COMMENTARY: Trump foreign policy shaky after year in office

In December, I administered the final exam in my Fall 2017 American Foreign Policy (AFP) class, an open-book essay which focused on views about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy record after one year in office.

Of the seven students in the class, six had negative comments about the Trump administration’s performance in this area, while one students discussed it in a positive vein. While the percentage of support/opposition may be a little different than the general population, there is certainly overlap, and therefore some cause for alarm.

For one, the Trump White House has taken a dim view of diplomacy as a tool of American foreign policy. From failing to fill hundreds of diplomatic posts at the State Department to contradicting the pronouncements of the Secretary of State, the Trump team seems more comfortable bullying and threatening than solving international dilemmas.

This approach has naturally alienated previously close allies of the United States, including Britain and Germany. As part of its approach to the world, the Trump White House announced cancellation of a plethora of international agreements, including the Paris climate change accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Meanwhile, the renewed scrutiny of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico has angered the latter nations. Finally, the Trump team has penalized the entire United Nations by radically reducing America’s financial contribution to its operation.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The nuclear weapons policy of the Trump administration has caused both fear and confusion at home and abroad. Initially, the Trump White House announced its plan to rework the Iran nuclear agreement, only to waver back and forth since. While the president and many in his administration have talked tough toward North Korea, their actions have been nil, and Kim Jong Un continues to test ballistic missiles and frighten allies like Japan in doing so. Ironically, amid American talk about actually employing nuclear weapons, a group advocating for their demise was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Regarding relations with Russia and China, President Trump appears to be taking a page from the Richard Nixon playbook, one which practices a superpower-oriented policy.

However, Trump lacks Nixon’s strategic world view and is operating in a much different environment than that in the early 1970s. Where there is an opportunity to cooperate — on issues such as terrorism — there is very little communication. Meanwhile, the United States has taken a back seat to Russia in the Syrian conflict and has just lost two dozen double agents in China, a serious blow to intelligence efforts there.

On the military side, the Trump team should be given credit for stabilizing our post 9-11 policy in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But in other areas, there are questions about U.S. policy and intentions. After President Trump took quick action to punish Syria for deploying chemical weapons during Winter 2017, the administration backtracked on its goal of assisting others in stemming the aforementioned conflict.

Conversely, the specter of U.S. servicemen being killed in Niger and Yemen has led to criticism of why and how the American military is involved there.

The recently released National Security Policy document looks like a rehashing of several previous similar plans.

Even before Donald Trump took office as America’s 45th president, he was critical of the intelligence community, from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on down. Some speculate that the reason may have been the latter group’s confirmation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Whatever the reason, the early falling-out between President-elect Trump and the CIA has continued over Trump’s first year in office. Not only has this led to a decline in morale at the agency, but it has led to undeserved doubts about the ability of U.S. intelligence organizations.

Back to my AFP students: the supporter of Trump’s first year foreign policy mentioned that he followed through on his campaign promises in this milieu.

One case where that is true is with the announcement that the United States approves the moving of Israel’s capital to Jerusalem. Granted, Trump did advocate for that change during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The fact that he went ahead with the move has led to an angry reaction by Palestinian authorities and much of the Arab region. On its face, this change in policy could lead to an increase in terrorist actions aimed at the United States. While the Trump supporter likewise asserted that the president has augmented feelings of patriotism among Americans for his foreign policy, an opponent of the Trump foreign policy accused the president of acting paternally toward other nations.

Almost all of the AFP students who opposed Trump’s maiden year foreign policy moves labeled him unpredictable. While that feature may be of benefit for some policies and for a short duration, it cannot be sustained as a permanent strategy without ignoring history, tradition, and the need to coordinate certain items with allies.

Overall, Trump must stop perpetuating division and discord in an area which has previously been defined by bipartisanship and cohesion.

In short, the foreign policy field is no place for on-the-job-training. It’s time for Trump to take charge and start utilizing all the tools of American foreign policy for the benefit and protection of the entire nation, not a segment of it. Only then will President Trump’s sophomore season in office improve on his shaky rookie year.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History, Political Science, and Philosophy and Law Studies Program Director at Delaware State University. He is a past recipient of a fellowship from the National Security Law division of the University of Virginia. Dr. Hoff teaches and publishes extensively on military, national security, and intelligence issues.

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