President Trump’s “Photo-Op” Foreign Policy

During an October 22nd, 1999 GOP primary debate in Durham, New Hampshire, then-presidential-candidate John McCain eviscerated the sitting Clinton administration’s international strategy, calling it “a feckless, photo-op foreign policy which may cost us in American blood and treasure.” Challenging what he regarded as a haphazard and incautious decision-making process, he stressed the importance of “a concept of what we want the world to look like, where our threats and our interests and our values lie.”

In the wake of McCain’s death, especially given the senator’s often biting criticism of President Donald Trump’s, American actions abroad are due for evaluation. Throughout the first two years of his administration, President Trump has consistently failed to craft reasonable foreign policy which serves U.S. interests, instead focusing on the appearance of power and relationship-building., owned and operated by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., claims that the president’s foreign policy achievements while in office are significant, falling under three major categories: reforming trade policy, “restoring American influence,” and North Korean policy. Yet, in each of these cases, President Trump has, at best, enacted superficial reforms and, at worst, upended significant U.S. foreign-policy precedent.

Reforming Trade Policy

Promises Kept’s various claims about President Trump’s successes in international trade policy center around four major accomplishments: his levying of tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum exports, his renegotiation with Canada and Mexico of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his efforts in convincing firms to relocate their headquarters and factories back to the United States. Experts say many of these policies may have a net negative impact.

Since President Trump’s initial threats of steel protectionism in April 2017, economists have consistently warned that tariffs would produce significant adverse effects for Americans, both consumers and producers. Thanks to the Chinese-metal tax, all industries using steel and aluminum as inputs would face increased costs of production, which they would likely pass on, at least in part, to consumers through raised prices. Additionally, the Chinese government has imposed reciprocal tariffs on many American products, including pork, soybeans, and cars, putting many American manufacturers at a deeper disadvantage. Domestic steel and aluminum producers, however, have applauded President Trump’s decision, as it allows them to better compete with Chinese firms and to reap increased profits from their existing production, but this policy’s negative impact on other economic sectors likely outweighs any benefit these American companies accrue.

After more than a year of negotiations, the United States, Mexico, and Canada finally achieved a major GOP campaign goal just hours before their September 30th deadline: the revision of the trade agreement formerly known as NAFTA, which will, in its new form, be referred to as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The USMCA will take effect in 2020, pending ratification by all three member nations’ legislative bodies, and contains meaningful updates to a system often criticized as outdated. Major provisions include loosened restrictions on the Canadian dairy market, which had been generally exclusive of American exports; increased support for Mexican organized labor; and an attempt to steer automobile production back towards the States. Most analysts believe the new agreement will benefit, or at the very least not adversely impact, the United States.

Promises Kept also highlights President Trump’s January 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a twelve-nation trade agreement. Neoliberal economists characterized this decision as having shunned an opportunity for economic growth, damaged U.S. credibility (Barack Obama’s administration had championed the agreement), and limited opportunities for involvement in other multilateral trade deals, such as the EU-Japan free trade deal. Some on the Left, however, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), applauded the withdrawal as a preventative measure against the further outsourcing of American jobs. President Trump also suggested a return to bilateral agreements, but critics noted that such pacts have historically proven cumbersome to negotiate and ratify. Nonetheless, America’s official departure from the TPP may not have much de facto impact, as the agreement’s ratification by Congress was unlikely.

Finally, the Promises Kept website cites several specific companies, including Foxconn and Toyota, claiming that President Trump’s influence led to their decisions against outsourcing jobs. While it is true that the president’s negotiation may have led to these firms’ choices to relocate factories to the United States, analysis shows that such agreements are often wildly expensive—the Foxconn deal cost the state of Wisconsin up to $230,700 per worker—and President Trump has not brokered them in significant quantities. Additionally, President Trump’s tariffs have made America a less hospitable business habitat, increasing the probability of outsourcing and the erosion of his meager gains in domestic jobs.

Restoring American Influence claims that by “ma[king] historic trips and deliver[ing] speeches abroad,” President Trump has increased American influence in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Specialists, however, say that his behavior on the international stage has been erratic and alienating. In November 2017, President Trump embarked on a 12-day, five-nation Asian tour, where, per BBC reporting, he dwelled on Sino-American trade deficits but otherwise behaved inconsistently and made little progress on human rights or democracy. July of this year saw him attend the annual NATO summit, confront fellow member nations whose defense spending he said was inadequate, and baselessly accuse Germany of subservience to Russia. Late in 2017, in a break with historic United States policy, he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, angering Muslims throughout the region and disrupting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

North Korea

Promises Kept includes a separate section specifically addressing North Korea, listing President Trump’s achievements in the nation as negotiating the release of several American political prisoners, securing UN Security Council sanctions, and building a wider coalition of states to put pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. On June 12th, 2018, President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim met in Singapore to work on Korean peninsula denuclearization in a summit which commentators from both sides of the aisle panned: Mona Charen wrote in the conservative National Review that President Trump gained nothing but vague promises of peace from Kim and eroded America’s reputation by appearing to sympathize with that dictator and notorious war-crimes perpetrator. Despite these criticisms, President Trump has continued to insist on Supreme Leader Kim’s benevolence and is said to be planning a second summit to occur in the coming weeks.

“Photo-Op” Foreign Policy?

While expert analysis concludes that President Trump’s foreign policy record as advertised on is decidedly mixed, several presidential actions which were omitted from the site have significantly impacted the international community. The first is President Trump’s wariness of refugees, evident in his capping of 2018 admissions at a historic low and withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (inopportunely timed in conjunction with heavy criticism of the administration’s border separations policy) over supposed anti-Israel bias. At a moment when other western nations, most notably Germany, are prioritizing refugee safety, President Trump’s unwillingness to let America lead on this issue is a real disappointment.

Another significant President Trump decision was his choice early this year to annul the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Though President Trump claimed the JCPOA as it stood left Israel at a disadvantage and promised to renegotiate a stronger agreement, assembling the same multilateral coalition of nations in a revised deal is unlikely. In the absence of sanctions or inspections, Iran is now free to pursue its nuclear program unimpeded. Additionally, given the political capital the Obama administration invested in the deal and the reinstitution, in November, of sanctions on Iran’s trading partners (the JCPOA never eliminated direct sanctions on Iran), many of whom are valued American allies, this withdrawal has reduced the U.S.’s trustworthiness and harmed our relationships with other nations.

The final, and perhaps most egregious oversight on President Trump’s website is his omission of any mention of Russia. This administration has been hounded almost since its very beginning by the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Between appearing to believe Mr. Putin’s false claims of innocence over the consensus of his intelligence officials and backing Russia on a wide range of issues, President Trump has done little to dispel these rumors. Even his criticism of NATO (Russia is not a member state) serves to bolster Russian interests. No direct evidence has yet emerged that the numerous contacts between GOP campaign officials and Russian nationals resulted in collusion, but it is not impossible that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s election probe could overturn some.

So, with all this evidence in hand, how does President Trump’s foreign policy measure up?

The experts say poorly.

While President Trump has displayed some protectionist inclinations and repeated his slogan of “America First,” he has failed to articulate a worldview beyond his own jockeying for influence. Across President Trump’s international dealings, it is clear that his foremost concern is for the appearance of making change—see his photoshoots with autocrats like Kim and Putin and his belabored speeches on restoring American influence—while fostering an actual positive impact is a secondary question. This is the epitome of the “fecklessness” McCain described; it confuses our allies and emboldens our enemies.

Unless President Trump drastically revises his international approaches, and fast, American credibility may take many years to recover.

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