Why everyone might be wrong about Trump’s foreign policy ‘setbacks’

Why everyone might be wrong about Trump's foreign policy 'setbacks'.

From a quick glance, the past week probably doesn’t look like it went very well for American foreign policy. North Korea has begun firing missiles again, Iran threatened to cease complying with what remains of the nuclear deal, and, in the wake of a failed attempt by the opposition leader to spark a coup, Venezuela’s strongman has arrested the vice president of the National Assembly. However much the Trump administration’s often-confusing and contradictory policies are to blame for these setbacks, setbacks they surely are.

But it’s remarkably hard to make any such definitive claim without some baseline understanding of what America’s interests and objectives are in each case. And one of the hallmarks of the Trump presidency has been the great difficulty in determining precisely what those objectives might be, and whether they are correct.

Take the situation in North Korea. The bipartisan record of the past 20 years has been one of almost complete failure to achieve America’s stated objectives of denuclearization and liberalization of North Korea’s brutally oppressive regime. Trump’s radical departure from the historic approach of isolation has been unnerving, particularly to anyone concerned about North Korea’s horrific human rights record. But before the recent tests, it was still quite plausible to say that America was in a much better position vis-a-vis North Korea in the wake of Trump’s summits than it was when Trump took office.

Have the recent missile launches changed that calculus? Not really. The recent tests rank relatively low on the North Korean provocation scale. The mildness of South Korea’s own criticism of Kim’s actions suggests that their priority remains keeping negotiations on track, and the similar mildness of the Trump administration’s own response, notwithstanding the recent seizure of a North Korean ship for sanctions violations, suggests a similar priority. And that priority makes sense if preventing war is the American goal, with denuclearization seen as the end of a process of improved relations rather than a precondition for such improvement. (It also makes sense if the real focus of American concern is China, with North Korea seen as one pawn on that chess board.)

If that’s the right way to understand North Korea, then surely Iran, where Trump tore up the successful diplomacy of his predecessor and returned to a policy of aggressive confrontation, must be a place where Trump’s policy has backfired badly. Iran’s threats to cease complying with the nuclear deal should be clear evidence of this — but once again, it depends on how American interests are understood.

The Iran nuclear deal clearly advanced American interests if our goal was to reduce our profile in the Middle East and reduce the likelihood of Iran actually going nuclear. But, if you discount the likelihood of Iran actually going nuclear (as opposed to achieving the ability to go nuclear in a short amount of time), and are opposed to reducing America’s profile in the Middle East, then our interests look rather different. If the goals are to maintain our influence, and to tie both regional and distant allies more closely to the U.S., then confrontation with Iran is a help, not a hindrance.

Saudi Arabia has already become America’s bosom buddy in the Trump era, a development for which independent journalists and Yemeni civilians are paying a very steep price while American arms manufacturers reap the benefits. Sisi’s Egypt has also proven eager to gain American patronage, something the Trump administration has been equally eager to grant. As for our European allies, they were deeply distressed by Trump’s departure from the nuclear deal, and since then have been eager to help Iran work around American sanctions. But if Iran follows through on its threats of noncompliance, it will likely push its European interlocutors closer to the U.S. rather than achieve any of its stated economic goals. If the administration’s priority is to use confrontation with Iran to make America indispensable again, then the mission is actually going rather well.

Of course, if Trump allows himself to be dragged into a war with Iran, that would be catastrophic for American interests on every level. But Trump can avoid that eventuality simply by refusing to countenance it. Even John Bolton probably can’t start a war entirely on his own initiative.

That leaves Venezuela. Trump himself is reportedly frustrated that Bolton, among others, promised him an easy and bloodless victory, when instead Juan Guaidó, our man in Caracas, proved singularly inept at inspiring a coup that would surely have quickly won American support. But while conditions in Venezuela are undoubtedly more likely to worsen than not as Maduro tightens his grip on power, America may have dodged a bullet when Guaidó’s gambit failed so obviously.

Had the outcome been in more serious question, the temptation to take ownership of regime change in Venezuela would likely have proven overwhelming. But while our Latin American and European allies have joined Trump in opposing the Maduro regime, they would be far less supportive of direct American military intervention. Since America has almost no real interests in Venezuela, it’s easier to see the costs of deepening American involvement than the benefits.

From Trump’s perspective, of course, what matters most is how recent events affect his own political interests. On that score, he’s fortunate indeed. His base seems likely to hold on to their belief in his toughness regardless of whether he pursues a policy of conciliation (as in North Korea) or confrontation (as in Iran), and regardless of whether events go his way or frustrate his plans (as in Venezuela). And Democrats are hamstrung by an inability, so far, to articulate a consistent alternative approach grounded in a readily-comprehensible understanding of America’s true interests.

So long as Trump avoids embroiling America in a new war, that will likely remain the case.

As it stands, the only foreign policy issue on the horizon with the potential to seriously affect Trump’s political standing at home is the trade negotiations with China, where the stakes for the American economy could hardly be higher.

Then again, when the leading Democratic candidate for president is saying China isn’t even a serious competitor, maybe Trump doesn’t have all that much to worry about.

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The Week · by Noah Millman · May 10, 2019

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