Trump Diplomacy Windfall Coming?

Conventional wisdom holds that US foreign policy under President Donald Trump has been spectacularly unconventional, if not downright disruptive. Under Trump’s watch as chief executive, nearly every aspect of US diplomacy has been challenged in terms of tone and content, with virtually no legacy policy or program untouched. Scores of staff positions at the State Department have been left unfilled, creating virtual paralysis in the normal functioning of a diplomatic bureaucracy. Normally, this kind of disruption looks negative. However, when seen through the lens of a Trump administration determined to set its own course in international affairs, this dramatic break from past practice has been liberating, allowing for fresh approaches to old problems that conform with new geopolitical realities. Recognizing that most major foreign policy breakthroughs occur during the second term of a presidential administration, Trump’s disruption of the status quo can be seen as preparation for bold policy moves after re-election. Then, he might achieve groundbreaking diplomacy similar in impact to former President Richard Nixon going to China or former President Ronald Reagan ending the Cold War. Diplomacy under Trump has not been easy to either digest or discern. But if he can deliver on one or more major policy objectives — the denuclearization of North Korea, for example, and/or a new strategic relationship with Russia — then a second Trump term could go down in history as a windfall for US diplomacy.

In the history of modern US presidential administrations, major foreign policy breakthroughs tend to occur during the second term of two-term presidents. Nixon ended the US involvement in Vietnam and undertook the opening of relations with China only after being re-elected. Former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were one-term presidents, and as such were denied the opportunity for groundbreaking diplomatic initiatives. Reagan famously ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union, ushering in a new era of arms reductions and peaceful co-existence after more than four decades of ideological hostility. While former President Bill Clinton brokered the Dayton Accord that brought peace to the former Yugoslavia during his first term, his effort at doing the same for the Palestinians and Israel waited until the end of his second term. Former President George W. Bush’s term was consumed by two wars that followed the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, but his successor, former President Barack Obama, was able to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran deep into his second term.

Presidents are not constrained by the political calendar when it comes to diplomacy. Indeed, most newly elected presidents want to leave an immediate mark of the foreign policy stage. They are, however, constrained by pressures of domestic politics, which tend to consume their energy early on as the electorate that put them into office looks for discernable results. Moreover, most major diplomatic initiatives require years of preparation, meaning that a new administration starting from scratch must build the foundation for any potential diplomatic breakthrough, a process that often outlasts the four-year period of a presidential first term.

But simply redirecting policy priorities does not guarantee successful diplomacy. Historically, US foreign policy had been based on maintaining the so-called liberal global order founded in a rules-based system largely imposed on the rest of the world as the US was thrust into prominence and dominance after World War II. While US foreign policy has largely remained grounded in these principles of postwar geopolitics, the world has moved on. And the US has ended up trying to push outdated policy expectations into a new global reality in which they no longer fit well.

One could argue that much of the apparent chaos associated with Trump foreign policy results more from his efforts to redirect the US in response to current geopolitical realities rather than the simple incompetence charged by many detractors. His much maligned withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is grounded in a logical recognition that so long as the US sees Iran as seeking an undeclared nuclear weapons capability, the sunset clauses enshrined in the agreement simply put off to a later date Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. Likewise, Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia on nuclear arms and current indifference to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty reflect his opinion that Cold War-era bilateral arms control does not serve the interests of the US, when dealing with the growing threat of a nuclear-armed China. And the president’s willingness to meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, likewise recognizes the fact that 30 years of failed US North Korean policy had not solved the issue of that nation’s nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Finally, the president’s so-called “deal of the century” plan for Arab-Israeli peace is grounded in his belief that the negotiating framework had to be shaken up if there was to be any hope for resolution. This process has resulted in the normalization of relations between certain Gulf Arab states and Israel, something that has not been achieved by any previous administration.

More Efficient Decision-Making

Trump inherited a foreign and national security bureaucracy that was larger, and in many ways less efficient, than any in US history. For example, under Obama, the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) ballooned to 236, up from 40 in 1991, and 100 under President George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor. Some of this growth came when Obama merged the NSC with the Department of Homeland Security Council. However, the net result was a big team of experts looking to justify their existence.

As a result, the NSC lost focus on its traditional task of conducting strategic planning and coordinating interagency policy. Instead, a bloated NSC assumed a centralized decision-making role that intruded into operational and tactical details normally the purview of individual departments, such as State and Defense. Far from streamlining the process of policy formulation and implementation — the traditional objective of the NSC — the super-sized NSC staff resulted in policy paralysis by analysis, with the decision-making powers of the principle departments more often than not held hostage to internal deliberations among the many NSC experts.

The Trump administration’s current national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has undertaken a top-to-bottom restructuring and reorganization of the NSC that has cut it to below 120 staff, with further cuts likely. This reorganization began in February 2020 and is expected to be complete by the end of the year. If Trump is re-elected, he can start his second term with an NSC staff streamlined to support his way of doing business, with greater speed and efficiency.

Liberated From Domestic Politics

Trump was impeded from more freely exercising his foreign policy vision by a combination of inherited national security problems and an extremely hostile domestic political environment. From the start, his unexpected electoral victory in 2016 was followed by charges of collusion between his campaign and the Russian government that hounded him throughout his entire four-year term. Like Obama before him, Trump inherited a seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan, and like Obama, Trump initially followed the advice of the military to increase troops deployed there. Unlike Obama, however, Trump showed no reticence when it came to criticizing his military leadership for their failure to achieve anything remotely resembling victory in Afghanistan, or even the hope of victory. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan shows his willingness to challenge existing dogma, while more accurately reflecting the modern geopolitical realities of the Afghan conflict. The same can be said about Trump’s attitude toward the US military presence in Iraq and Syria, and the long-standing US approach toward negotiating with North Korea.

If Trump is re-elected, he will be less constrained by domestic political opposition. Moreover, by already successfully challenging long-held dogma within the State Department and Pentagon about how the US should function in relation to the rest of the world, and by rebuilding the NSC to better support his approach to policymaking, Trump is on the cusp of being able to deliver major diplomatic breakthroughs on several fronts. These potential wins include better relations with Russia, a more inclusive global arms control framework, Middle Eastern peace, and North Korean denuclearization. Any one of these outcomes would be a major accomplishment for any president. That Trump could be positioned to bring closure to all of them, and potentially more, shows that a second Trump term could very well be historic when it comes to meaningful foreign policy outcomes.

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