Rethinking About Trump’s Foreign Policy Agenda, 2016-2020

As D.J. Trump’s presidency approaches its end, a good mental exercise is to evaluate his foreign policy agenda. In this piece, I will concentrate on laying out the consequences of Trump’s foreign policy choices. In doing so, I will base my arguments on logically-driven and empirically corroborated foreign policy theories. I will do my best to keep the tone of this piece as simple and as non-partisan as possible.

In what follows, I will present brief reviews of Trump’s following notable policies: (i) Bringing Troops Back Home; (ii) Iran sanctions with maximum pressure; (iii) North Korea rapprochement; (iv) Withdrawing from international treaties; (v) Trade war with China; (vi) Pressuring European and East Asian allies to spend more on their own defense; (vii) Rapprochement with dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

(i) Bringing Troops Back Home:

Many pundits/podcasters such as right-winger Alex Jones[1], centrist Tim Pool[2] or left-wing progressive Kim Iverson[3] consider Trump as an anti-war president. They often point to how Trump ordered the withdrawal of troops from various Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Factually, this is at best questionable. Trump rather made promises that he failed to fulfil in this matter.[4] Still, let us ask ourselves for a moment: would withdrawing troops make Trump an anti-war president?

Although Trump promised to withdraw troops, he often indicated his preference of using America’s ballistic capabilities over sending troops abroad.[5] He ordered the use of missiles in Syria[6] and in Afghanistan.[7] Additionally, it was during his tenure that the US withdrew from the 1987-singned INF treaty that banned the testing of missiles with a range greater than 310 miles.[8] All these instances suggest that Trump is not an anti-war president, but a conventional Cold War era Republican president. Empirical research presented by Benjamin Fordham shows that during the Cold War, Republicans preferred investing in nuclear and ballistic deterrence; whereas the Democrats favored stationing troops and conventional forces overseas.[9] Trump matches with the former type.

The question is whether employing nuclear and ballistic power is a better strategy for the US to force its opponents into making concessions than troop deployment. Empirical[10] and theoretical[11] research disagrees with this. Moreover, having nuclear or superior ballistic weapons typically do not give a country the bargaining edge it needs in international diplomacy. On the other hand, deploying a large number of troops overseas, close to the enemies, can be successfully intimidating.[12] Nevertheless, the intimidation success hinges on the costliness of the troop deployment,[13] which can understandably be unpopular with the American public.

Overall, Trump’s insistence in withdrawing troops and relying on missile/nuclear diplomacy does not make America a more efficient and respected player in the international scene. If the next president is to pursue coercive diplomacy, troop deployment has a rather better chance in intimidating an opponent. However, this strategy needs to really be an economic burden to the American taxpayer to achieve the desired goal.[14] Hence, direct diplomacy may be the optimal strategy here instead of troop deployment or nuclear/ballistic deterrence.

(ii) Iran Sanctions with Maximum Pressure

During the President Trump’s era, the US withdrew from JCPOA (i.e. the Iran Deal), and unilaterally reinstated the oil ban on Iran. The Trump officials believed that heavy sanctions would force Iran to make significant concessions. There are three reasons why this Maximum Pressure campaign was a suboptimal choice towards appeasing Iran.

First, the Trump Administration avoided imposing new sanctions through international organizations and favored acting unilaterally. Empirically, sanctions that are imposed multilaterally[15] and through an international organization[16] are more successful than unilateral sanctions on behalf of the sanction sender.[17] For example, the Obama era sanctions that forced Iran’s hand to sign the JCPOA were multilateral, and imposed through the UN.

Second, Iran did not acquiesce to sanction threats from the Trump Administration. This was already a sign that the following sanction imposition would be ineffective. Sanction threats inform the target countries of the potential costs of receiving an economic sanction. Therefore, if a country such as Iran does not change its behavior despite being under the threat of receiving sanctions, it is likely that it will not yield to an actual imposition. As scholarly work suggests, if sanctions are successful, this often happens during the threat stage.[18] Thus, the Trump administration’s insistence on imposing additional sanctions on Iran despite observing Iran’s reluctance to listen to sanction threats was not ideal.

Lastly, economic sanctions appear to increase Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and incentives to align with Russia and China.[19] Under sanctions-induced economic pressures, while Iran loses its ability to directly assault its rivals, it resorts to cheaper and clumsier tactics to pursue its foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East. Stated differently, economic pressures only force Iran to change its strategies, but to still pursue its old goals.

All these three points taken together; we can see that the Maximum Pressure campaign is an ineffective way to deal with Iran’s foreign policy goals in the Middle East. The better approach would have been to start communications with Iran about its security concerns in the Middle East.[20] Trump’s particularly friendly relations with Saudi Arabia did little to mitigate these concerns. For example, it would have been better if Trump did not approve billions of dollars’ worth weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.[21] Nonetheless, Trump’s poor reaction against the Iranian attack on Saudi oil fields might have slightly reduced Iran’s concerns about Saudis.[22]

(iii) Rapprochement with North Korea

Many Democrats were worried about Trump’s rapprochement with North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-Un. They believed that this move did nothing but to legitimize the highly totalitarian institutions of the hermit nation. As I highlighted in another piece, this is not as simple as Trump’s critics put it.[23] While Trump and Kim Jong-Un met and exchanged friendly messages in 2018, there was almost no record of North Korean public missile tests.

One should, however, not jump to the conclusion that Trump’s strategy was adequate. The public missile tests were not simply an invitation for the US to renegotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If that was the case, then Trump would have perpetually solved the missile tests crisis – which did not happen. There was more to these tests. Current empirical studies suggest that the public missile tests rather aimed to coerce the US into making concessions on behalf of North Korea.[24] Thus, it is likely that Trump did not get the memo before holding talks.[25]

As long as the US presents the same denuclearization demands in the negotiations without safeguards for Kim Jong-Un’s tenure, there is no reason to expect a stable deal. It is likely that Kim Jong-Un is driven by the bitter memory of Ghaddafi’s demise after giving up nukes.[26] Thus, in the future, North Korea will continue to test missiles as long as the US will not come up with terms that secure Kim Jong-Un or his successors’ political survival. Under those circumstances, holding talks like Trump, or Madelaine Albright will not be enough.

(iv) Withdrawing from International Treaties

President Trump did not shy away from revealing his opposition to international organizations and treaties. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in July 2017, the renegotiation of NAFTA in 2018, or skepticism about WTO are some examples that illustrate the Trump administration’s dislike of international treaties and organizations. President Trump, and pundits who sympathize with his policies often stress that international treaties are economically too burdensome to the American taxpayers. So, let us suppose for a moment that they are right. There is still the question that they fail to address: are treaties just an economic burden to the American taxpayers?

If the United States is this “great” nation that pro-Trump pundits and voters believe, then the international organizations are not just a deadweight loss to Americans. Implications from countless scholarly work[27] suggests that the US, as the economically strongest nation on earth, is the key actor to ensure the maintenance of the international treaties. Put it differently, without the US, chances of these treaties and organizations reaching their desired goals are low. This is because the US has asymmetrically the greatest level of resources to ensure the commitment of the other countries to the treaty or the organization.

Let me illustrate my point with a very cliché example. In the aftermath of World War I, many countries got together and decided to form an international organization to prevent another global-scale war from recurring. This was the League of Nations (LoN, hereby). We all know that the League of Nations failed to ultimately achieve its goal, since World War II transpired only 21 years later than the first one. By the end of World War II, the countries got together again, and this time formed the United Nations (UN). Fortunately, we still have not witnessed a war on global scale since 1945.

The difference between the LoN and UN is the United States. In 1918, President Wilson’s administration failed to convince the American legislative chambers to vote in favor of the US joining the LoN. Thus, without the economically strongest country in the world, the LoN proved to be ineffective, and resource-poor in taking necessary steps to remedy countries’ incentives to fight another global war. Yet, the US took part in the formation of the UN. Then, the UN had adequate resources to contribute to the establishment of a long global peace (i.e. Pax Americana)

As the LoN vs UN example suggests, global problems are rather solved with leadership. The logic is the same in the case of the Paris Agreement. The presence of the US in the Paris Agreement was crucial in the effectiveness of the treaty. Indeed, the Republicans are right that China should be held accountable for all its CO2 emissions. It emits twice as much CO2 than the US.[28] Nevertheless, for China to be compelled to reduce its emissions, countries should exert the necessary pressure under the leadership of the US, and through an international treaty/organization. This is why blaming China and then leaving treaties and international organizations do not go together.

All in all, here is another cliché: with great power comes great responsibility. That great power is the US. America is not a mere country that suffers the costs of joining a treaty like any others. Without American leadership, notorious CO2 emitters such as China, India or Russia are unlikely to change their behavior anytime soon. Similarly, without the US, chances of NATO or the UN assuring world peace is low. Lastly, without the US, chances of the WTO ensuring fair global trade are considerably thin.

(v) Trade War with China

I believe that President Trump was inherently a one-policy candidate in 2016: economic war against China.[29] If we take a look at his interviews from the 1980s and on, he always was concerned with first Japan, and then China not playing fair in the international trade.[30] So, if we are looking for something genuine and honest in Trump, that is his hatred for China’s trade policies. As he became president, he took unilateral action against China by placing trade restrictions and forcing the Xi Jinping administration to constitutionalize the US demands.

Above all, it should be clear that China is not all too innocent in the arena of international trade. Many Chinese government-owned corporations engage in aggressive overseas corporate-buying. One recent example is the Chinese conglomerate Wanda buying AMC Theaters.[31] However, China’s own regulations do not allow foreign companies to engage in similar aggressive buyouts in Chinese territory. This puts businesses of non-Chinese nations at a relative disadvantage against Chinese ones. It is for this reason that there actually is a bipartisan opposition to Chinese economic policies among the US legislators.[32]

Under these circumstances, the question is whether President Trump’s unilateral act is the best policy to pressure China. From a simple bargaining perspective, the answer is no. The US trade depends significantly more on China than vice versa. In addition, by owning billions of dollars of US treasury bonds, the Chinese government account for a significant portion of the US budget deficit.[33] Simply put, the US does not have the bargaining edge on its own to pressure China into making significant concessions. Thus, it is likely that Trump’s trade war with China was driven by his misperception of America’s relative bargaining position.

To be more effective against China, the US should act multilaterally and through an international organization. The more allies the US brings along to the negotiation table, the greater share of Chinese imports can be hurt in case of a new trade war. Thus, such an alliance can use the threat of a more destructive trade war against China and convince the Xi Jinping Administration to alter its policies.

The problem however is that too many partners without a mediating international organization can be chaotic and ineffective.[34]  To solve this problem, the US should guide its alliance through an international organization such as the WTO. So, there is a way to gain a significant bargaining edge against China: acting multilaterally and through an international organization – namely WTO. If Trump considered this strategy, he would have greater chances of fulfilling his 2016 promise of forcing China to change its trade policies.

(vi) Pressuring Europe and East Asian allies to spend more on their own defense

President Trump insisted that America should reduce military support for its allies both in Europe, and Asia. He believed that it should be up to these allies to take care of their own defense. Some conservative pundits welcomed this statement by interpreting it as a move to reduce the US’ budget deficit. Be that as it may, scholarly work suggests us that there is significantly more to the story.

America’s large military contributions to its allies alleviated the latter’s defense burden. Historically, thanks to enjoying considerable defense burden relief, America’s allies were able to spend more towards the welfare of their citizens. Hence, we witnessed the emergence of highly civilized welfare paradises such as Japan or other European nations. Consequently, these countries became economically strong enough to afford US exports – which ultimately made America the great nation that the President Trump liked. However, the US did not do it for free. As T. C. Morgan, and G. T. Palmer show, all these countries enjoyed defense relief at the cost of their allegiance to the US in international relations.[35]

The Trump era policy of forcing allies to spend more on their own defenses can have two dire consequences. First, its European and Asian allies will have less incentives to cooperate with the US in international relations than before. If these countries do not cherish the economic benefits of allying themselves with the US, they will not help the US counter countries like Russia and China. For example, absent its allies, the US will not have any significant bargaining leverage against China – as I explained in the previous section.

The second risk is the downfall of liberal democratic regimes. If the US withdraws its military support, its allies will have to spend more on their defenses. Thus, their citizens will suffer a visible decline in the welfare spending. This could translate into the rise of extreme leftist or rightist politicians who threaten the survival of the democratic institutions in their country.

All in all, the US’ support of its allies is far from a naive chivalresque act. It actually enables the US to remain the leader of the free world. Thus, Trump’s initiative on withdrawing defense support from America’s allies may have a drastic effect on the US’ global hegemonic status. Consequently, the US may find it harder to meet challenges rising from countries like China and Russia.

 (vii) Personal Rapprochement with dictators like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Many democratic pundits accused Trump of being too amicable with de facto or de jure dictators like Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, India’s Modi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. They even vilified Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard for her call to communicate with Syria’s President Basar Al Assad. These pundits were worried that Trump’s sympathy and rapprochement towards dictators legitimized the latter’s human rights violations. So, should the next US president take a firmer stance against dictators than Trump?

Upon my survey of the extant empirical literature, I failed to find any research suggesting that having good relations with dictators increase these dictators’ incentives to violate human rights.[36] Similarly, I could not find any research that finds that executive visits from the US to authoritarian regimes increase human rights violations in the latter. In addition, we know that foreign aid to oppressive regimes has no discernible impact on the human rights records of these countries.[37] On the other hand, economic sanctions[38], or withdrawal of aid[39] tends to increase human rights violations and civil violence in the recipient regimes.

It seems that taking a harsh and punishing stance against oppressive regimes does little to improve the human rights conditions in these countries. Yet, this does not mean that being friendly with authoritarian countries yield significantly better results. For example, Turkey’s President Erdogan not only purchased, but also test-launched S-400 missiles even though he cherished somehow amicable relations with President Trump. Similarly, although President Trump respected Russia’s Vladimir Putin, this did not at all result in Russia’s cooperation with the US in Syria, Iran, or Ukraine. Thus, the best approach against dictators may need to involve careful pragmatism instead of a complete love or hate.

*           *           *

Overall, President-Elect Biden will be better off not insisting on continuing President Trump’s foreign policy agenda if his goal is to maintain American global hegemony. However, I would refrain from advising him to passionately undo all the Trump era practices. Indeed, the US should repair its relations with its long-term allies to cherish its hegemonic status, and to effectively bargain with China. However, it should not shift to an unpragmatic and negative stance against dictatorships. Pragmatism pays better than idealism when tackling with these regimes.


[1] https://www.infowars.com/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/user/Timcasts

[3] https://www.youtube.com/c/KimIversen

[4] Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent. 2019. “Trump Didn’t Shrink U.S. Military Commitments Abroad – He Expanded Them. The President’s False Promise of Retrenchment” Foreign Affairs. Web: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-12-03/trump-didnt-shrink-us-military-commitments-abroad-he-expanded-them

[5] See https://apnews.com/article/33e12cf640a6408bb11aa3defa864966 and https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-reveals-details-about-mystery-missile-in-west-point-speech-2020-6 and https://www.stripes.com/news/trump-delivers-speech-at-pentagon-touting-new-weapons-to-protect-us-from-missile-attacks-1.564886 and https://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2020/may/16/trump-says-us-is-developing-a-super-duper-missile-video

[6] https://abcnews.go.com/International/trump-orders-strike-syria-response-chemical-attack/story?id=54459378

[7] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-drops-the-mother-of-all-bombs-on-afghanistan

[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49198565

[9] Benjamin O. Fordham. 2002. ”Domestic Politics, International Pressure, and the Allocation of American Cold War Military Spending” The Journal of Politics 64(1): 63-88

[10] Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrman. 2013. “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail” International Organization 67: 173-195

[11] R. Harrison Wagner. 1982. “Deterrence and Bargaining” The Journal of Conflict Resolution” 26(2): 329;

[12] Branislav Slantchev. 2005. “Military Coercion in Interstate Crises” The American Political Science Review 99(4): 533-547 and Branislav Stantchev. 2011. Military Threats: The Costs of Coercion and the Price of Peace Cambridge University Press

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] More than one country imposes the sanction.

[16] Such as the UN, EU, or OAU.

[17] Navin A. Bapat, Tobias Heinrich, Yoshibaru Kobayashi and T. Clifton Morgan. 2013. “Determinants of Sanctions Effectiveness: Sensitivity Analysis Using New Data” International Interactions 39(1): 79-88

[18] T. Clifton Morgan, Navin Bapat and Valentin Krustev. 2009. “The Threat and Imposition of Economic Sanctions, 1971-2000” Conflict Management and Peace Science 26(1): 92-110

[19] Cem Birol. 2020. “How Should the Next US President Approach Iran” Aiglon’s Two Cents. Web:  https://cembirol.com/2020/10/13/how-should-the-next-us-president-approach-iran/

[20] Suzanne Maloney. 2019. “Iran’s threats are an attempt to negotiate” Brookings. Web: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/07/26/irans-threats-are-an-attempt-to-negotiate/

[21] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49106989

[22] Kristian Coates Ulrichssen. 2020. “The Gulf States and the Middle East Peace Process: Considerations, Stakes, and Options” Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Web: https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/25b245c0/bi-brief-082520-cme-gulfstates.pdf

[23] Cem Birol. 2020. “Assessing North Korea’s Missile Tests” Aiglon’s Two Cents. Web:  https://cembirol.com/2020/10/12/assessing-north-koreas-missile-tests/

[24] Birol, Cem. 2019. “Publicly-Conducted Missile Tests in International Politics.” Diss., Rice University. https://hdl.handle.net/1911/107985.

[25] Which is nevertheless still better than the Obama era Strategic Patience

[26] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/30/how-the-miserable-death-of-moammar-gadhafi-factors-into-kim-jong-uns-nuclear-ambitions.html

[27] See R. H. Coase. 1974. “The Lighthouse in Economics” Journal of Law and Economics 17(2): 357-376; G. Hardin. 1968. “The Tragedy of Commons” Science, New Series 162(3859): 1243-1248; Mancur Olson. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action, Revised. Harvard University Press; Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Cambridge University Press; Elinor Ostrom, Roy Gardner, and James Walker. 1994. Rules, Games & Common Pool Resources. University of Michigan Press

[28] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions

[29] I think that the rest of his not-so-popular talking points were mainly borrowed from Mr Alex Jones, Mr Roger Stone and to a greater extent Mrs Ann Coulter.

[30] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7st2oG5AwU&ab_channel=FRONTLINEPBS%7COfficial

[31] If someone makes a Schindler’s List-like movie for the Uighurs, this will likely not be shown in the majority of the US theaters.

[32] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53517439

[33] https://www.industryweek.com/the-economy/article/22025438/us-needs-china-more-than-china-needs-the-us#:~:text=The

[34] Richard McKelvey. 1979 “General Conditions for Global Intransitivities in Formal Voting Models” Econometrica 47(5): 1085-1112; Anne Miers, and T. Clifton Morgan. 2002 “Multilateral Sanctions and Foreign Policy Success: Can Too Many Cooks Can Spoil the Broth?” International Interactions 28(2): 117-136

[35] T. C. Morgan and G. Palmer. 2003 “To Protect and to Serve: Alliance and Foreign Policy Portfolios” Journal of Conflict Resolution. 47(2): 180-203; G. Palmer and T. C. Morgan. 2006. A Theory of Foreign Policy Princeton University Press

[36] Except for supplying the dictators with arms, and CIA support which was not a peculiar strategy of Trump.

[37]Patrick M. Regan. 1995. “U.S. Economic Aid and Political Repression: An Empirical Evaluation of U.S. Foreign Policy” Political Research Quarterly 48(3): 613-628

[38] Dursun Peksen. 2009. “Better or Worse? The Effect of Economic Sanctions on Human Rights” Journal of Peace Research 46(1): 59-77

[39] Richard A. Nielsen, Michael G. Findley, Zachary S. Davis, Tara Candland, and Daniel L. Nelson. 2011. “Foreign Aid Shocks as a Cause of Violent Armed Conflict” American Journal of Political Science 55(2):219-232

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: