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Evaluating Donald Trump's diplomatic record

November 1, 2020

The president has planted his flag in global politics. His actions will have a long-lasting impact on Afghanistan, Syria and the Gulf region in particular — but he hasn't accomplished all that he had pledged.

Trump and Kim shake hands as journalists document
Image: Reuters/K. Lamarque

North Korea's nukes

When US President Barack Obama handed over the reins to his successor at the beginning of 2017, he said one issue would likely be particularly tricky: North Korea and its nuclear program.

Indeed, as president, Donald Trump devoted a lot of time to it in his first two years in office, initially trading insults with the dictator Kim Jong Un, whom he nicknamed "Little Rocket Man," and eventually praising his North Korean counterpart by saying Kim had written him a "very beautiful letter." The two met in person (pictured) three times, including two formal summits, feeding optimism that there could be a lasting rapprochement between the countries and that North Korea might even abandon its nuclear program — to no avail in the end.

"I think he totally underestimated the poker game his opponent played with him," said Rüdiger Lentz, executive director of the Aspen Institute Germany, who ran DW's Washington bureau until 2009. "So what he was looking for was a quick success, a quick deal. That's what he's always looking for. He didn't get it."

However, Lentz does believe that some progress has been made in relations. "I think they sort of reached a certain understanding," he said. "So I think at least the channels of of dialogue are open. They are there. They can be used again." 

China: Trade, human rights

Both countries have strengthened their military presence in the South China Sea, and Trump's economic strategy of trying to reduce the trade deficit by slapping tariffs on Chinese goods led to an escalation of punitive duties.

Lentz said China's economic recovery from the slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic also gave the country an advantage. "Trump is weaker as far as his position is concerned than a couple of months or a year ago," Lentz said. 

Compared with his predecessors, Trump has never been particularly interested confronting China on human rights. According to his former national security adviser John Bolton, he had no qualms about the country building "reeducation camps" for Muslim Uighurs in the region of Xinjiang.  

China Donald Trump und Xi Jinping
Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has battled Trump on issues such as trade and the pandemicImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Wong

Afghanistan's disastrous deal

There had been hope that Afghanistan could come a little closer to peace under Trump. In February, the Taliban signed an agreement with the United States that could bring its nearly two-decade fight against the internationally recognized government to an end. The idea was that the United States would withdraw troops if the Taliban were to cut ties with terror groups.

Now, the Taliban are in negotiations with Afghanistan's government, and Trump has said he intends to bring the US troops home by Christmas. Yet the security situation in Afghanistan is as fragile as ever. 

"What he has gained is an excuse for pulling out his troops," Lentz said, allowing Trump to keep his pledge to withdraw forces from a conflict his predecessors were unable to end — whatever that meant for the US's NATO allies. Lentz said the withdrawal of troops would lead to more conflict in the region and possibly even permit the Taliban to return to power. 

US-Präsident Trump besucht Afghanistan
Trump visited Afghanistan for Thanksgiving; he wants troops home for Christmas 2020Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/A. Brandon

Syria: Calling quits 

"We want to protect the Kurds, but I don't want to be in Syria forever," Trump said in January 2019. "It's sand. And it's death."

In October of that year, he ordered the withdrawal of US troops from a largely Kurdish-controlled region in northern Syria, and Turkish and Russian troops closed in. Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump's policy had revealed a split between the president and other members of his administration. "The sense of a forceful American strategic position in Syria has really been been immensely wounded by these internal divisions and clearly a sense of ambition by President Trump to withdraw the Americans from Syria," Barnes-Dacey said. 

Lentz said the withdrawal had helped Russia maneuver itself into a position of hegemony in the region. He called this an interesting development considering that the United States had never given Russia such free rein. "This is the effect of Trump's policies," Lentz said. He added that if former Vice President Joe Biden were to win the November 3 US presidential election, he would have the support of his Democratic Party to "take a more anti-Moscow stance." 

Smoke after Turkish forces shelled a city in northern city
The US's withdrawal for Kurdish regions cleared the way for a bloody invasion by TurkeyImage: Reuters/S. Nenov

Iran deal undone  

After Barack Obama's eight years in office, Iran might no longer have seemed like such an urgent threat to the United States. The government had agreed to dismantle large parts of its nuclear program, which paved the way for sanctions to be lifted. But Trump, who thought that the multinational nuclear deal with Iran was too soft, withdrew the United States from the accord and called for stronger sanctions. Trump said he wanted a deal that would not favor Iran. 

The targeted killing of the Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, at the beginning of 2020 brought the situation closer to the brink. "I don't think that we were on the edge of a new war, but we were at the edge of a limited military action," Lentz said, "which President Trump really considered — and I think it was his closest advisers holding him back, trying to convince him that this might blow into an all-out war in the Middle East or a larger conflict."

Barnes-Dacey said he did not believe either side had any interest in war. "Somewhat ironically, actually, a number of the Arab Gulf states who were previously very supportive of Trump's more hard-line position towards Iran have actually counseled him against escalating further against Tehran because they've grown increasingly fearful that they would pay the biggest price for a regional explosion," he said. 

Iraq: Baghdad airport
Trump ordered Soleimani killed upon his arrival at Baghdad's airportImage: picture-alliance/AP/Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office

Israel, Middle East

Trump moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which Palestinians had sought as the capital of their future state, and supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settlement policy. When Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, presented his peace proposal at the White House in January, Netanyahu was there, but no Palestinians were present. The plan would have made permanent many existing Israeli settlements and given Jerusalem to Israel. 

The US government has concentrated on strengthening Israel's position in the Middle East and North Africa. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan have all agreed to normalize relations with Israel, and Trump has suggested that Saudi Arabia could be next.

However, Barnes-Dacey said, these agreements — like Kushner's proposals — have all been made without consulting Palestinian leaders. "I think Donald Trump has effectively sought to kill the peace process as the international community has long understood it and has focused American efforts much more on cementing Israeli control rather than advancing negotiations towards a two-state solution," he said.  

Lentz said Saudi Arabia might have to worry about its regional hegemony if Biden were to win the upcoming election — with a new administration less likely to leave unpunished crimes such as the 2018 dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist and US resident, at Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate. "So far, the backing of Trump helped Saudi Arabia overcome an international crisis," he said. "But this does not give sustained stability to the regime or the country."

Israel may have done well under Trump, but the country would also not likely be ignored should the president lose his reelection bid, Barnes-Dacey said: "Even if a Biden administration comes into power, I don't think that Washington and a new Democratic administration is going to be prepared to roll back some of the measures that Trump initiated." 

This article was adapted from German.