The Slatest

Donald Trump Could Have an Extraordinarily Successful Foreign Policy—if He Wanted One

U.S. President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on April 22.
U.S. President Donald Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on April 22. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Trump has reportedly “all but decided” to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal when the next certification deadline comes up on May 12. The details are still being ironed out, but this could mean that he plans to re-impose the nuclear-related sanctions lifted under the deal. Though I’ve expressed some skepticism about the deal’s overall effectiveness, pulling out of it now would accomplish little except for increasing the likelihood of a restarted Iranian nuclear program or a disastrous military conflict.

What makes Trump’s likely decision all the more frustrating is that progress is actually being made toward Trump’s stated goal: getting European allies to “fix” what Trump sees as the deal’s flaws. Britain, France, and Germany have proposed new sanctions addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and activities in Syria—both issues that were outside the scope of the original agreement but critics say shouldn’t have been. It’s even conceivable an additional agreement could be reached to re-impose sanctions if Iran resumes its nuclear activities once the original deal’s controversial “sunset provisions” kick in. A number of prominent critics of the original deal are now calling on Trump not to blow it up entirely but to continue working to “strengthen” it. It’s not clear if this would work—Iran itself might balk at the new measures—but Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel’s visits to Washington last week at least demonstrated a willingness by U.S. allies to try.

The impending demise of the Iran deal is another example of one of the Trump presidency’s oddest dynamics. You may not like the Trump administration’s bullying style or its priorities—and I don’t, either. But still, the president’s aggressiveness, unpredictability, and lack of interest in foreign policy norms have actually opened up some opportunities to claim meaningful achievements in a number of issues and prove his critics wrong. But this possibility has been undermined by his rush to claim short-term political victories rather than long-term progress. Trump could have an effective foreign policy. It’s just not clear that’s what he actually wants.

Robert Worth, in his New York Times Magazine profile of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in March, noted this pattern in regard to both the Iran deal and the 2017 decision to launch airstrikes at Bashar al-Assad’s military in Syria. (This was before the more recent strike):

[A]fter the administration launched missile strikes on Syrian regime targets in retaliation for the poison-gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, there was a welcome opportunity to pressure the Syrians and their Russian backers. This was precisely what John Kerry dreamed of during Obama’s final years: a decisive show of force that would create leverage on the diplomatic front. Now Trump had achieved it. A European diplomat told me he spoke to McMaster just after the Syria strike and asked him: “Now you have leverage: What will you do?” McMaster stared back at him blankly, he told me. “For them, it was not leverage,” the diplomat said. “It was just a strike.”

Strange as it seems now, there was a time when it seemed that Trump’s unorthodox approach might upset the status quo—in a positive way—in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Many rolled their eyes at Trump’s desire to achieve the “ultimate deal” for peace and his decision to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to make it happen, but in a May 2017 speech I attended in Washington, D.C., Palestinian Chief Representative to the United States Husam Zomlot expressed cautious optimism about Trump’s efforts, saying that it might not be such a bad thing to disrupt the “peace industry” that over past decades had often done as much to preserve the conflict as to end it. While clearly “pro-Israel,” Trump at times showed a willingness to criticize Israeli policies and said that a deal would require Israel to “sacrifice certain things.”

Fairly or no, a president whom no one could accuse of having a pro-Palestinian bias could theoretically have more leverage to pressure both sides. For a year, Kushner and his team worked quietly, with mixed results, but also with reassuringly modest expectations. Then came Trump’s decision last December to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While the move may have scored him points with the Christian evangelicals and right-wing Jews in his circle, it effectively ended hopes of even modest progress toward peace. The Palestinian government has been boycotting contacts with the U.S. since then, and President Mahmoud Abbas’ ugly anti-Semitic comments last week suggest he’s in no hurry to return to the table.

This, then, brings us to the biggest foreign policy opportunity currently facing Trump: the upcoming summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Putting aside the question of how much Trump’s belligerent approach accounts for North Korea’s newfound willingness to talk (clearly some, though probably not as much as North Korean nuclear scientists’ recent progress), it is true that the president has a unique and unprecedented opportunity to advance the cause of peace in a conflict that has simmered for more than a half-century. Again, unfairly, Trump’s past enthusiasm for war means it will be easier for him than it would be for a Democrat to sell a peace deal with a sworn enemy to lawmakers and the public. But the signs are not reassuring. Any meaningful progress toward peace and denuclearization will have to be slow and measured. Trump’s musings about a “great celebration” at the DMZ following his meeting with Kim suggest he thinks a breakthrough will happen immediately, meaning he’s likely to either accept a flimsy or unenforceable deal in order to achieve a short-term political victory or, if no such opportunity is forthcoming, immediately go back to a war footing.

Before Trump came into office, many of us feared his impulsiveness and general ignorance about the world would drive the U.S. into new conflicts and wreck our traditional alliances. In retrospect, this view underestimated the degree to which foreign governments have an interest in accommodating the United States, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. And to give the president his due, he’s sometimes evinced a healthy skepticism of the establishment’s conventional wisdom, which got the U.S. mired in multiple long-term armed conflicts long before he came into office. The surprising outcome of Trump’s foreign policy has not been that it’s created disasters, but that it’s created opportunities he has failed to recognize—with disastrous results.

Of course, it’s not too late. The meeting with Kim hasn’t happened yet, and he still has a few more days to change his mind on the Iran deal. (There’s some chance that he might decertify the deal, but delay the re-imposition of sanctions, to give his new secretary of state some time to work with the Europeans.) Trump has been ill-served by his desperation to achieve short-term victories he can brag about at rallies and shove in the faces of his critics. But if he really wants to prove the doubters and haters wrong, it’s going to require some patience.