The authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is in peril. Afghanistan could finally see a peace deal with the Taliban and a drawdown of American troops. North Korea has stopped its nuclear tests — for now.
President Donald Trump is expected to tout these developments as major foreign policy wins during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, rebutting critics who say Trump’s main role on the international stage has been to bully American allies and further destabilize combustible regions with rash decisions.
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But while “win” may be too strong a word — each of these situations is fragile and could portend disaster — even the president’s skeptics are pondering the question: Doesn’t Trump deserve some credit?
Some of these critics grudgingly concede that Trump’s bulldozer mentality has pushed leaders of all political stripes into difficult conversations they’d long avoided, on everything from the downsides of free trade to whether the international institutions of the post-World War II liberal order need recasting. After all, on these and other fronts that have long troubled U.S. leaders — America’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan, potential long-term involvement in Syria, NATO defense spending and more — there was little or no movement until Trump took office.
“He’s a disrupter. That is leading to some very healthy debate about what are our goals,” said Ivo Daalder, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO and is a frequent Trump critic.
But such disruptions also come with costs. America’s European allies increasingly view the United States as unreliable. In Afghanistan, the government, not to mention Afghan women, fear the U.S. will abandon them to the mercy of the Taliban. And Trump’s call for U.S. troops to leave Syria could further embolden adversaries such as Russia and Iran.
“I don’t think he has a strategy,” said Daalder, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The reality is he shakes the tree, and then he walks away.”
Much of what appears to drive Trump on foreign policy is a desire to buck his predecessor. Trump and his aides regularly deride Obama as weak and risk-averse, bashing the former Democratic president’s policy of “strategic patience.”
Within weeks of taking office, for instance, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Tareck El Aissami, then a Venezuelan vice president and alleged drug kingpin. The Obama administration had held off on the sanctions for fear it could undermine diplomacy with Caracas.
Last month, Trump announced that he no longer recognized the Maduro regime, throwing his support behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó. In doing so, Trump forced the issue on the international stage. Other world powers have since recognized Guaidó, who has declared himself “interim president” and alleges that Maduro won a new term through a rigged election.
It was a startling action that has earned plaudits even from a few Democrats, who hold Maduro responsible for destroying Venezuela’s economy and starving its people.
But what’s not yet clear is what Trump will do if Maduro refuses to quit. So far, the Venezuelan military has largely stood by the autocrat. Trump on Sunday said he had not ruled out a military strike against the regime, but such a move could lead to even more unpredictable scenarios.
It’s impossible to say for sure whether Obama would have taken similar steps — the context for each president’s decision is different. But foreign policy analysts do agree that, broadly speaking, Obama was more hesitant to take actions that might lead to an unwelcome response.
“Obama was too cautious in his willingness to use leverage. He had a theory of escalation that if you use any leverage it could spiral,” said Tom Wright, a Brookings Institution scholar. “What Trump has shown is that the fears of escalation are not what Obama assessed them to be. He’s using leverage freely, often without thinking.”
Trump also has long questioned the value of keeping U.S. troops overseas.
He wanted to pull the U.S. out of Afghanistan altogether — and bristled at his national security team’s suggestion of a modest troop surge instead. While Trump initially went along with that plan, he’s since returned to signaling that he wants out. In response, his aides have scrambled to revive the dormant peace process with the Taliban.
In January, administration officials announced major breakthroughs in the talks, including a concession from the Taliban that it would not allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaida to use Afghanistan as a base to stage attacks outside the country. Now, even some of Trump’s skeptics say this is the best chance yet of ending the 17-year-old war. Trump’s decision to cut off U.S. aid to Pakistan, whose military is widely believed to support the Afghan Taliban, may have even accelerated the talks.
Still, numerous obstacles lie ahead. Concerns remain that the Taliban will once again take over the country, destroy its government, oppress its women and allow it to be used by international terrorist groups.
Similar concerns exist about Syria, from where Trump has said he would withdraw all U.S. troops who have been fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. The sudden decision, announced in December, was a classic example of Trump acting on instinct and ignoring his advisers, who have tried to slow things down.
It drew a bipartisan rebuke — the Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a measure opposing hasty withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. But, in an illustration of how Trump forces the difficult conversations, several Democrats, including some exploring running for president, voted against the measure with some saying they oppose “endless wars.”
“It is the job of Congress to responsibly end these military interventions and bring our troops home, not to come up with more reasons to continue them,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a socialist-leaning independent from Vermont eyeing a second run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Trump also has taken an impulsive approach to North Korea. When Pyongyang relayed an invitation for Trump to meet dictator Kim Jong Un, the president jumped at the opportunity.
Typically in such negotiations, U.S. presidents don’t meet with their counterparts until the end. The fact that the Kim regime ranks as one of the world’s most brutal is another reason past U.S. presidents avoided sitting down with its leaders.
Last week, a top State Department official revealed that Kim has agreed to the “dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities,” a set of sites that “represents the totality of North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs.”
While the vow is little more than a nonbinding pledge, some North Korea analysts are hailing it as a significant sign of progress after many stagnant months. They praised Trump’s approach, including his willingness to huddle with Kim.
“I’m sure he didn’t think about this a lot before he became president, but he’s stumbled into something here at least on the North Korea side of things,” said Joel Wit, who oversees 38 North, a Stimson Center project to study the region.
Obama was not entirely risk averse. He greenlighted the operation that killed al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, engaged with Iran to craft a deal curbing its nuclear program and restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Each of those examples, however, was the product of intense deliberation. Trump frequently dispenses with such careful considerations.
“He’s willing to do things,” said James Carafano, an analyst with the Trump-aligned conservative Heritage Foundation. “If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world.”
Those things include abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and reversing much of the diplomatic opening with Cuba.
Trump has also punished U.S. allies in ways Obama is unlikely to have done.
He imposed sanctions on two senior officials in Turkey, a fellow NATO member, for the country’s questionable detention of an American Christian pastor. Turkey freed the pastor, Andrew Brunson — a seeming victory for the Trump approach. But the relationship between Ankara and Washington may have suffered long-term damage.
Trump’s broadsides against NATO, too, have startled America’s closest allies. In particular, he insists that other NATO countries owe the United States money, a formulation that misstates the way the military alliance works.
But Trump’s broader argument, that other countries in NATO need to spend more on defense, meeting their obligations, is in line with what past U.S. presidents have also said. Trump just does it in a harsher fashion. His talk of “America First” has even led to genuine worries in Europe that he could pull the U.S. out of NATO altogether.
Late last month, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg credited Trump’s tough talk for an upsurge in defense spending — to the tune of $100 billion — by alliance members.
“We see some real money and some real results,” Stoltenberg said. “And we see that the clear message from President Donald Trump is having an impact.”
The NATO chief may have just been trying to butter up the U.S. president — after all, NATO members committed in 2014 under Obama to increase their defense spending. But there’s no question Trump has brought far more attention the issue than his predecessors.
Trump’s public grumbling about NATO has also put people in the trans-Atlantic foreign policy establishment in a position they’re not used to: having to justify the post-World War II world order largely set up by the United States.
Similarly, Trump’s trade deal bashing has put free trade advocates in a defensive crouch after years of enjoying broad support.
The president doesn’t always seem to grasp the basics of the trade system he trashes, and his remedy — imposing tariffs — may do more damage than good. But his criticisms have laid bare Americans’ anger at being left behind as markets change and international trade booms.
Trump’s willingness to start a trade war with China has helped spur debate about China’s place in the world, as well as its ambitions. Trump’s use of tariffs on China might backfire, but there’s a growing bipartisan consensus in Congress and beyond that Beijing is exploiting the West’s trade rules.
Many of these conversations had to be had, acknowledge even some of Trump’s fiercest critics.
“We likely need creative, affirmative disruption to update, to reform, to be more inclusive, to find the complex solutions for the enormous technological and social change taking place around the world,” said Wendy Sherman, a former top State Department official under Obama.
In Sherman’s opinion, though, Trump is more about destruction than disruption.
“He’s never strategic about where he is headed, how all the dots are connected,” she said.