Grading Trump’s Foreign Policy: Speak Loudly But (Mostly) Stay Obama’s Course

Tyler Grant | Lawyer

Last week, President Donald Trump renewed his campaign vow to uphold an ‘America first’ national security policy. This commitment was oft repeated on the campaign trail as a foreign policy that “will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first. Has to be.”

On the heels of his speech and nearly a year into his presidency, it is time to take the temperature of and grade the president’s foreign policy.

At the outset, it must be noted that this is a provisional grade. Assigning a grade to a president’s foreign policy during their term can be difficult because foreign policy is analogous to turning in a lot of assignments all at once and a professor giving a cursory look and grade.

Based upon what we have seen so far into the Trump presidency, Trump has earned a solid C+.

Trump foreign policy has been a combination of intelligent foreign policy moves with a simultaneous lacking in some of his public statements. This perhaps may be best characterized as Trump’s speaking loudly and mostly staying the course policy. For the most part, he has kept true to the foreign policy of past presidencies. Largely what critics feared about Trump’s foreign policy has proven to be incorrect. Trump tweets to a fault, picks and engages in petty fights with congressman and celebrities, but the bombastic warnings that Trump would lead the United States into nuclear winter is, as of my writing, a falsehood. In fact, the Trump administration has had some landmark accomplishments and then a mixed bag of partial successes and disappointments.

Trump foreign policy highlights have come when Trump acts decisively.

Trump on ISIS: A-

President Trump ramped up the Obama policy towards ISIS achieving near victory in taking down the terrorist group.  The U.S. military has all but exterminated ISIS. A U.S.-led operation in October destroyed the last major stronghold of ISIS forces in the city of Raqqa, leaving forces scattered and without any unified fighting force. This is not all Trump, but the president has given the tools to allow the military to do their job.

Trump on Israel: A

President Trump formally moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama all made this same campaign promise, but President Trump is the first president to put the move into motion. Though there was some domestic and international outrage, largely due to the false presumption that somehow the threat of Palestinian terrorism justifies upholding a ridiculous status quo. The move denotes formally what has informally been known that Israel is our principal ally in the region. The president also receives bonus points for taking the reins off U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley who said before the U.N. General Assembly: “America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do, and it is the right thing to do. No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that.”

Trump on Rivals: B+

The president has also spoken boldly to our rivals and enemies. President Trump’s first international trip was to Saudi Arabia where he called on the Muslim world “every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith… Drive. Them. Out.” This is an about face from the equivocating language used by President Bush and President Obama when addressing the Muslim world. The President also made waves at the Kremlin during his Poland visit when he urged “Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran.” When scripted, he hasn’t been afraid to call out rivals when in the national interest.

Other aspects of his presidency receive mixed or negative marks.

Trump on China: C

President Trump has maintained the status quo with China while waffling with our ally Taiwan. After his electoral victory, President-elect Trump fielded a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Foreign policy experts decried as a breach of decades of U.S.-China relations. But as I mentioned in The Hill last October, this was a wild overreaction to the president putting informal action to a sociopolitical reality. Though unintentional, Trump apologized to China for the call and restated the United States’ commitment to the “One China” policy whereby the United States recognizes there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.

Since he assumed office, Trump has had two successful visits with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In April, President Trump hosted the Chinese president at his Mar-a-Lago home and President Trump made a state visit to Beijing in November. It’s important not to understate the significance of successful visits given how aggressively and negatively Trump spoke of China during the campaign.

Trump’s grade on China is especially provisional in light of a recent diplomatic snag. This December, Chinese official Li Kexin warned the U.S. that “the day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force.” As Jerry Hendrix in National Review points out, this threat is unprecedented:

“The United States Navy has made port calls in Taiwan, and it also directly challenges U.S. law in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which unequivocally states that the United States will ‘consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.’”

While Li Kexin’s language seems reminiscent of China’s perpetual need to uphold appearances of strength for their people rather than sounding the drums of war. Overall, all indications, for now, suggest our relationship with China is stable, despite some initial missteps.

Trump on Syria: C

Another area of mixed review is the Trump administration’s handling of Syria. In 2013, Donald Trump pleaded with President Obama not to fire on Syria. Over the next three years, Trump’s position on Syria based on his Tweets oscillated between indignation that Obama lacked concern for the Syrian people by not sending assistance and calling for the U.S. to remain out of Syria as part of his “America First’ mindset. President Obama came under criticism for warning the Syrians that use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for U.S. intervention only for a 2013 Syrian chemical attack to be met with no U.S. action. Donald Trump, during the campaign, repeatedly dogged President Obama for failing to act on his ‘red-line’ promise. By contrast, President Trump, in the infancy of his presidency, did not hesitate to fire cruise missiles into Syria after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons on his own people. Despite some campaign promises to the contrary, the U.S. still has troops on the ground in Syria as the civil war continues to the appreciation of many in the international community but perhaps to the chagrin of many “America First” Trump supporters.

Trump on Foreign Policy Twitter: C-

Thirdly, the president’s tweets and public comments have stressed relationships with our allies. Trump’s retweet of a far-right Britain First propaganda video as well as a tweet criticizing U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May have led to a somewhat tense relationship. The president also drew criticism for a tense phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull; later, Prime Minister Turnbull apologized for a leaked video of him mocking the president at an event similar to the White House correspondent’s dinner. The presidents of both Canada and France have both been amicable, but chilly with the president during state visits.

Despite these issues, President Trump has made marked improvement in U.S.-Russia relations (Lefties, please refrain from premature accusations). The president has boasted of better communication with Russia, noting a recent example of the CIA sharing information with Russian President Vladimir Putin to foil a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.

Trump on North Korea: F

Still uncertain and bordering on the nerve-wracking is President Trump’s treatment of North Korea. Early on, President Trump secured the release of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier signaling perhaps the Trump administration’s ability to negotiate with the North Korea. However, relations have only crumbled as the president exchanges insults with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un calling him “little rocket man” on occasion. North Korea has disregarded the will of the international community with repeated nuclear weapons tests. Trump has been cautious about drawing a red line with North Korea because as many experts can attest, there isn’t a clear answer for what should be done if the North Koreans cross it.

Overall Trump foreign policy: C+

Upon election, the State Department and international community was nervous about an outsider assuming the reigns of American foreign policy. Donald Trump’s rhetoric carried all the bravado and hubris of a knight heading to slay the Washington establishment and reorder America’s standing in the international community. Foreign policy experts worried he could upend established relationships with our allies; the more extreme feared he could lead the U.S. into nuclear war with North Korea.

President Trump has been neither extreme, nor simply maintained the status quo. For now, President Trump’s foreign policy has improved our relationships with allies like Israel and rivals like Russia while weakening relationships with the U.K. among others. The president has fulfilled campaign promises and waffled on others.

For now, Trump doesn’t deserve complete “MAGA, MAGA, MAGA” praise, nor the scorn of those who thought he would completely undermine the world order careening the U.S. towards certain nuclear war. Rather, President Trump has paved a familiar path to traditional American foreign policy with a few noted flourishes and failings to boot.

Tyler Grant is a lawyer in New York. He is a graduate of University of Virginia School of Law and Washington and Lee University.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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