Reckless Choices, Bad Deals, and Dangerous Provocations

Trump’s Foreign Policy Is in a Downward Spiral Toward 2020

Trump at a news conference after the NATO Summit in Brussels, July 2018 Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Superpowers have a lot of room for error. Unlike lesser nations, they can shrug off many of the consequences of failed policies. Their weight and influence can compensate for subpar statecraft. But bad policy eventually takes its toll on everyone. And right now, bad policy is taking its toll on the United States.

As U.S. President Donald Trump nears the fourth year of his presidency, he confronts the damage wrought by his own policies almost everywhere. The Trump administration has maneuvered itself into diplomatic cul-de-sacs with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. It has undermined its own efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. The economic damage from Trump’s trade war with China is mounting, and Beijing shows few signs of giving in. At the same time, the president’s laceration of alliances leaves the United States weaker and more isolated.

For three years, Trump has played fast and loose with American power—picking fights with little thought to how and whether the United States can win them, damaging relationships he needs to accomplish his objectives, and shunning the systematic policy work that superpowers must embrace. The cost of this negligence is finally coming due.

Things could get worse in 2020. The president has always styled himself as the ultimate deal-maker, and his desire for diplomatic breakthroughs will grow as the presidential election approaches. Yet U.S. competitors can see that Trump is in a tight spot, so they will offer him a choice between bad deals and no deals. They may even pursue escalatory strategies to dial up the pressure on a floundering superpower. A few constructive initiatives notwithstanding, the overall trajectory of Trump’s foreign policy has been steadily downward. Year four could be the most dangerous yet. 


Trump’s foreign policy has unfolded in phases, corresponding to each of his years in office. In 2017, the “axis of adults”—principally Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMasterconstrained some,

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