unapologetic in his willingness to accept short-term pain from a trade war. Sure, with that approach, “Trump is not leaving much space for China to leave concessions without losing face,” says Brad Setser, a former economist at the Obama-era Treasury Department. But, Setser says of previous administrations, “speaking quietly publicly while raising concerns loudly in private didn’t exactly yield strong results.”
At the same time, Trump has avoided cultivating the Dalai Lama, unlike previous administrations — in October 2017 the Tibetan leader said that America is becoming more “selfish” and “nationalist” under Trump. The president was silent on human rights violations in China when he visited there last November. That distance from China’s most fundamental and emotional pain points has meant that even through the trade war, Washington and Beijing have been able to work together on negotiations with North Korea.
It was a similar long-term vision about the roles of NATO, the European Union and deals like NAFTA in strengthening the West-led world order that kept previous U.S. presidents from publicly airing grievances on low defense spending by allies or trade imbalances with them. Trump, however, has repeatedly criticized NATO over the failure of other members to increase their defense contributions, arguing that the U.S. bears a disproportionately heavy burden. He’s also imposed heavy tariffs on European cars and threatened to rip NAFTA apart.
In some cases, the impact is unclear. For instance, it isn’t evident that other NATO members are increasing defense contributions at a higher rate than they would have otherwise. In others, the consequences of Trump’s approach are clear: The renegotiated version of NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is expected to lead to more domestic car production, expanded American access to Canadian dairy markets and increased intellectual property protections.
That approach of pressuring others to take on more responsibility is also working in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military presence remains a bulwark against the Taliban and the spread of other militant outfits, many backed by Pakistan. Trump’s threat to completely withdraw troops from the country spooked New Delhi, worried about a power vacuum in Afghanistan. So when he finally announced last year that American troops would stay as long as India, the regional power, did more too, New Delhi was ready to comply. A month after Trump’s announcement, India declared it would launch 116 new economic development projects in 31 Afghan provinces. And the Taliban, which had little incentive to talk with a departing force, returned to the negotiating table with the U.S. in mid-October.
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When Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September, the headlines focused on his boast about running the most successful American administration of all time, and the laughter that statement drew from foreign diplomats. But in that speech, he made another quiet departure from the past. In eight speeches from that podium, Obama had referred to “human rights” 24 times — an average of three times per address. Trump mentioned “human rights” just once, and that was to announce the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
For many, tabling human rights concerns was perhaps the more intellectually honest strategy, considering America’s own violations in waging unilateral wars and overturning democratic regimes, from Chile to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iran. More importantly, his unsanctimonious approach arguably helped him strike a historic summit with North Korea, which could have been more difficult if Pyongyang’s human rights record had been on the agenda. It’s a fact Trump alluded to in a recent 60 Minutes interview when he all but shrugged at a journalist’s concerns over North Korea’s repression and starvation of its citizens. “Sure. I know all these things. I mean — I’m not a baby,” he said, before later commenting on his relationship with Kim Jong Un: “Let it be whatever it is to get the job done.”
He has similarly ignored Israel’s problematic treatment of those living in the Palestinian territories, choosing to fan the flames by resettling the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority. Yet that might be one way of moving the needle on a dispute that has more or less stayed stagnant for years. “Everybody knows there won’t be an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but any other administration would have launched another round of negotiations,” Doran says. “[Trump’s approach] is saying to the Palestinians: You don’t get to put a wrench into the works of me doing things that make sense to me when you won’t negotiate. This train is going to continue to move.”
That mentality has also allowed Trump to keep a strategic Middle East ally (as well as a lucrative weapons deal) in Saudi Arabia, despite the alleged role of Saudi officials in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His son Donald Trump Jr. summed up the family philosophy recently on Fox News: “We have to be honest with ourselves. As America, we face a little bit of a problem in that we don’t have all that many friends in the Middle East … You’re going to take [that relationship] and you’re going to throw all of that away?” Trump himself said he didn’t want to stop the promised Saudi investment of $110 billion (they’ve spent $14.5 billion so far) for weapons purchases from the U.S. “You know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else,” Trump said from the Oval Office when asked about Khashoggi’s murder.
Of course, almost all of these apparent diplomatic gains by Trump has a flip side. In North Korea, for example, there’s a risk that Kim Jong Un won’t comply with discussed disarmament goals. With NATO, putting pressure on member states could fracture the alliance and increasingly alienate allies with democracies whose long-term interests align with America’s. The downsides of the “new NAFTA” are evident too: The Trump steel tariffs remain in place, which could raise housing and construction costs in the U.S., and car prices could rise as well due to increased wages for laborers in auto factories. Meanwhile, his Chinese policy risks being toothless because it hasn’t actually given the Chinese enough time to respond to demands. “Just showing up one day with a 25 percent tariff is like bringing a bull into the china shop,” Cass says.
In South Asia, Trump’s open accusations about Pakistan’s support for terror groups are making Islamabad, long an ally of China’s, even more dependent on Beijing. And with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump’s turning a blind eye to human rights violations could undermine America’s moral standing and ability to intervene in future ethical crises across the globe. “I sometimes wonder how much Trump is actually concerned about those non-dollars-and-cents values,” Doran says.
But the foreign policy expert also appreciates the president’s willingness to say what nobody else will. That straight talk is “kind of refreshing in its honesty,” Doran says, “regardless of how you might feel about it in terms of morality.”