Written by Rita Clark
President Donald Trump’s presidency has in many ways undermined America’s global standing and its ability to work together with other countries. But on some issues, “His willingness to question long-running common wisdom about U.S. foreign policy has actually been a benefit and an asset to America,” says Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the New American Engagement Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman on the Trend Lines podcast this week to look back on four years of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives and pick out aspects of his legacy that are worth preserving.
Listen to the full conversation here: If you like what you hear, subscribe to Trend Lines: The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
World Politics Review: Trump has talked a lot about trying to disentangle the United States from foreign conflicts in the Middle East, but this is an area where we have to evaluate the gap between the rhetoric he’s used and the reality of how the promises he makes get implemented. In a lot of ways, we’ve seen a similar pattern over the past four years as during the Obama administration. There are a lot of promises to bring U.S. troops home, and yet they’re still overseas fighting, even if there are fewer numbers than before. How would you evaluate Trump’s follow-through on the promises he made with regard to U.S. wars overseas?
Emma Ashford: I find it very frustrating that there’s still this narrative that Donald Trump is going to end America’s involvement in wars, or that he’s an isolationist who is retrenching from the world. He did say some of these things, like, “Americans shouldn’t be fighting stupid wars in the Middle East.” He said he would bring the troops home. But the reality is, as you note, that he didn’t really do that much at all. He actually dialed up the number of troops that were deployed in the Middle East. For a period in the middle of his presidency, there were more troops there than there were toward the end of the Obama administration. He dialed up tensions with Iran and deployed a bunch of troops to deal with that. It’s only in the last couple of months that he’s really tried to dial down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He hasn’t removed all the troops from Syria like he said he would. His efforts on this front have been kind of half-hearted, and it’s almost like every so often he remembers that this was something that he said, and he remembers that it’s popular with voters. And so he tries to take a small step in that regard. But it has not been a concerted effort of any kind.
WPR: Even in cases where there have been withdrawals of some troops—from Afghanistan, Syria or Somalia, for example—there’s been a lot of criticism of the way in which that happens. It often doesn’t involve much consultation with his advisers and Cabinet members at home, or with allies overseas, and in many cases these orders have been implemented very suddenly, without a lot of preparation.
Ashford: Yeah, that’s particularly a concern in the case of Syria, when he withdrew a bunch of troops very suddenly—it might even have been by tweet—without giving any adequate warning. You can’t just do these things overnight. Trying to suddenly withdraw troops that weren’t expecting to be withdrawn could actually put them in danger.
Trump has some good ideas, yet completely fails to implement them. But we probably shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
That said, I don’t think it’s been a pattern everywhere. I do think in Afghanistan, what we’ve seen is a much more lengthy, thought-out process. Trump actually put some people in charge on Afghanistan who were in fact committed to carrying out the process of withdrawing troops and ending U.S. conflict in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy for Afghanistan, who opened up the negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, was actually committed to following through on the peace process. The deal that they’ve signed does commit to actually pulling U.S. troops out. Compare that to, say, the president’s envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, who recently admitted that they just kept moving the troops around and lied to the president about where they were, so they didn’t have to remove them. So I think the difference is that Trump was somewhat more successful in places where he actually had people who would implement his vision.
WPR: As you said earlier in the conversation, Trump has this willingness to toss out the old rulebook. I feel like the area where that has been most prominent is North Korea, where he just completely abandoned the old way of doing things and agreed to meet directly with Kim Jong Un without any preconditions. It didn’t go so well in this case, but do you suppose that’s an idea worth trying out again in a different form with more preparation, perhaps?
Ashford: I think it is. This looks like a lot of initiatives in the Trump administration, where Trump had this harebrained idea that actually could have been useful, but then the implementation was so poor that it didn’t turn out well. So at the end of the day with North Korea, Trump basically allowed Kim Jong Un to use him for photo ops without really getting anything of benefit. But I do think there’s a lesson here for the Biden administration and for other future presidents, which is that sometimes insisting on sticking with the status quo doesn’t get you anywhere. Maybe if previous administrations—maybe if the Obama administration had been more willing to talk to North Korea—perhaps we could have avoided some of the advances that they made in missile technology. So again, this is just one of those cases where Trump has some good ideas, yet completely fails to implement them. But we probably shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
WPR: Another area where Trump has pretty much upended the way things have been done before him is trade. This is an area where there was an ongoing trend under the surface where a lot of people in the U.S. were concerned with the way the country was advancing into multilateral trade deals without many protections for workers. And again, this is an area where you get into the rhetoric versus reality issue. But Trump has certainly made more of a point, at least in terms of his rhetoric, of connecting U.S. foreign policy with domestic voters’ concerns—especially middle-class concerns. This certainly would be an area worth focusing on more in the future, no?
Ashford: I think that’s what you’re seeing. The Democratic Party and the foreign policy establishment are starting to take these issues more seriously. As a free trader myself, I’m not sure this is necessarily a good thing. But it is a factor and it’s going to be a factor in politics going forward. Like I said before, I think it’s absolutely fascinating that Trump gets described as an isolationist because he’s not even been that restrained on foreign policy. But he has been more of an isolationist on trade and immigration, those issues that we traditionally viewed as more domestic policy issues. Trump’s approach has been to shut the border and to try and stop trade ties. In that respect, he is an isolationist.
The Republican foreign policy elite is moving in the direction of hawkish conservative nationalism, which is very unilateral in its application. I think that trend is going to last longer than Trump himself.
WPR: It seems like a lot of the time people use the word isolationist when really what they mean is unilateralist. He said from the very beginning that his approach to trade was going to be to try to have deals with individual countries, instead of sweeping agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which Trump abandoned after taking office.
Ashford: People conflate isolationism and unilateralism a lot. I’ve heard various people refer to Trump’s “America First” approach as “America alone,” and that’s pretty accurate. Under Trump, the U.S. withdrew from a bunch of arms control treaties. The Trump administration failed to negotiate joint trade agreements, and withdrew from things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s always been about these bilateral relationships with other states rather than trying to build something multilaterally. Trump himself is a very difficult figure to assess because he has some really strange views, and he’s a very strange person. But I think this unilateralism trend is something that’s going to outlive Trump. If you look at the writings of his advisers and from top GOP think tanks, it appears that the Republican foreign policy elite is moving in the direction of hawkish conservative nationalism, which is very unilateral in its application. I think that trend is going to last longer than Trump himself.
WPR: I want to stay on this issue of trade since you identified yourself as a free trader and because we’ve agreed that the way to move forward on this is not through the Trumpist approach of slapping tariffs on imports. What would a more inclusive free trade policy actually look like—meaning a policy that doesn’t have this kind of intense blowback from domestic working-class constituencies and unions?
Ashford: So I’m going to preface this by saying that I’m not a trade specialist, so you should take anything I say here with a pinch of salt. I think there’s something to the argument that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders made in the Democratic primaries, where they pointed out that some of these deals are written in a way that privileges very large corporations and hurts smaller businesses and individuals.
That’s something that future agreements could focus on. But I think that we also have to be honest. The message of Trump—and to some extent, of Bernie Sanders and others like him—has been that trade is what is costing American jobs. When you actually look at the statistics and the trends of what’s been happening, that’s not the case.
What has cost a lot of these jobs, particularly in manufacturing and the energy sector, is change in the way that we do things. For example, we’ve increased automation in factories and we now source some of our energy elsewhere. Also, some products like coal are no longer economically viable. These are the natural changes that an economy undergoes, so this isn’t as much about trade as it is about other economic factors. Politicians have to be more honest about that and start looking for solutions rather than blaming it all on trade. I’m a little skeptical, unfortunately, that that’s actually going to happen.