Trump’s foreign policy: Follow the money

Making money has been the guiding principle of Trump’s foreign policy decisions.

Trump tower Manila
Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump pose with local developer Jose Antonio during a press conference on the launching of Manila's Trump Tower project worth $150m on June 26, 2012 [AP Photo/Pat Roque]

US President Donald Trump began his term by banning refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries and pushing forward with plans to build a wall between the US and Mexico. The promise of new isolationist foreign policy prompted praise from his base for his commitment to “putting America first”.

Then, in what seemed to be an about-face, he ordered a unilateral attack on an Assad regime airbase in Syria, followed by aggressive talk about attacking North Korea – two moves that disappointed many supporters. 

Since he took office, analysts have been scrambling to explain his foreign policy: some have decided it is a renewal of the Monroe Doctrine, while others say it abandons the Monroe doctrine and gives China new leverage in the western hemisphere. Still others say it is too premature to try to pin down Trump’s foreign policy doctrine in “a fluid world”.

Quite honestly, the “Trump doctrine” does not deserve so much thought and analysis – it is way simpler than that. Trump has consistently sought to make his foreign policy about business and his ego, nothing more and nothing less. Countries that have business to offer get his special attention. 

The only ‘bad’ Muslims are the ones with nothing to offer

Trump made many negative comments about Muslims and the Middle East long before he became president, from saying he would consider closing mosques in the US to claiming that if the US had taken the oil from Iraq after its invasion, “you wouldn’t have ISIS” (referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Early on he promised a “Muslim ban” and he delivered on his promise – issuing not one, but three “bans”.

The latest iteration of these “bans” includes a line-up of countries that are either war-torn, or antagonistic, or both: Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and bizarrely, Chad. The last state had the “audacity” to be involved in a tax dispute with Exxon Mobil, the former employer of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. All of these countries have nothing to offer in terms of business right now and are easily “banable”. 

Trump’s negative comments about Muslims and his Muslim “bans”, however, have not prevented him from doing business with some other Muslim countries. Take Saudi Arabia, for example. 

“Saudi Arabia […] I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much,” Trump said during a campaign rally in 2015. In the 1990s, Trump was bailed out by one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men, Alwaleed bin Talal (who is currently held in Riyadh). Before taking office, Trump registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia.

Unsurprisingly then, Riyadh was the first capital that he visited on his first international trip as a president. He boasted about his success in courting Saudi investment and signing deals worth $350bn.

Meanwhile, it became clear that the Saudis had been courting him as well. Prior Saudi lobbying efforts directly benefited the Trump International Hotel in Washington, to the tune of $270,000 spent there on accommodations and food over four months, by a Saudi-retained lobbying group. Although the Trump administration has promised to donate “all profits from foreign government payments to his hotels to the United States Treasury”, no funds have been transferred yet.

Trump also has two ongoing projects in the UAE, Saudi’s close ally. One Trump-branded golf course already opened in Dubai and another is currently being built. In May, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, visited the Emirates to discuss more business prospects. 

Interestingly enough, it was Emirati lobbying which got Sudan off the “Muslim ban” list. Khartoum has no business to offer, but it has been sending its soldiers to fight in Yemen on the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Akoya by Damac Trump International Golf Club in Dubai was opened in February 2017 [Getty Images/Francois Nel]
The Akoya by Damac Trump International Golf Club in Dubai was opened in February 2017 [Getty Images/Francois Nel]

Trump has been tweeting in support of Saudi domestic and foreign policies (which are backed by the UAE). He has even tweeted in support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic purge.

That was just two days after he implored in another tweet: “Would very much appreciate Saudi Arabia doing their IPO of Aramco with the New York Stock Exchange. Important to the United States!” This request was strange for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it ignored another US bid for listing the IPO – Nasdaq Inc – and bordered on endorsement of one US entity over another, which is a violation of the US Code of Federal Regulations prohibiting such behaviour by public officials.

Trump and his family have had other business interests in the Gulf as well. Jared Kushner, one of Trump’s senior advisors and his son-in-law, approached Qatar for a bailout prior to the escalation of the problems between Doha and Riyadh.

Then, there’s Turkey. On November 6, after a month of suspended visa activities on both sides, the US mission in Turkey quietly went back to issuing US visas, albeit in a limited mode. Given that the Trump organisation (currently being run by his sons) has properties in Turkey, and there are Turkish business interests in some of its projects in the US, such a visa ban could not continue without economic ramifications for both sides.

In another Muslim country, Afghanistan, the Trump administration is considering a policy of privatising the continuing war there. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who is now pushing for the privatisation of Afghanistan operations, represented Trump as an “unofficial envoy” in a meeting with a Putin representative sometime in January, presenting yet another potential economic conflict of interest.

Business friends in Israel, Russia, and China

Trump has kept his promise on the border wall too, well at least partially – Mexico is still not paying for it, but the project is going forward. Last year, upon the announcement of his victory, the stocks of Magal Security Systems, an Israeli security company, soared on the prospect of winning the tender for the border wall. This year, it turned out that another Israeli company, Elta North America, won a grant to produce a prototype and compete for the final project worth $25bn.

Before Trump took office, his organisation was a partner in a proposed 61-story hotel and residential tower in Tel Aviv, something he has since withdrawn from. His company’s ties to Israel date back to at least the early 2000s when his company tried to market Trump sports drinks and vodka in Israel, as well as made failed bids for land and a golf course. One of Israel’s richest families is also a top investor in businesses that belong to Jared Kushner’s family.

Before getting elected, Trump was eagerly supporting moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, paving the way for Israel to claim it as a capital. Over the past year, Trump has had to cool down his eagerness under pressure from the State Department, yet he has said that he will not do it “for now” to give a possible peace agreement “a shot”. In all other ways, his administration has been more than obliging to Israeli demands, such as the US withdrawing from UNESCO in response to its supposed “anti-Israel bias”, or shutting down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Washington for submitting files to the International Criminal Court on Israeli war crimes.


While Trump has been quite consistent in his foreign policy on Israel, Russia has been a real challenge, especially with all the political scrutiny and investigations at home. 

Over the past year, Trump has contradicted himself on Russian President Vladimir Putin countless times. His latest meeting with Putin ended with this tweet, “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship is a good thing, not a bad thing.” The real question is, however, good for whom? 

In May, Trump’s own lawyers disclosed he received over $100m in income from Russian sources over the past decade, only they spun these transactions as “exceptions”. Several of the Trump organisation’s (albeit largely unused) Russian trademarks were also renewed on election day last year. While campaigning for the presidential elections, his organisation was also pursuing a real estate deal in Moscow. 

As a candidate, Trump made conflicting statements on China as well, accusing it of “theft” against the US, then praising its trade dealings when he visited the country in early November, citing the US as the problem. Trump left China with a number of big business deals, but little progress on that trade deficit he was attacking during his presidential campaign.

His own business interests in China have little to do with putting into practice what he has been preaching. In 2016, Trump reported at least nine businesses registered in China; he also has around 100 trade marks registered in China, allowing his organisation to sell Trump-branded products there. A number of Trump-branded items sold in the US are also made in China.

Protesters hold a brief picket at the Trump Tower hours after Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on January 21, 2017 in Manila, Philippines [AP/Bullit Marquez]
Protesters hold a brief picket at the Trump Tower hours after Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on January 21, 2017 in Manila, Philippines [AP/Bullit Marquez]

Conflict of interest followed him on his visit to the Philippines as well. At least 10,000 Filipinos in the US could possibly face deportation should the Trump administration proceed with one of its anti-immigration policies, but that didn’t stop the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, and Trump from a mutual profession of love. Of course, despite Duterte’s abysmal human rights record (or maybe because of it), Trump found it necessary to mention that the two enjoyed a great relationship. Interestingly enough, Trump’s business partner in the Philippines, Jose Antonio, has been appointed as the country’s special envoy on trade to the US. Antonio has built a tower with the Trump brand in Manila.

While courting strongmen around the world, Trump seems to have forgotten about a whole continent. For months, observers waited for the Trump administration to release anything that could point to what its policies towards Africa would be, but to no avail. In October, Nikki Hailey went on a short trip to Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, but US policies on Africa remain murky. Perhaps that is because Trump has no business there, save for two companies in South Africa.

The US president hasn’t even held office for an entire year, yet it’s safe to say “legacy”, which usually holds positive connotations, won’t be a defining feature of his foreign policy. It is also important to remember that this is not new. Rather, it is the continuation of a pattern: US foreign policy under both previous presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush, has been disastrous on many fronts, to put it mildly. The difference with Trump is the guiding principle: it’s not just about the “war on terror,” anymore, now the primary consideration is Trump’s personal ventures, with the never-ending war a close second.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.