Since his surprising victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections, conventional wisdom suggested that with Donald Trump in the White House, the world would soon descend into war and chaos. However, when recapping his foreign policy record during these past 4 years, I would suggest Trump left America (and the world) better off than how he found it when he first entered office. Let me explain:
In recent years, the rise of China as a world power has been identified as America’s biggest challenge in the international arena. When the two powers began warming up to each other during the Cold War and started to redefine their relations under President Nixon, it was clear to both that China was the junior partner in this relationship. This assertion is not self-evident anymore: China developed at breakneck speed and after the Financial Crisis in 2007-8 emerged as an economic, technological and military powerhouse capable of competing with the biggest nations on earth. Napoleon Bonaparte had predicted that when the Chinese dragon would awaken, it would shake the world. Obama and Biden mismanaged China’s awakening, which emerged as a revisionist player on the world stage and began to erode the regional status-quo in Asia, in order to correct the wrongs done to her during the “century of humiliation”.
Trump, a businessman at heart, most likely did not interpret China’s rise from the perspective of the hegemonic war theory and the Thucydides Trap, but caught on to the fact that China, in many forums still counted as a “developing” nation even though being more industrialized than many developed nations, enjoys many trade benefits which put America at an inherent disadvantage when conducting trade with the Asian power. As a result, America developed a massive trade deficit with China, yet the diplomatic status quo in Washington dictated the continuation of policies that were not in America’s best interest.
Trump did away with this thinking. Unapologetic about putting American workers first, he reshuffled the deck when it came to trade regulations with China and aimed to put the two on a more equal footing when competing in the global economy. Even though the trade war remains unresolved and indeed was not without negative consequences, Trump took on the fight instead of succumbing to the economic defeatism of his predecessors, which left America in a position to eventually attain better trade agreements for key American industries.
Apart from economic aspects, the Trump administration also recognized the ideological challenge that China poses to the West. When America and China started to normalize relations in the ’70s, the Americans hoped that through liberal market reforms, China would become enamored with Western values and eventually embrace the democratic model of government. These hopes turned out to be naïve pipe dreams, at least with President Xi’s rise to power in early 2013. Instead of becoming more like the West, China doubled down on “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Evidently, mass surveillance of its citizens, limiting freedom of expression through severe censorship, putting dissidents into “reeducation camps”, de-facto abolition of the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong and threats towards democratic Taiwan have become regular tactics in the playbook of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party).
While Trump was the first to challenge China openly and frankly, nations from Southeast Asia to the European Union and even Australia are starting to realize that China’s alternative model for national governance (economic development at the expense of human rights and international law) could pose serious challenges for the future of the democratic order. Unconventional as he is, Trump was the first to sound the alarm on China, and should be given credit for it.
Trump has also engaged actors that promote instability in the Middle East head-on. The disastrous Obama administration’s policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Iran, especially the Iran Nuclear Deal which would have enabled the Iranian regime to reach nuclear capabilities within a few short years, emboldened the Mullahs and turned it into a regional power. ISIS was thriving under the Obama administration and had carved out a massive sphere of influence in Iraq which even spilled over to Syria, significantly exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation.
Under the Trump administration, the Iranian regime faced 4 years of brutal economic sanctions and contained Iran’s ability to fund terror in the Middle East. Pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the assassination of the military mastermind of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani were necessary steps to hamper Iran’s capabilities and vital to assure allies in the region that America is willing to stand with them, while making sure the Great Equalizer (nuclear weapons) would not fall in the hands of radical fundamentalists. Isis has vanished from the map as a force to be reckoned with because Trump, just like he said he would, took care of it. By taking bold action, Trump kept his promises to America’s allies and heightened America’s credibility in the region.
Changing the existing paradigm concerning peace in the Middle East should be considered another foreign policy achievement. Defying conventional foreign policy wisdom, Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israel territory, while the predicted mass-riots and condemnation from the Arab world failed to materialize. The “Deal of the Century” for the first time in decades offered a viable solution to some of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (even though the Palestinian side, as usual, did not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity). The fact that the current Palestinian leadership does not seek a realistic resolution to the conflict (since this would be politically inconvenient) remains, but Arab nations are starting to realize that they have more to gain from cooperating with the US and Israel than from accommodating the zero-sum game of the Palestinian leadership.
The Abraham Accords, brokered by Trump’s Middle East Team around his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, represent the first peace agreement in 25 years. Importantly, it seems as though this peace will be a warm peace, meaning not only favorable diplomatic relations at the state level but finally also cordial relations between the Arab and Jewish people. Apart from the agreement’s economic and strategic importance, ordinary people in the Middle East have after a long time seen a glimmer of hope in a region that is otherwise often characterized as irreconcilable, and we have Trump’s team (and Obama’s failed Iran policy which enabled the entente) to thank for that.
While some observers are lamenting the fallout in the Trans-Atlantic relations, I, in fact, believe that sometimes a good fight can save a marriage. Challenging Europe to take more initiative has been well overdue as it has become far too dependent on issues of security on the US, and accusations of “free-riding” are not unfounded. NATO was and still is in limbo, uncertain of the purpose of its current existence after the end of the Cold War, while key members of the Union such as Germany are becoming increasingly energy dependent on the very state against which it was founded in the first place. Meanwhile, Europe continued to dismiss American fears concerning Chinese 5G networks and its vulnerability to cyberattacks. Especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Former Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell repeatedly addressed these topics and made clear to the European Union that investing in its security is in its own best interest. Seeing as the EU is now making efforts for better inter-European coordination and collective policy responses vis-à-vis China, Russia and strengthening border security and intelligence cooperation in light of recent terror attacks in European cities, it seems like European leaders finally got the message.
Trump did not get everything right, of course. The TTP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) remains a missed opportunity for America’s Asian and Pacific allies and the North-Korean issue still stands unresolved, while at some point threats of “fire and fury” caused tensions to rise to an all-time high. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords raised eyebrows and damaged America’s image internationally.
Yet perhaps most importantly – Trump, decried by critics as a militarist and fascist, avoided dragging the US into new foreign wars, a fact that cannot be said about any other President in recent memory. The opposite is true. While his efforts seemed unorthodox, Trump not only did not start any new wars, but he cleft the international system more secure by confronting sources of instability such as China, Iran, and various terrorist organizations. Moreover, he spurred the EU, who have been asleep on the wheel, into action and by intention or accident, rekindled a well-needed discussion about the strategic future of the EU. And while his contributions to the various peace treaties in the Middle East are unlikely to be recognized by the good people in Stockholm, the people of the Middle East will remember for a long time.
If this is the legacy of a warmonger, we sure could use some more of them.