The World

Trump Had Less of an Impact on the World Than You Might Think

His foreign policy was disruptive—but also largely ineffective.

Trump wearing a MAGA hat in a circle superimposed on a globe
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images and PeskyMonkey/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In the weeks following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, I wrote a seven-part series for Slate exploring just how much damage his proposed policies could do in various regions of the world, based on interviews with regional experts. Rereading the series years later, some of the analysis holds up, but it also fell short in two key aspects: I underestimated Trump’s willingness to shred long-standing foreign policy precedents and reverse the Obama administration’s policies. For instance, I thought there was a good chance he wouldn’t actually follow through on his vow to leave the Iran nuclear deal or reverse Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba. On the other hand, I overestimated how much this would matter. For all the sound and fury of Trump-era foreign policy, that policy’s lasting impact—positive or negative—is likely to be less significant than you might think.

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To be clear, Trump’s policies affected the lives of countless individuals around the world. The administration’s restrictive immigration and refugee policies and elimination of standards meant to prevent civilian casualties in combat did enormous damage. But Trump has largely left the geopolitical status quo intact.

Despite the president’s talk of stopping “endless wars,” the U.S. still has about the same number of troops deployed abroad as there were when he took office. That could change in the final months of his presidency. The administration is planning major troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming weeks. The reduction of troops in Iraq (by roughly 500) was expected, given the diminished threat from ISIS. But in Afghanistan, where troops could be reduced from 5,000 to 2,500 by the time Joe Biden takes office, it represents a major change. Still, it remains to be seen if it will really happen—previously announced troop withdrawals have turned out to be more modest than advertised. It would amount to a significant downgrading of U.S. goals in Afghanistan, complicate ongoing talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and potentially be one of the biggest foreign policy moves of Trump’s administration.

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The administration, particularly during the tenure of national security adviser John Bolton, launched an all-out assault on multilateral institutions, taking steps to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the World Health Organization, and imposing sanctions on officials of the International Criminal Court. But as the International Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan notes, rather than weakening these bodies, the Trump administration’s hostility has “had the positive effect of inspiring others to take more responsibility for advancing international cooperation.” Rather than following the U.S. lead by rejecting international institutions, major powers have instead increased their commitment to multilateral cooperation. In any case, it won’t be difficult for the Biden administration to rejoin these institutions.

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Going region by region, Trump’s lasting impact is more limited than you might think. His most consequential foreign policy act in the Middle East was his 2018 decision to withdraw the U.S. from the “worst deal ever negotiated” with Iran. The main impact of this withdrawal is that Iran announced that it is no longer bound by parts of the agreement and is much closer to being able to build a nuclear bomb than it was two years ago. Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign may have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy, but appears to have done little to weaken the regime’s hold on power. Still, the deal remains at least nominally in place between Iran and the other original parties to the agreement—the four other members of the U.N. Security council plus Germany—and both Iran’s president and Biden’s foreign policy team have said they favor the U.S. rejoining. Given all the violations that have happened since 2018, it may not be possible to simply recreate the original deal, but we could at least see a resumption of productive U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy.

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The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian official, in early January 2020, did not lead to an all-out war as many feared, but it also did not succeed in its main stated goal: deterring Iranian-backed militias from attacking U.S. troops in Iraq.

Despite his talk of reaching the “ultimate deal,” I was skeptical in 2016 that Trump would involve himself that closely in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I was partly right: Trump gave up on the peace process, but support for Israel was the closest thing to a central organizing principle for Trump’s foreign policy. Trump did make some lasting changes in the U.S.-Israeli relationship by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights. While the Biden administration seems less interested in propping up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is unlikely to reverse either stance. But these are symbolic moves that legitimized rather than altered the de facto situation on the ground—Israel has long controlled the Golan and located its main government offices in Jerusalem. The administration stopped short of the potentially more consequential move of greenlighting Israeli annexation of the West Bank settlements.

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In the past year, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pivoted from the “ultimate deal” to pushing for normalization between Israel and other Arab powers. It is a major development that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain now have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, and the “Abraham Accords” signed between the countries at the White House in September is probably the administration’s biggest legitimate diplomatic accomplishment. But it’s also important to remember that these powers were already working informally with Israel against the shared threat of Iran (Israel has reportedly operated an undercover embassy in Bahrain for over a decade), so the announcement was more of an acknowledgment of changes that were already taking place.

In Syria, Trump did indeed “bomb the shit” out of ISIS as he pledged during the campaign, removing constraints meant to prevent civilian casualties, but contrary to Trump’s revisionism, ISIS was already losing ground at the time he took office. The more aggressive bombing campaign at best sped up the inevitable collapse of the group’s territorial “caliphate.” Trump cut assistance to Syrian rebel groups, but that was already being reduced under a skeptical Obama administration. Bashar al-Assad remains in power and is still committing atrocities despite Trump’s two airstrikes against his military. Trump’s partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria did not, as many feared, lead to the collapse of the Kurdish-controlled enclave there. In 2016, Trump’s rhetoric suggested he might form an alliance with the Assad regime and Russia to fight jihadis in Syria, but that never materialized. In fact, the U.S. and Russia came closer to armed conflict than they have since the Cold War on the ground in Syria.

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Because of its role in the 2016 election, much of the early speculation about Trump’s foreign policy focused on Russia. In this case, my predictions that U.S.-Russian relations wouldn’t actually warm that much were more on point: Aside from Trump’s own warm words for Vladimir Putin, it’s hard to say that U.S. foreign policy has been notably “pro-Russian” over the past four years. Often against Trump’s wishes, his administration has slapped sanctions on Russian officials and provided weaponry to the government of Ukraine. Russia’s government continues to be heavily involved in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine to Libya, and has carried out attempted assassinations of its critics both at home and abroad, but it hasn’t exactly racked up any major geopolitical wins in the past four years.

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The first half of the Trump administration was dominated by high-publicity nuclear summitry with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (something almost no one saw coming in 2016), and the second half by efforts to dial up international pressure against China. Neither approach was particularly successful. Despite the Trump-Kim love fest, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program. Trump’s main accomplishment in this area may have been to more or less legitimize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. And from its crackdown in Hong Kong, to its tightening grip over the South China Sea, to its provocations on the border with India, to the ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, China does not appear to be all that deterred by pressure or rhetoric coming out of Washington. Early in his term, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but the other parties of the TPP simply formed their own pact without U.S. participation.

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I didn’t write an entry on Africa in 2016, mostly because Trump had barely discussed the continent on the campaign trail, and the neglect—occasionally punctuated with sickening racism—mostly continued during his presidency. Trump ramped up the covert war against al-Shabab in Somalia, with little discernible impact on the country’s stability. His big diplomatic initiatives on the continent were siding with Egypt over traditional U.S. ally Ethiopia in a major water dispute, and strong-arming Sudan into recognizing Israel. Neither is likely to have much lasting impact.

In Latin America, Trump reversed some of Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba, but given that it will require an act of Congress to lift the U.S. embargo on the island, there’s only so far that normalization could have gone even if Hillary Clinton had won. Despite ongoing U.S. efforts to isolate and sanction Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, his grip on power looks as firm as ever.

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The biggest surprise in the Western Hemisphere might be Mexico. In 2016, I predicted that Trump’s immigration policies and racist anti-Mexican rhetoric could boost the fortunes of leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and lead to the unraveling of the close U.S.-Mexico partnership. The first part of that prediction turned out correct—López Obrador was elected in 2018—but the second part hasn’t. Mexico has continued to cooperate with the U.S. on border enforcement and ratified a new trade deal to replace NAFTA. Despite a long history of criticism of the U.S. and Trump in particular—including in a 2017 book—López Obrador has been surprisingly deferential to Trump, including in the past couple of weeks when he’s been one of the last world leaders to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Even for a leftist firebrand, the U.S.-Mexico relationship proved too important to jeopardize.

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Despite Trump’s trashing of trans-Atlantic allies for the past four years, it’s a similar story in Europe. The public image of the U.S. plummeted in Europe during the Trump years, and some leaders—notably France’s Emmanuel Macron—have called on the continent to reduce its dependency on U.S. security guarantees, but overall, surveys suggest that European governments have mostly remained committed to a strong relationship with the U.S. and viewed the Trump years as an anomaly rather than a major change in direction. (Trump has taken credit for pressuring NATO members into committing more money to defense, but many of those increased commitments came before he took office.)

Trump’s bigger impact may have come in actions he did not take, rather than ones he did, which makes his legacy a little harder to discern. Would Netanyahu’s government have authorized as much construction on settlements in the West Bank if he had not known he would face no pushback at all from Washington? Would Saudi Arabia have ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the pseudo-kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister if was worried about U.S. reaction? Would Narendra Modi’s government have pushed its Hindu nationalist agenda quite so far? It seems unlikely.

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During the Trump era, four of the world’s five largest economies set specific targets for reducing their carbon emissions to zero. Who knows how ambitious they might have been if the world’s largest economy had been involved? And who knows how the coronavirus pandemic might have played out if the U.S. government had helped lead a coordinated international response, instead of just denying the problem and blaming others?

Trump’s lack of respect for foreign policy norms, injection of culture war politics into foreign policy, and willingness to shred any agreement made by his predecessor have also likely done long-term damage to U.S. foreign policy by undermining trust in U.S. agreements. There’s little incentive for any country to take a political risk by signing a deal with the U.S. if they know it’s likely to be torn up when the other political party gets into office.

U.S. influence may have waned in the Trump years, but at most this was an acceleration of a trend that predated him and has more to do with larger structural forces and the rise of competitors like China than anything Trump did.

Overall, Biden is likely to find the rest of the world less changed than you might think since he left the White House four years ago. That’s not a good thing—the world was a dangerous and unstable place four years ago—but for all that Trump’s presidency transformed in the U.S., it might be pretty quickly forgotten abroad.

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