Donald Trump conducts foreign policy the way he does everything else: aggressively, unpredictably, and with complete lack of interest or knowledge in proper diplomatic norms. Usually, this approach rarely ends well, but for Donald Trump, it almost worked. The only reason is that his bullishness is backed up by the largest economic and military power in the history of the world. Unfortunately, he almost always fails to capitalize on his initial gains.
Trump’s insistence on scrapping the Iran deal has left his European allies scrambling to fix it before his May 12th deadline expires. It was all America could hope for, European powers proposing sanctions for Iran’s involvements in Syria and ballistic tests. Both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel visited Washington last month trying to persuade Trump to remain part of the deal. Britain, France, and Germany agreed that Tehran needs to be told that red lines in Syria apply to them as well. Renegotiating the agreement under those lines would be a major success of the White House foreign policy. Yet, Trump will squander it all away just so that he can say that he scrapped Obama’s deal.
This is quite similar to his actions in Syria. They were best described by Robert Worth:
“[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.”
Israel and Palestine peace talks are another example of how his unorthodox approach could have yielded unexpected results. While obviously pro-Israel, Trump wasn’t a stranger to criticizing Tel Aviv, a fact that show Palestine leaders that mutually beneficial agreement could be struck. Appointment of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was a clear message that he takes a personal interest in the deal and most of the participants reacted positively to his initiative. Then he threw it all away by unilaterally deciding to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians are now boycotting the US, and any hope of even modest progress is lost.
Trump’s latest challenge is North Korea. What started as name-calling escalated into threats of annihilation with nuclear weapons. Fortunately, passions subsided and Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea, in anticipation of the summit between himself and Donald Trump. There are already worrying signs that Trump will miss this historic opportunity to create a lasting peace on Korean Peninsula as well. His remarks about “great celebration” at the DMZ could mean that he will either accept whatever deal Kim offers, regardless of how empty or unenforceable it is, or he will storm out and go back to threatening Pyongyang with nuclear devastation.
Despite his ignorance about the world and diplomatic protocol, Donald Trump has failed to entangle the United States in any disastrous foreign adventure, even that was something that many of his critics predicted. Instead, his approach has created several excellent opportunities, some of which his predecessors would do anything to had have. It was fumbling of those opportunities in order to achieve some short-term goal (mostly to allow him to brag at rallies or on Fox about them) that have a potential of turning into disasters. The most irritable fact is that his administration failed to even recognize the long-term possibilities of their boss’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy.
Not all is lost, though. The summit with North Korea is still a few weeks away, which is plenty of time for his advisors to properly prepare him. The Iran deal still isn’t dead in the water and there’s a slim chance that Mr. Trump may relent and allow his European allies to fix it. This would, in turn, stabilize Syria and allow Israel to stand down, which would clear up a path towards opening a dialogue with Abbas and his government.