Why Trump’s foreign policy is dangerous

Trump’s defiance of orthodox US foreign policy isn’t dangerous. Rather it’s his failure to form a coherent alternative.

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a public speech in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument at Krasinski Square, in Warsaw, Poland
Trump's policies could prove more counterproductively confrontational than George W Bush's, writes Mann Leverett [Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

America’s political class is increasingly mobilised against much of President Donald Trump‘s foreign policy – and how Trump’s administration appears to make policy. Establishment voices exhort Trump to mitigate “instability” in his decision-making with staffed-up processes that recognise the “significant measure of predictability” required of the “leader of the free world“. But such process-focused exhortations say more about their authors’ ossified outlooks than about what is genuinely unique – and dangerous – in Trump’s approach. 

Parts of Trump’s strategy have grown more conventional over his first half-year in office. But the unconventionality that still shapes much of his global posture is not a product of “irregular” process. It is a function of ideas that Trump campaigned on and took to the White House, with “America First” advisers like Steve Bannon who helped shape Trump’s presidential quest.

Those chastising Trump’s deviations from process norms miss the potency of his ideas – something his opponents did to their peril throughout last year’s primaries and general election.  

Defying US global dominance as foreign policy direction

Trump’s campaign reflected views he had long-held on US “leadership,” free trade’s downsides, and the real threats to American security. While his opponents embraced establishment orthodoxy that America must keep pursuing global dominance, Trump questioned whether such “leadership” really serves US interests. He appeared dubious about long-term allies – indeed, downright sceptical about America’s seemingly unconditional security ties to them – and more comfortable than most US elites with elements of classical balance-of-power thinking, including great power concerts and spheres of influence. 

Economically, Trump stressed job losses from “unfair” trade practices and “stupid” US policies; as president, he claims to prioritise returning jobs to (largely pro-Trump) communities by reducing America’s biggest bilateral trade deficits(with China, Mexico, and allies like Germany, Japan, and South Korea). From this vantage, leading a liberal international order – precisely what the establishment implores him to do – actually prevents America from doing what Trump deems essential for economic renewal.

He wants to leverage access to the US market – and US security guarantees to allies – to elicit bilateral economic concessions. Trump simultaneously advocates a hard line against forces – like “radical Islam” and undocumented immigration – that, in his view, directly threaten Americans’ security and identity.

Trump’s budget embodies these views. Boosting military spending underscores his pledge to combat “real” threats with overwhelming force. It also backs his interest in commercialising US military capabilities as tools to extract concessions from foreign partners. Cutting spending on other aspects of foreign operations helps Trump divest from what he considers unprofitable aspects of global “leadership” – (double-standard) human rights, (destabilising) democracy promotion, and (money-guzzling) nation-building. Trump’s “failure” to fill sub-cabinet posts is similarly purposeful: He leaves many positions empty to divest from policies he disdains and limit congressional oversight.  

Trump is failing to produce coherent alternative policy

Trump’s critics bemoan these trends. But why should Trump – or future presidents – staff up for Washington’s next self-damaging war of hegemonic regime change, given America’s serial failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria? This is not meant to defend Trump. I, too, consider him dangerous. He is dangerous, though, not for challenging establishment orthodoxy but because he cannot translate his best campaign themes into coherent policy, grounded in new strategy. 

Trump cannot do this partly because his own rendering of these themes is often incoherent. One pre-inaugural study notes how he “could, in the same speech, denounce regime change, military occupation and nation-building” in the Middle East “while insisting that the US should ‘keep the oil’ in Iraq and Libya after intervening there.”

Then there is the influence of actors in Trump’s administration who remain committed to more conventional policies, especially America’s continued pursuit of hegemony through global “leadership”. These include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Adviser HR McMaster. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is a “swing” player, siding sometimes with establishment forces, sometimes with “America Firsters”.  

One sees how these factors distort policy by examining Trump’s evolving posture towards the Middle East, Asia, and Russia. Trump’s interest in showing domestic audiences that, unlike President Barack Obama, he will command Muslims to fight an amorphous “radical Islam” by turning on fellow Muslims is producing truly perverse outcomes. These include worsening US-Iranian relations when America, for its own interests, needs more productive ties with Tehran.

They also include Trump’s backing for Saudi-led efforts to coerce Qatar into surrendering its sovereignty to Riyadh. The Pentagon and Department of State have tried to pull Trump back from aligning one-sidedly with Riyadh. Trump has undercut their exertions, because a “balanced” stance doesn’t let him claim to be whipping America’s Arab allies into line. If Trump takes this to the extreme, he will push America into yet another self-damaging quest for regime change.

From early in his presidency, Trump’s interest in using economic and security levers to redefine relations with Asian partners has been interlinked with North Korea‘s nuclear and missile development. Pyongyang’s weapons tests have given Trump openings to “reassure” Japan and South Korea of US security commitments – including by deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.

Trump wants to exploit this reassurance to renegotiate terms for these countries’ economic and security ties to the US; as he told South Koreans in April interviews, THAAD units he sent to defend them cost $1bn – money America expects in return. But building up US military assets in Asia without addressing Pyongyang’s security needs through serious diplomacy will only accelerate its continued nuclear/missile development. 

Trump likewise sees North Korean tests as openings to press China by expanding America’s Asian military posture. Trump said that, if Beijing does not help “solve” the North Korea problem in line with US preferences, America will solve it unilaterally. This won’t get Beijing to squeeze Pyongyang as hard as Trump wants. But growing America’s military presence in Asia, without serious multilateral discussions on a reunified Korean state that would be denuclearised and strategically neutral, will escalate Sino-US tensions. 

On Russia, establishment framing of Trump’s initial meeting this week with President Vladimir Putin in terms of whether Trump put his finger to Putin’s chest miss what US-Russian cooperation could accomplish. The two leaders’ agreement on further “deconfliction” measures in Syria suggests Trump still has some of the interest-based impulses he displayed as a candidate. But efforts to “normalise” his policies risk barring him from forging productive ties to difficult yet capable players like Russia and Iran – limiting him to increasingly dysfunctional co-dependencies with “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Israel.  

Trump claims to understand the costs to America’s power of its bipartisan drive for post-Cold War hegemony. But his policies could prove more counterproductively confrontational than George W Bush’s. 

Hillary Mann Leverett is the CEO of the political risk consultancy, STRATEGA. She served on the US National Security Council and State Department under Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush. She is co-author of Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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