Column: Trump’s foreign policy has produced a string of failures

President Trump and John Bolton
President Trump last year with then-national security advisor John Bolton, who was ousted Tuesday.
(Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press)

The strangest thing about President Trump’s aborted plan to fly the Taliban to Camp David wasn’t the terrible symbolism of hosting terrorists three days before the anniversary of 9/11 — although that was bad enough.

Even crazier was Trump’s underlying premise: that he could sweet-talk Taliban leaders to end the war in Afghanistan by luring them to a weekend in the bucolic Maryland countryside.

But Trump doesn’t understand diplomacy. It’s not about splashy deals and self-aggrandizing stunts; it’s about nurturing alliances and building relationships. It’s not done on a whim; it takes time and preparation. And the purpose isn’t to make the president look good; it’s the harder work of averting crises and ending wars.


This isn’t just me saying this. That’s the advice of America’s most seasoned diplomats.

“Even when Trump’s instincts are correct, like the need to explore a deal with the Taliban after 18 years of bloody stalemate …. [his] illusions, impulsiveness and incompetence smother any glimmer of diplomatic possibility,” William J. Burns, who served as a senior diplomat under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told me. “There’s nothing wrong with disruptive diplomacy. But what we’ve seen from Trump is lots of disruption, and very little diplomacy.”

The president keeps making the same mistake: seeking headline-grabbing summits with his adversaries in hopes of landing a big deal and burnishing his image as a statesman.

It hasn’t worked. It didn’t even work when he tried it with Democratic leaders in Congress.

Yes, he got three made-for-TV meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But Kim is still testing missiles and building nuclear weapons, which is what those meetings were supposed to end.

Yet the president and his aides count his North Korea talks as a win. He wants to try the same playbook with Iran. On Monday, he repeated his offer to meet with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani.

“I always say having a meeting is a good thing,” Trump explained.

On the general principle, he’s right. But Trump doesn’t have what’s required to make his foreign policy work.

First, the White House needs a clear strategy and a cohesive staff. Trump has neither. His foreign policy team has been chronically divided.

On Tuesday, Trump ousted his third national security advisor, John Bolton. Bolton opposed the proposed deal with the Taliban, opposed Trump’s bromance with Kim, and opposed negotiations with Iran. The real question is why he took the job at all.

Second, an administration needs to know where it has leverage against adversaries and where it doesn’t. Trump has often overestimated U.S. strength and underestimated the tenacity of others. And he has avoided working within alliances, which earlier presidents considered a key asset. Trump prefers to go it alone.

Third, complex diplomacy requires careful groundwork, mostly out of public view. The Obama administration’s controversial nuclear deal with Iran, which Burns helped arrange, took more than two years of negotiations — after more than four years of secret contacts.

Trump prefers Twitter storms and televised summits. He boasts that he trusts his gut, not briefing books.

All those factors helped sink his Taliban gambit.

His staff was at odds over whether the draft agreement, which called for a partial pullout of U.S. troops in exchange for Taliban promises, was acceptable. Trump apparently hoped to win more concessions from the Taliban at Camp David. The Taliban declined to be props for his reelection campaign or to be mousetrapped into new negotiations. They wanted the deal inked in Qatar, where the talks took place.

It didn’t help that Trump repeatedly said he wanted to bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible. That gave the Taliban little reason to change course.

Trump’s other experiments in personal diplomacy have yielded meager results as well.

In North Korea, he claims an unlikely friendship with Kim — “We fell in love,” Trump said — but it hasn’t produced any signs of nuclear disarmament.

North Korea continues to manufacture nuclear warheads and test short-range missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan. There’s no sign that Kim is willing to give up his nuclear arsenal, the core U.S. goal.

On China, Trump has escalated tariff wars that have increased costs to American consumers, farmers and manufacturers. But they haven’t produced the improved trade deals he promised.

“His record is pitiful,” Robert B. Zoellick, chief U.S. trade negotiator under President George W. Bush, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Even by the president’s own measure, the U.S. trade deficit, he’s losing.”

In the Middle East, Trump set his sights on the biggest diplomatic deal of all, a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to oversee it.

But Kushner still hasn’t publicly unveiled his long-promised peace proposal, and no negotiations have occurred. Last week, the chief Middle East negotiator, a former real estate lawyer for Trump’s family business, resigned.

Trump can claim a few modest wins. He jawboned several NATO allies to increase their defense budgets. He pushed Canada and Mexico to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, although the Senate hasn’t ratified it. And he got an updated trade deal with South Korea.

But those are hardly the successes the president promised. What he’s doing hasn’t worked. And there’s no sign he’s learned any lessons.

Come 2020, voters will be entitled to look at his foreign policy record and ask: Where are the deals?