When faced with dealing with North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, President Donald Trump said, “It’s not as simple as people would think.” No one who knew North Korea thought it was simple. It’s just that he did.
This is the continuing story of the Trump presidency — that the man knows so little. And in the area of foreign policy, when the president of the United States doesn’t understand basic issues, he can do serious damage.
A useful start for examining Trump’s foreign policy is to consider how the rest of the world sees him. It so happens that last month the highly credible Pew Research Center published a report after polling more than 40,000 people in 37 countries. It shows that Trump’s presidency and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe. According to the new survey, just 22 percent expressed confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when 64 percent were confident in his ability to direct America’s role in the world.
On the subject of Trump’s character, by a wide margin the top three descriptions chosen by the global public were “arrogant,” “intolerant” and “dangerous.”
Last month, The Washington Post published a major examination of how Trump has changed American foreign policy. These are some of its highlights.
The report begins by noting that Trump had campaigned on an “America First” philosophy that promised less foreign intervention, fairer trade deals and stronger borders. In these area, the Post says, Trump has made “concrete changes,” in some cases reversing signature Obama achievements.
These include American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his rejection of the Paris Climate Accord and the institution of a travel ban against originally seven, now six, Muslim majority nations.
The Post’s next category is more intriguing. These are the policies it says were “partially or fully unrealized.” These include Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, the Mexican border wall, ISIS, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, NATO, Cuba, Israel-Palestine and NAFTA. In each case, it’s the Post’s contention that the differences between Obama administration policies and what Trump has actually done so far are slim to none.
However since the Post analysis there have been some important developments. What follows is an update on some of them.
— Iran nuclear deal: This was the international agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Trump has repeatedly called it “the worst” agreement he had ever seen and threatened to get out if he was elected. But in fact he has now twice officially certified that Iran is complying with its end of the bargain. However, according to a report in Foreign Policy this week, this latest certification came during a “contentious” White House meeting between Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “which turned into a meltdown” when Trump demanded reasons for decertification which Tillerson, backed by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, failed to provide. An American statement that Iran was not complying with the deal could ultimately lead to its demise, resulting in the unfreezing of Iran’s substantial nuclear program. Trump evidently wants to decertify when the next finding comes due in three months.
— North Korea. By relying on China to put the squeeze on North Korea, and calling for broad economic sanctions, Trump’s actions have not been dissimilar from Obama’s, although recently he seems to have concluded the Chinese are unwilling to seriously pressure North Korea, and his warnings have become more bellicose The problem is there really is no credible military solution to the threat that North Korea increasingly represents. Any military attack on the North would invite a devastating counter-attack against millions of South Korean civilians and thousands of American troops based there.
— ISIS (Islamic State). After promising a far tougher approach, Trump’s Pentagon has basically followed the plans drawn up by Obama — and with some success. On July 11, Iraqi forces with U.S. assistance on the ground and in the air, took back the Iraqi city of Mosul. Iraqi troops took heavy casualties, and the city was virtually destroyed.
In Syria, local forces supported by American air power and special forces are close to taking the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa. These two losses represent a major military setback for ISIS. But analysts warn that ISIS remains a worldwide ideological threat.
— Syria. When it appeared Syria President Bashar Assad had used poison gas on more of his own people, unlike President Obama, Trump was quick to react, sending 59 cruise missiles onto the Syrian- Russian airbase from which the poison gas attack was said to have originated.
But this was clearly a one-off. Very little damage was done, and Pentagon officials maintain they will continue to keep U.S. troops out of the conflict. Still, some changes are likely, based on recent concessions to Russia that Trump seems to have made, including ending long standing CIA support for some of the anti-Assad rebels.
— Russia. This remains the most problematic foreign policy subject. At his official two-hour-plus meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the recent G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Trump asked Putin about Russian meddling in the American presidential election and seemed to accept Putin’s denials. At a second unofficial dinner conversation, belatedly confirmed, Trump talked to Putin for nearly an hour with only a Russian interpreter — something unheard of in the annals of summit diplomacy. Surprise, surprise, there is no record of that conversation. But Trump’s Russian infatuation received a setback this week as both the House and the Senate passed a fairly tough sanctions bill in response to Russian election meddling, that appears to be veto-proof. It is significant that so many Republican members of Congress were willing to challenge their president on this one.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News.
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