Trump May Leave Office in 2021, But His Foreign Policy Mess Will Linger
Making America 2015 again isn’t really possible. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/Mikhail Metzel/TASS
While many Americans were focused on President Trump’s effort to turn Fourth of July celebrations into a partisan, wannabe-dictatorfest heading into this holiday weekend, with any luck, the rest of the world wasn’t paying much attention. After all, there are plenty of more pressing concerns around the world: the deaths of 14 service members in a super-secret Russian nuclear submarine, massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Sudan, and immense humanitarian catastrophes in Yemen and Venezeula, just to name a few.
World leaders are certainly worried, however, about the Trump administration’s latest round of contradictory statements and policy reversals: from its possibly abandoned efforts to oust Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela to its musing about renegotiating foundational U.S. alliances. They see a president whose go-to strategy in places like China, Iran, and North Korea is to worsen a crisis, then attempt to solve the problem via personal diplomacy (though somehow Washington is always left in a substantively worse position). And of course, they’re troubled by the dearth of competent American diplomats and the Trump cronies who’ve replaced them, whether it’s Jared Kushner naïvely asserting that only he knows how to make Middle East peace or Ivanka Trump’s unwelcome appearance at the G20.
Many in the U.S. view these issues as Trump-generated controversies that will clear up once he’s out of office. But the challenge for the post-Trump United States, assuming we get there, is that many foreign leaders don’t see this administration as a forgettable blip from which we can all move on.
You can see this reflected, of all places, in global commentary on the fortunes of the U.S. women’s soccer team. They — and certainly their fans — see themselves as resisters, as carriers of a vision of the U.S. that is progressive and open, as well as just plain awesome. But their critics see them as overbearing and obnoxious — the latest in a line of American imperialists that includes Trump but runs back long before him. (And that was before the trouncing of their French hosts and a Boston Tea Party–inspired taunt against England.) Fair to the players? Not really. A reality Americans in all walks of life will have to deal with going forward? You bet.
So as you prepare to watch the final this weekend, imagine that it’s Trump’s 2020 opponents out there on the field. Okay, once you’re done laughing at the idea of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders rolling on the turf feigning injuries, seriously, imagine that it’s January 2021, and consider the list of challenges the winner will face.
How does the next president keep North Korea from going right back to testing missiles and weapons in order to get attention? It’s not as if Kim Jong-un has any incentive to be nice, knowing he will never have a better friend in the White House than he does right now. The same goes for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has thousands more nuclear weapons, more avenues for threatening the U.S., and much more to lose, as he thinks he’s locked in a competition with every American president for world leader.
Those two actors alone will make life very uncomfortable for the next U.S. president. Other regimes experiencing whiplash from Trump’s inconsistency, China and Iran, will likely be hoping for more stability — but they’ll also be unwilling to look weak before a new U.S. president. In both cases, the U.S. president will be dealing with substantially weakened negotiating positions and sky-high public expectations. Trump has not yet obtained a single significant change in how China runs its economy, but he’s led the American public to believe such changes are possible; since Trump scrapped the 2015 nuclear agreement, the situation with Iran has only grown more volatile. And of course, the next president will face a variety of other transnational challenges, like terrorism, climate change, and a global economy that is expected to start weakening.
So where will Trump’s successor turn? Probably back to the traditional U.S. allies who have been on the receiving end of so much of the current president’s abuse. But it’s dangerous to assume — as at least some of the 2020 contenders seem to — that Washington can just step back into its 2015 global role.
To take just a few examples, the current government in South Korea is dependent on the success of peace initiatives with the North and simply won’t follow a U.S. administration that reverts to a more hostile policy. European and other allies have already shown that they are not willing to heed intelligence warnings on Chinese tech companies; global initiatives to press China on trade will be slow and disappointing. Regardless of whether Trump is in office, key NATO allies will disagree on how much of a danger Russia poses, how much economic gain to sacrifice in response, and even what to do about democratic backsliding among NATO members. And allies will have pesky questions for the U.S. president: How fast is the U.S. repealing tariffs, resuming financial support for the United Nations, and redressing its mistreatment of migrants and refugees?
The risk that the world responds to Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg the way London and Paris responded to Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan is real. But the next U.S. president won’t get to just ignore the haters and play her game. Nor will she — or he — have the luxury of just going up to the podium and saying, That wasn’t America, this is. It’s a bit like re-creating not just a soccer team but an entire league; the next president will have to build a new role for the United States in the world, one that learns from past mistakes and understands that, rather than resting on your laurels, when you’re a former champion, you always have to be reinventing yourself.