Trump arrives at U.N. struggling to sell his foreign policy record
President Donald Trump once expected that his brash and disruptive style of foreign policy, while horrifying to Washington elites, would be political asset with American voters.
Trump envisioned himself alternately standing up to and bonding with world leaders from China to France to Canada, striking a dazzling nuclear deal with North Korea, intimidating Iran’s Islamist clerics and even restoring relations with Moscow.
But as Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, his foreign policy record has proven to be a weak selling point ahead of November’s crucial midterm elections, according to interviews with a half dozen current and former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.
“The president has disrupted things on foreign policy but those disruptions have yet to yield a lot of fruit,” said one former senior administration official. “It’s the reason why the president is not out there touting his foreign policy successes because it’s still a work-in-progress. If you were to give a judgment right now, it would not be a favorable one.”
Trump officials disagree, saying that Trump has proven himself a strong leader who is expanding the military, bending rivals like China and Iran to his will, and building a relationship with the previously reclusive leader of North Korea.
But current and former officials and experts describe a much more complicated picture, one that has some voters concerned about their security and America’s image abroad.
A Gallup poll, conducted in August, showed Trump earning the highest marks among voters for his handling of the economy, while 58 percent of the voters surveyed disapproved of his work on foreign affairs and 61 percent disliked his dealings with Russia.
The U.S. approach to global trade also remains in flux, as the federal government imposes billions of dollars in tariffs on China and tries to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to keep some semblance of a relationship with Canada, a long-time ally.
Pulling out of the Iran deal has scrambled international alliances within that region — a topic Trump will discuss on Wednesday when he chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, with the briefing focused on Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Trump’s efforts to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, including at a widely-denounced summit in Helsinki in July, meanwhile, have backfired — only seeming to draw more scrutiny to his alleged 2016 campaign ties with a meddling Kremlin.
Talks to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons have yielded scant progress — even as Trump continues to publicly compliment the North Korean dictator and tease a possible second summit with him, as he did Monday during meetings at the U.N.
“On North Korea, I think by their own standards, they are frustrated. They expected to have more dramatic breakthroughs,” said Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former senior director at the National Security Council under President Obama.
Wolfsthal argued that Trump’s unusual approach still offered a chance to “reset the frame” with North Korea.
“My concern is that they have created the opportunity, but they are not capable of taking advantage of it. If they want to achieve real progress on denuclearization, they have to be unified within the administration. They have to be unified with the South Koreans, and they have to have vision of how all incentives fit together. That’s not Trump’s style. He shoots from the hip,” he added.
This improvisational approach to foreign policy by the businessman-turned-president may produce stellar outcomes in the long-term, said current and former administration officials, even as the short to medium results seem unclear.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stressed the need for patience on Monday in New York, when asked about the progress of the North Korea talks and when the administration would abandon negotiations if they didn’t progress.
“You have to remember this is a process that will move forward. To set a date certain would be foolish,” Pompeo said. “But make no mistake about it — the conversations that we’re having are important. They’re putting the opportunity to complete the denuclearization in place. And we will continue at every level to have those conversations.”
Trump allies point to several under-the-radar accomplishments on foreign policy.
One Trump transition official complimented the administration for strongly confronting China on national security grounds, accelerating actions against ISIS in Syria and forcing NATO allies to increase defense spending as a check on Russian power.
“The policies against the Russians have been stronger since the wall came down between the two countries, even if it doesn’t always match the rhetoric from one person — one really important person,” said the former transition official about Trump. “But the actual policies are tough, including instituting three to four rounds of sanctions. Those are actions Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush would have taken if they were president.”
Still, foreign policy is not playing a starring role in the campaign messages for the November midterms, when Republicans face the prospect of losing the House and possibly their majority in the Senate.
Republicans lawmakers instead are highlighting the robust state of the economy, the confirmation of 68 conservative judges, and the fear-based argument that if Democrats prevail, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will surely try to impeach President Trump.
In his own campaign-style rallies, Trump often also talks about the need for stronger immigration laws, the construction of a border wall, and unfair trade practices — often divisive rhetoric that helped propel his campaign in 2016.
Yet Trump is eager to have his legacy also hinge on foreign policy breakthroughs, said Republicans close to the White House, much the way Richard Nixon is remembered for building a relationship with China.
Trump wants all of the wooing of foreign leaders over dinners and golf games at Mar-a-Lago and the White House to pay off with dividends, so his foreign policy accomplishments ultimately surpass those of Presidents George W. Bush, who pushed the U.S. into the war in Iraq, and Barack Obama, whose policies Trump has uniformly sought to undo.
“There was a sense that the president wanted to be a great foreign policy leader, and he prided himself in the business world on having good relationships with people,” said the former senior administration official. “He thought he would exceed expectations but that hasn’t panned out.”