How Donald Trump shook up US foreign policy

Four years in office saw withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal, Israeli-Arab normalisation agreements, and threats to NATO.

President Donald Trump was critical of several US alliances while pursuing an 'America First' foreign policy agenda [File: Francisco Seco/The Associated Press]

President Donald Trump laid out his vision for an “America First” foreign policy during his inaugural speech on the steps of the US Capitol on January 20, 2017.

“From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” he vowed.

“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” he said.

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” he added.

Four years later, critics say Trump leaves a scattershot legacy that despite some breakthroughs, has left international organisations weakened and the US increasingly isolated from its closest allies as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on Wednesday.

“America first, but really America alone,” Joel Rubin, the deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under President Barack Obama and policy volunteer on the Biden campaign, told Al Jazeera.

Here are key points in Trump’s foreign policy.

Withdrawal from Paris Agreement on climate change

On June 1, 2017, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, a 196-country agreement signed in December 2015 that aimed to limit global average temperature rise to two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial averages.

In Trump’s decision, the US became one of the largest major carbon emitters to eschew the agreement, which requires countries to set standards to reduce emissions and regularly report on their progress.

In his speech, Trump said the agreement disadvantages the United States to “the exclusive benefit of other countries” and leaves US workers and taxpayers “to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production”.

Due to the provisions of the agreement, the US withdrawal, which also reduced overall funding of the Green Climate fund, only went into effect on November 4, a day after the presidential election.

Biden has said he will rejoin the agreement on his first day in office.

Threats to leave NATO

As a candidate in 2016, Trump regularly targeted the 30-country North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance created in the wake of World War II as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and later Russian expansionism in Europe.

While Trump, after taking office, said he would honour the alliance, he reportedly explored withdrawing in 2018, prompting action from Congress.

Trump has maintained a contentious relationship with German leader Angela Merkel, long considered a key US ally, surprising her and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by withdrawing and reshuffling US troops from Germany in June 2020. Critics say the move has left NATO weakened against Russia.

Trump’s abrupt November 2020 announcement of a troop drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, where NATO service members train local forces, also unsettled countries in the alliance, who had not been consulted in the plan.

Trump maintained that the US was overpaying in its direct contributions to the military alliance, while European powers were “delinquent” in paying their fair share – a claim that has been debunked as a mischaracterisation.

Trump also took credit for a rise in defence spending from NATO members during his presidency, despite that increase being pledged in 2014.

Biden has vowed to restore and expand NATO.

Trade war with China

Trump campaigned on promises to revive the nation’s manufacturing sector by punishing trade practices he described as “unfair”.

Starting in 2018, his administration unleashed three separate rounds of tariff actions. The first two targeted all major US trading partners by slapping tariffs on imports of solar panels and washing machines, then steel and aluminium.

The third and largest round was aimed at the US’s largest competitor and the world’s second-largest economy: China.

The Trump administration has since slapped tariffs on hundreds of billions dollars worth of Chinese goods, blacklisted Chinese tech companies and tried to strong-arm allies into barring Chinese telecom giant Huawei from their 5G network buildouts.

The administration has even tried to ban the social media site TikTok in the US.


Beijing has responded by slapping punitive levies on US goods, with both economies harmed in the process.

Meanwhile, the justification for Trump’s trade wars – reviving US manufacturing – has not materialised. What was a healthy manufacturing landscape during Trump’s first year in office started to turn sour in 2018, when factory output began to decline and employment in the sector stalled.

Unwinding Trump’s policies without being seen as going soft on China will arguably be one of Biden’s toughest challenges. The president-elect has vowed to take a hard line with Beijing, but it is unclear if he will continue Trump’s tariff-heavy approach.

Biden has also slammed Trump’s unilateral strategy, saying he would seek to work with US allies and within multilateral institutions to increase pressure on Beijing.

Israel-Arab states normalisation agreements

Trump proved a willing partner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, long considered the home of a future Palestinian state, in May of 2018, and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights in March 2019.

The relationship also included the January 2020 release of Trump’s much-maligned Middle East Plan, which recognised illegal settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank and granted Israel security control of the Jordan Valley and occupied West Bank.

The Trump administration did achieve diplomatic normalisation agreements signed between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE, and later Sudan and Morocco which were seen as part of a larger goal to grow a regional coalition against Iran.

The agreements had bipartisan support in the US, and Biden is expected to attempt to build on them.

Iran nuclear deal

In October 2017, Trump announced he would not certify Iran’s compliance in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 2015 agreement between Iran and the US, France, Germany, United Kingdom, China, Russia and the European Union that saw Tehran agree to curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, which he has said is too lenient. Despite efforts by European parties to salvage the agreement, the US has imposed a campaign of maximum pressure sanctions against Tehran.

In response, Tehran has increasingly shrugged off provisions outlined in the deal, including enriching and stockpiling uranium beyond set limits, arguing the US’s non-compliance means it is not technically in breach.

The tensions between the US and Iran have at several times threatened to escalate into a military confrontation during Trump’s presidency, particularly following the January 2020 US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani shortly after he arrived in Baghdad, Iraq.

Biden has made bringing Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal a priority, notably appointing a national security adviser and deputy secretary of state who were instrumental in negotiating the original deal.

North Korea summits

In August 2017, North Korea threatened to launch ballistic missiles near the US territory of Guam.

Trump threatened “fire and fury” if the threats continued, setting off a war of words between Trump and North Korean Kim Jong Un that often played out on social media.

The exchange resulted in three meetings between the two leaders, the first a June 2018 summit in Singapore, an abruptly ended second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019, and the third in North Korea, with Trump becoming the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea after crossing the Demilitarized Zone for the meeting.

Trump foreign policy
President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone [File: Susan Walsh/The Associated Press]

Despite early, largely unenforceable, vows to achieve “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, a more concrete deal never materialised and North Korea resumed missile testing. Pyongyang unveiled a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile in early January 2021.

Trump’s approach has split observers, with some saying the president bolstered Kim’s strength domestically. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has urged the Biden administration to build on Trump’s achievements with Kim and learn from his failures.

Troop withdrawals, Taliban deal

In his final months in office, Trump has overseen continued withdrawal of US troops from foreign countries, most recently withdrawing an estimated 700 US troops – the entire force in Somalia – by a January 15 deadline.

As of that date, the number of US troops in Afghanistan had been further reduced to 2,500, down from about 13,000 when the US in February 2020 inked a deal with the Afghan Taliban that sought to end US involvement in the South Asian nation while encouraging the armed group to begin peace talks with the Afghan government.

Intra-Afghan negotiations remain underway in Doha, Qatar, but there have been no significant breakthroughs. Critics have said the deal favours the Taliban without adequately defining their commitments.

Trump also drew down US troops by about 500 to 2,500 in Iraq by January 15.

Trump had previously, and abruptly, withdrawn several hundred US troops from northern Syria in October 2019, earning a rebuke from within his party for leaving Kurdish allies vulnerable to an advancement by the Turkish military.

‘Remain in Mexico’ and ‘safe third party’

Cracking down on undocumented immigration has been central to Trump’s campaign in his presidency, defined by expanding a costly wall along the southern border with Mexico.

The Trump administration issued the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy in January 2019, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico – often in makeshift migrant camps – for their hearings after an initial screening at the US border.

Central American exodus
Central Americans remain at a shelter near the US-Mexico border fence in Tijuana [Pedro Pardo/AFP]

The policy followed a short-lived “zero tolerance” policy that began in May 2018 and saw immigration officials separate about 2,600 children from their parents upon crossing the border.

The Trump administration also signed controversial “safe third party” agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which went into effect in 2019. The rule requires asylum seekers on their way to the US to apply for asylum in those countries if they pass through them first.

If they do not and arrive in the US, officials will send them back to those Central American countries, despite high rates of crime and a lack of economic opportunities.

Source: Al Jazeera