He has shaken America and its allies to come to realize that their greatest asset is their ability to act in unison and with strength.
No single word or phrase can adequately define Donald Trump’s legacy. His impact on US foreign policy has been profound and will likely endure well beyond Joe Biden’s first term in office, for America has a very deep hole to dig itself out of. That said, many of Trump’s policies have had both positive and negative impacts.
Trump’s foreign policy may rightly be characterized as filled with systemic incoherence, for his own policies were at times diametrically opposed to Washington’s foreign policy apparatus. Some good examples are Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—all of which had been previously agreed under the Obama administration. These withdrawals were all highly controversial.
His predilection for unilateral action angered and alienated many of America’s closest allies. The strength of NATO was diminished in the process, as was the West’s ability to speak with a single voice to address many of the world’s most pressing challenges. Trump essentially used a wrecking ball to eliminate America’s support for some of the bastions of Western liberalism, such as the World Health Organization, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and the UN Human Rights Council. In removing America from these agreements and organizations, Washington lost its ability to influence them, which was a great mistake.
Trump believed that America had overstretched global engagement on a variety of fronts—politically, militarily, and economically. Rather than seeking to gradually reverse that course, he went on a rampage. While some of his instincts may have been correct and imposed for the right reasons, he went too far in their implementation, resulting in a state of perpetual disengagement and disruption.
He was absolutely right that the US cannot and will not remain on its economic, political, military, or technological pedestal through some divine right; rather, now that Washington has its first proper peer in China, it must compete to remain on top. In that regard, he did America a favour by slapping it upside the head with a two-by-four. While the US is now on a worse bilateral footing with China and Iran as a result, Trump’s Middle East policy helped create the enabling conditions to permit the normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Middle Eastern nations. Although his brinksmanship with Kim Jong Un did not yield a nuclear agreement, it did result in a somewhat better behaved North Korea. And America’s “forever” wars have finally come to an end.
On the other hand, Russia has been emboldened by Trump, as have strong men around the world. Authoritarianism is now en vogue and democracy is in retreat in many countries around the world. After four years of Trump, America is no longer thought of as the leader it once was and it doesn’t deserve to be. This, and the damage done to the country’s many alliances, will perhaps be the most enduring legacy of Trump’s foreign policy.
Will that loss of leadership and fraying of alliances continue under the Biden administration? Almost certainly not. Much of the world sees a ray of sunshine in his pending presidency—a return to sanity and a sense of normalcy. But there is no way that America, or the world, is going back to where it was in 2016. Too much has changed in fundamental ways. America needs to make a substantial investment in the concepts of trust and truth. It also needs to rebuild the many domestic and international institutions that have been decimated by Trump. That will take years to achieve.
All that said, perhaps, in the end, the world may owe Trump a debt of gratitude. In reality, neither America nor the world could have continued the way it was functioning given that so much was already in the process of transition—away from an America-led world and toward a world in which much is already being influenced, if not dominated by, China. Trump shook the world to awaken to that reality.
He has also shaken America and its allies to come to realize that their greatest asset is their ability to act in unison and with strength. Their failure to do so over the past four years has greatly contributed to the current state of affairs. Repairing the fissures that have emerged during the Trump era between America and its allies will undoubtedly be President-elect Biden’s greatest coming foreign policy challenge.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and a widely published author on current affairs and risk management. His latest book is The Chinese Vortex.