Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Trump's Final Foreign-Policy Report Card

| Jan. 05, 2021

A look back at four years of big ambitions, a handful of successes—and many more failures.

A lifetime ago—January 2017—I sat down to assess outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign-policy performance. Obama inherited a global financial panic and two unsuccessful wars, behaved with exemplary poise and dignity throughout his two terms as president, and achieved several clear foreign-policy successes. Yet despite having voted for him twice, I concluded that "in foreign policy Obama's record was mostly one of failure."

Now, as President Donald Trump's single term staggers to a chaotic and undignified close, it's time to perform a similar evaluation. Having run for office calling U.S. foreign policy "a complete and total disaster," was Trump able to right the ship of state and chart a better course? Compared to other countries, did America’s power, prestige, and global influence rise on his watch? Or does Trump's handling of foreign policy call to mind his bankrupt casinos, the Trump ShuttleTrump University, or other failed business ventures?

Trump's foreign policy sprang from a sense of grievance. He thought the rest of the world was taking advantage of the United States; he was going to put "America first" instead. Allies would pay full price for U.S. protection, adversaries would be confronted and vanquished, and the United States would pursue its own self-interest with scant regard for diplomatic niceties. He'd stop China from "stealing" American jobs and take the United States out of "bad deals" like the Paris climate accord and the nuclear agreement with Iran. Portraying himself as a master negotiator, he promised to reach "beautiful" new trade deals that would restore U.S. manufacturing and usher in a new era of prosperity. The United States would play the sucker no longer: It would get "out of the nation-building business," crack down on immigration, rebuild a supposedly weak defense establishment, and get Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern border.

In sum, Trump offered a seductive vision that promised unbroken success with little or no additional effort. Restoring U.S. dominance wouldn't require personal sacrifice, national unity, or even a well-conceived strategy—putting a "very stable genius" at the helm was all it would take to "make America great again." Once he became president, Trump promised, Americans would "be so sick and tired of winning."

So how did this all work out? ...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Trump's Final Foreign-Policy Report Card.” Foreign Policy, January 5, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt