Trump’s National-Security Report Card
The president made a lot of promises on his top foreign-policy priorities. We take a look at whether he’s delivered on those goals.
D-Day is coming, and Donald Trump is headed to Europe. The 75th anniversary of the Allied landing on Normandy, which marked the “beginning of the end” for the Nazis in Europe, could be a celebration of the transatlantic alliance that ended World War II and then rebuilt the Western world. And yet, Trump has mounted one challenge after another to the very idea of alliances, to say nothing of the international system embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents alike for decades. The disruption extends far beyond the West. From Iran to North Korea, Trump says “America first” is what guides his policies; he boasted at a recent rally that “America is winning again and America is being respected again.” So how’s he doing?
We graded Trump based on what he’s said he wants to achieve with each of his top national-security initiatives, two and a half years into his administration.
Trump’s various moves against China, from the ongoing trade war to efforts to block the Chinese tech giant Huawei’s rapid expansion, have sparked much debate. But the Trump administration’s relentless and combative focus on China has succeeded in reframing the debate on U.S.-China policy. Those who advocate a more open and tolerant approach to China and its global ambitions are losing ground to a growing contingent of voices pushing for the United States to view China as a pressing threat—and to counter it aggressively. The administration’s top-down focus on China, in short, is bringing some results.
Though the president says he counts Chinese President Xi Jinping as a friend, he, along with senior U.S. officials, has kept up a rhetorical assault against everything from China’s tariff policy to its industrial-scale use of cyberespionage and the mass internment and surveillance of ethnic Uighurs. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has been racking up indictments in an initiative to combat Chinese espionage, regulations have tightened on Chinese investment in sensitive technology, and the Trump administration has continued to counter China in the South China Sea.The administration’s national-defense strategy is now focused on great-power competition, in part to combat China’s assertiveness.
It is still too early to judge outcomes, but one marker of Trump’s success on changing the conversation about China is the surprising bipartisan accord. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are calling for a more robust China policy and thinking about ways to shift strategy and resources to enable this. In Washington, D.C., liberal and conservative think tanks alike are holding forums on China in which the basic message is a need for America to at least be more competitive and more vigilant. Even the House Intelligence Committee—one of the most divided bodies on Capitol Hill—held a civil open hearing on China recently. Sadly enough, one of the few ways that Trump has managed to bring people together is with a common enemy.
Trump has not achieved the policy goal he set for himself when he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which he’s called a “horror show.” What did he want? A better deal. What did he get? Tension, Twitter sniping, and, straight from Iran’s supreme leader himself, a total refusal to negotiate.
But the “maximum pressure” policy of harsh sanctions, which administration officials say are designed to push Iran back to the negotiating table, can’t be called a failure on the administration’s own terms. True, the Iranians have given absolutely no indication that they would consider meeting the 12 demands Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out for them, including halting support for proxies and stopping missile development. (In fact, Iran’s proxies are threatening U.S. troops, U.S. allies, and the oil trade, according to the Trump administration; and its military is testing cruise missiles.) True, the Iranians have repeatedly and publicly refused to speak to the Trump administration despite repeated entreaties to do so. And true, the escalating rhetoric and U.S. military moves in the Gulf, which U.S. officials describe as prudent deterrent measures, have sparked fear among observers and on Capitol Hill that the tensions could spiral into a conflict the administration says it doesn’t want.
Something strange, however, has happened on the administration’s way to strangling Iran’s economy. Foreign-policy analysts like to say that sanctions are a policy tool, not an end in themselves. But at some point, the sanctions started to look like the point.
And there are many sanctions. Some are designed to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero; some to render “radioactive” its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is both an arm of its military and a major economic player; and some to hit its petrochemical and metals sectors, two other major sources of export revenue. Even if the Trump administration can’t get the better deal it says it’s seeking, it appears perfectly happy to deprive the Islamic Republic of the money to fund nefarious regional activities. Officials often cite the financial troubles of groups like Hezbollah, a major Iranian client, as evidence of the sanctions’ success.
From the administration’s perspective, if the pressure drives the Iranians back to the table, great. If the sanctions somehow make the Iranian populace so fed up that they demand and actually get new leadership, even better. But most analysts agree these outcomes are very unlikely in the remaining years of Trump’s current term.
In the meantime, the Iranian regime is much poorer. Trump officials see that as a win.
Yes, Trump has overseen the territorial defeat of ISIS in the so-called caliphate the group declared across Syria and Iraq. But that victory was under way by the close of Barack Obama’s administration—when Trump took office, U.S.-backed forces controlled half of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the crown jewel of ISIS, and much of its former territory. All Trump had to do was follow the battle plan set in motion by veteran officials such as the since-departed diplomat Brett McGurk.
Trump’s signature change to that plan was a loosening of restrictions that had helped reduce civilian harm in U.S. air strikes. That, plus the difficulty of fighting in crowded neighborhoods and the shortcomings of local forces played a role in turning western Mosul, as well as the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, into hellscapes. Aside from the moral implications, many analysts say that allowing the destruction to reach this scale was a strategic blunder. The suffering in those cities will help ISIS to stay alive underground and perhaps one day mount a comeback. Worryingly, insurgent-style ISIS attacks have been occurring across its former strongholds in Iraq. Covert ISIS networks remain an even greater problem in Syria, making efforts by U.S. special operations forces and their local allies crucial to a lasting victory.
Trump threw these missions into uncertainty with his December decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria. (He has since hedged, leaving the remaining troops in limbo.) The move has damaged U.S. hopes of finding a political solution with the Syrian regime to protect its local Kurdish allies—and without such stability, or large-scale rebuilding and security programs, ISIS will remain a threat.
Like Obama before him in Iraq, Trump risks ending the war before its gains can be solidified, endangering progress won at great cost to local U.S. partners and civilians. For a president who raised fears over ISIS and Islamist terrorism throughout his 2016 campaign, this outcome would be especially galling.
When does word become deed? Or trash talk translate into policy shift? Trump’s attitude toward NATO has been a constant test of those questions. In word, Trump has been more damaging to the transatlantic alliance than any of his predecessors. He has tended to view the United States’ relationship with its European allies as a deal—a bad one for the U.S.—and not a given. He has bullied and humiliated allies behind closed (and open) doors, basically calling Europeans freeloaders who should pony up more defense funds. During his campaign, he said the U.S. should pull out of NATO, an idea he is reported to have once again floated as recently as this year.
So far, that has not happened, and in practice, little has changed. Administration and State Department officials have scrambled to defend the alliance in spite of Trump’s words. The U.S. still contributes the bulk of NATO’s budget, has troops across Europe, and has increased the number of them stationed in eastern Europe, a decision made under President Barack Obama. NATO has rules, and for all Trump’s bluster the United States can’t so easily extricate itself. But it’s an alliance based on the credibility of deterrence. When that credibility is undermined, especially by the president of the most powerful country in the world, so is the deterrence. This inextricably weakens NATO and strengthens powers that would like to see the alliance falter—such as, say, Russia.
Trump isn’t alone in wanting European countries to invest more in defense, and Germany to meet the NATO spending goal of 2 percent of economic output, a target it has said it will not meet anytime soon. But in the past, that had been a goal to work toward, not the basis for a threat. Talk of European “strategic autonomy”—that is, a European army—is a long way away from becoming reality. In truth, a distancing between the United States and Europe began under Obama. His “pivot to Asia” was an acknowledgement of geostrategic realities, but was also taken as a snub in Europe. Under Trump, that snub has become open hostility. Not since the Second World War has the Atlantic divide been so wide.
Measured against what Trump says he inherited from Barack Obama—the United States on the brink of a “big, fat war in Asia”—the status quo with North Korea qualifies as a success. We are not in a big, fat war in Asia. Yet Trump’s true inheritance was something different: a burgeoning nuclear-weapons state led by a hostile dictator that, in part due to the Obama administration’s neglect and ineffectual policies, was on a glide path to obtaining the capability to strike the U.S. homeland with the world’s deadliest weapons.
Trump, not Obama, brought the ”fire and fury” to bear on North Korea, wielding unprecedented economic sanctions and threats of war that contributed to Kim Jong Un’s moves in the spring of 2018 to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and to enter negotiations with the United States. North Korea’s nuclear advances slowed, the military brinkmanship subsided, and the American and North Korean leaders met for the first time in a promising bid to resolve at the highest political level a dispute that had bedeviled bureaucrats for decades.
But Kim’s recent resumption of short-range missile tests, following Trump’s decision to walk away from their second round of talks in Vietnam, has exposed the flimsy foundation of the Trump administration’s most ambitious foreign-policy initiative. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities remain just as threatening to the United States and its allies as they were before the first Trump-Kim summit, if not more so. And whatever progress has been made is entirely predicated on the voluntary restraint of Trump and Kim and their vague, unimplemented promises of new relations, peace, and denuclearization.
North Korea wants sanctions relief in exchange for partially dismantling its nuclear program; the United States wants North Korea to commit to fully giving up its weapons of mass destruction before sanctions are eased. Kim has given Trump an end-of-year deadline to be more flexible; Trump, dismissing the concerns of regional allies and his own advisers, keeps insisting that Kim’s escalating weapons tests are no big deal so long as they don’t involve nuclear devices or long-range missiles.
The accomplishment, for now, is that the Trump administration has for the past year prevented the North Korean nuclear threat from getting substantially worse. And maybe that’s what the wild twists and turns in the “Trump-Kim Show” have been about all along: a last-ditch, anything-goes effort to compel and cajole North Korea into relinquishing its nuclear arsenal prior to settling on a plan B: containing it.