After two and a half years of Donald Trump, foreign leaders appear to have a read on the unpredictable American president and his international modus operandi: He’s much more bark than bite, a president whose bluff can be called without particular fear of the consequences.
Certainly Trump’s blustery warnings are at deep odds with his own noninterventionist foreign policy instincts. He is both suspicious of multilateral relationships and cautious about using US military power. As a result, he is more inclined than any recent president to leave the world to do as it will.
Example A: the leader formerly known as Little Rocket Man. Early in Trump’s term, North Korea despot Kim Jong Un set about firing missiles to grab global attention. He got it from Trump, whose Twitter threats and leisurely deployment of some Navy ships seemed to cow Kim to some degree. That led to more conciliatory behavior, which led to a diplomatic outreach, which led to flowery letters, which led to not one but two summits between Trump and Kim. But, of course, no denuclearization agreement. The two sides walked away. A frustrated Kim is now back to throwing missile-testing tantrums.
Two things seem clear here: For all Trump’s previous Twitter-rattling, Kim no longer fears retaliation. Nor does Trump have any interest in escalating matters again. He’s essentially decided to ignore Kim and hope sanctions will bring about a change of attitude.
If North Korea doesn’t fear this president militarily, neither does Iran. Having honored the terms of the multination nuclear deal for more than a year after the Trump administration pulled out, Iran has announced that it will resume stockpiling enriched uranium and may enrich to a higher level if other nations don’t help relieve the pinch of US sanctions. Iran obviously wouldn’t have declared those intentions if it believed Trump was likely to respond militarily, now or later.
Now, let’s be clear: It’s encouraging that Trump has been more prudent than his own rhetoric and his hawkish second-wave advisers gave reason to expect. We saw another example of that caution after The New York Times reported that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, pursuant to an order from National Security Adviser John Bolton, had developed plans to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East in the event of an Iranian attack. On Tuesday, however, Trump more or less dismissed the idea, saying the administration wasn’t planning for that and “hopefully, we’re not going to have to plan for that.” That’s similar to what happened with Venezuela: Trump’s foreign policy team repeatedly suggested the United States might intervene military, but Trump himself showed little interest in such a course.
Trump, who reportedly has told associates that if Bolton had his way, the United States would already be at war in multiple places, is right to be wary of his hawkish national security adviser. That said, a president who eschews productive if imperfect multilateral efforts doesn’t have much by way of muscle once potential adversaries recognize his reluctance to back tough talk with action. Certainly stern admonitions and renewed US sanctions haven’t brought Iran to its nuclear knees. Nor has the (previously scheduled) movement of a carrier group to the Persian Gulf. Iran’s leaders haven’t been prompted to pick up the phone and call, as the American president says he’d like them to.
If the good news is that Trump’s foreign policy thus far has erred on the side of caution, not confrontation, the bad news is that he isn’t accomplishing much as he tries to deal with admittedly difficult problems. If only this president could learn from failure, he might come to see that his various foreign-policy frustrations argue for the wisdom of a more robust multilateral approach.