The president’s unilateral actions on Iran, North Korea and China have often left him forging ahead alone on critical foreign policy issues.
“America First” has turned into America alone.
President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran over the objections of every other country that signed the agreement. Now, he’s stuck in a dangerously escalating standoff with Tehran.
He accepted an offer to sit down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on the spot, without consulting anyone else. Now, Pyongyang is restarting weapons tests and once again training its rhetorical fire on the U.S.
And he hit China with tariffs on U.S. imports after unsuccessfully pushing Beijing to change longstanding trade practices that he deems unfair. Now, the two are at an impasse on trade negotiations, causing anxiety to ripple through the global markets.
Two and a half years into his presidency, Trump finds himself increasingly isolated as he forges ahead in each dispute — all exacerbated by his go-it-alone strategy.
“This administration doesn’t care about enlisting allies. We’re moving forward. Period,” said Gérard Araud, who retired as French ambassador to the United States in April. “For us, we are totally at a loss — 60, 70 years of foreign policy thrown overboard.”
Those divisions will be on display later this week when Trump heads to Japan for an annual meeting of the globe’s 20 biggest economies. While the talks are designed to center on financial issues, a series of foreign policy flashpoints — starting with Iran — are expected to overshadow the meetings.
Days ago, Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone, inching the two counties closer toward an armed conflict. Trump on Friday said he ordered a retaliatory strike on Iran Thursday night but called it off at the last minute because of estimates the attack would kill 150 people.
Even before Iran’s latest provocation, the Pentagon announced it would dispatch 1,000 more American troops to the Middle East, supplementing 1,000 troops sent to the region last month.
“Trump has approached diplomatic negotiations like business deals, including personal engagement, high stakes gambles and threats to walk away. Yet international relations has complicated and sometimes dangerous second-order effects,” said Amanda Sloat, who served as deputy assistant secretary at the State Department and as a senior adviser on the Middle East at the Obama White House. “Iran, North Korea and China are challenges that predate Trump — so the question is whether his approach is making things worse.”
Trump entered office on a wave of nationalist sentiment and promising to withdraw the U.S. from both international agreements and Middle East military entanglements.
Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, an international pact to combat climate change, withdrew most America forces from Syria and has constantly flirted with a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Perhaps most notably, Trump withdrew from a 2015 agreement — struck between Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — that offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the country curbing its nuclear program.
In every instance, Trump essentially acted unilaterally, shunning the customary support and input of the United States’ allies, as he attempted to make good on his “America First” strategy.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he said while visiting U.S. troops in Iraq in December. “We’re spread out all over the world. We’re in countries that most people have never even heard about. And, frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
But his take-it-or-leave it strategy, in some cases, hasn’t fully delivered the foreign policy vision he outlined when he came into office — ending America’s “endless wars,” bringing U.S. troops home, no longer policing the globe.
In addition to sending more troops to the Middle East amid rising tensions with Iran, Trump has twice ordered strikes in Syria as warnings to President Bashar Assad over his use of chemical weapons on civilians. And Trump’s military advisers have so far convinced the president to retain a military presence in Syria and Afghanistan.
Trump has faced criticism in each instance from Democrats — and even some Republicans — for turning his back on U.S. allies and international organizations and rejecting diplomacy. That condemnation has been especially acute as the U.S. and Iran inch toward a possible military confrontation.
And an inflection point is on the horizon. Iran announced last week that by the end of the month it will have stockpiled more nuclear fuel than is allowed under the 2015 deal, which remains in place despite the U.S. withdrawal. Tehran also said it would possibly enrich its uranium beyond the limits laid out in the deal, getting it closer to having the capability to make a nuclear weapon.
“The place we have arrived at…on Iran is Donald Trump’s choice,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He chose escalation over diplomacy, without any idea how to get out of the downward spiral he set in motion.”
Iran is not Trump’s only unfinished business. After the G-20 summit, Trump will stop in Seoul to visit with South Korea President Moon Jae-in and discuss North Korea.
The Trump administration’s denuclearization talks with North Korea have stalled in recent months after some initial progress. After initial talks, Pyongyang ceased its nuclear testing and dismantled some of its nuclear facilities. But at the second summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un in February, Trump walked away early after Kim requested a significant rollback of sanctions in exchange for several more intermediate denuclearization steps.
Since then, North Korea has restarted what experts say are limited missile tests. Trump once again broke with allies — and even his own advisers — when he proclaimed that the new tests did not violate a U.N. Security Council resolution.
“It is nearly impossible for allies to understand what U.S. policy is on any given topic,” said Heather Conley, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration and is now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “It is likely the president’s reactive instinct will complicate his other policies as none of them have been thought through or coordinated.”
Trump is also expected to meet at the G-20 conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss their escalating trade dispute, which has seen each country slap tariffs on the other’s goods. Talks between the two countries are ongoing, but no deal is immediately expected.
“He believes fundamentally the rules of the system had been disadvantageous to the United States,” said Ivo Daalder, a U.S. ambassador to NATO until 2013 who now serves as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “What he didn’t understand is the rules created the system of cooperation among countries.”
The most pressing question at the G-20 meeting, Daalder said, is whether China will replace the U.S. as the world’s leader.
“It’s very hard to lead when you have no followers,” he said.