So at a moment of high tension — with Trump juggling unfolding crises with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and China — the rest of the world could be forgiven for being in a state of high alarm.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Trump said on Thursday.
Each of these simmering crises is also the result of decisions made earlier in the Trump administration. It’s too early to know whether he, and America, will succeed or fail. Presidents reap what they sow in foreign policy, even if it takes time for their initial decisions made early in their terms to reshape the world.
But the bill may be becoming due for Trump’s unorthodox style.
The President often treats foreign policy as an extension of his wild, unpredictable character that abhors restraints, has little appreciation for history and lives in the moment. He says he’s the master deal maker, but he’s more of a destroyer than a builder on the world stage.
He loves splashy headlines, defying the wisdom of diplomatic sages, the spotlight of one-on-one summits, jabbing allies and using tyrants as pen pals.
He enjoys wielding a big stick but doesn’t want to get into foreign quagmires. He disdains long-thought-out strategies, hates global organizations and doesn’t sweat details.
The current dramas have all been exacerbated by the President’s shoot-from-the-lip interventions and his tendency to reject traditional diplomatic practice.
While accusing Xi Jinping’s government of moving the goalposts in trade talks, he praised the Chinese leader for sending him a “beautiful letter,” easing investor fears after markets dipped into a two-day Trump-initiated nosedive.
Trump has also sent contradictory signals to Iran and North Korea, leaving US strategy opaque, contributing to uncertainty — never a desirable state of affairs in geopolitics.
Foreign diplomats say Trump’s impulsive style makes it almost impossible to predict American policy — a factor that is adding to global instability.
Often, Trump seems to be placating a slice of his domestic base rather than playing diplomatic chess.
His denunciations of Maduro’s socialism mirror his 2020 campaign attacks on progressive Democrats.
In many cases Trump’s policies are contradictory: He is trying to kill a nuclear deal with Iran while attempting to reach another with North Korea.
And there are increasing indications that US strategies, especially toward Iran and Venezuela, are being directed by national security adviser John Bolton, who has a long history of support for militaristic and regime change solutions.
Trump, who hates it when his subordinates steal his thunder, shot down that idea on Thursday.
“He has strong views on things, but that’s OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing isn’t it?” the President said.
A slide to war with Iran?
The US withdrawal from the Obama administration’s international Iran nuclear deal fit all the requirements of Trump foreign policy.
It let him take a swipe at his predecessor. It was hugely popular in the GOP. And it created a headline and angered US allies, encapsulating Trump’s “America First” philosophy.
But the consequences of the decision are becoming clear in a sudden escalation of tensions that has raised fears that the US and the Islamic Republic are locked into a slide to war.
Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy of punishing economic sanctions and directly targeting Iran’s clerical rulers is regime change in all but name.
Iran is now threatening to withdraw from aspects of the nuclear deal, possibly to pressure European nations who are still signed up, to force them to do more to mitigate the pain of US sanctions — including an effort to eradicate Iran’s oil exports.
As part of a policy that is seen as the brainchild of Bolton — an Iran hawk — the administration sent an aircraft carrier strike force, along with some heavy bombers, to the region this week.
Pompeo cranked up the pressure yet again on Thursday.
“We do not seek war. But Iran’s forty years of killing American soldiers, attacking American facilities and taking American hostages is a constant reminder that we must defend ourselves,” Pompeo said in a statement.
The sudden activity and administration messaging about what it calls “Iran’s expansionist policy” have led some observers to compare the strategy to the Bush administration’s march to war with Iraq.
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Trump wanted to force Tehran to change its behavior.
“We need to restore deterrence against Iran’s regional aggressions,” he said.
But as the last two decades have shown, Washington’s sense of its own power to shape events in the Middle East is often disastrously exaggerated. And its perceptions of how adversaries interpret its pressure are often wrong. It’s not clear that Trump’s team has learned that lesson yet.
Obama’s Iran deal halted Tehran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges, freezing the breakout time to a nuclear weapon and postponing a US decision on military action that could destabilize an already shattered region and shock the world economy.
All that now seems back on the table.
“I think there are increasing risks of collision between us and the Iranians,” William Burns, a retired US senior diplomat, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Thursday.
“The Trump administration is making a very risky bet. That is that you make coercive diplomacy work when it is all about coercion and not very much at all about diplomacy.”
“You are relying on maximum pressure but not connecting it, as far as I can see, to either realistic aims or any channels of diplomatic communication,” he said.
Trump offered a hint Thursday that his hard line was designed to force Iran to negotiate a better deal — encompassing its missile program and what the US says is malign regional activity.
“They should call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them,” Trump said. But since the US strategy appears to hinge on Iranian capitulation, it is unclear why Tehran would pick up the phone.
Which is why many experts fear what will happen next.
Not yet taking Kim’s bait
Kim Jong Un is getting antsy.
Trump’s rationale is that after decades of failed US diplomacy, his personal connection with Kim can prompt a historic breakthrough.
Yet after offering Kim the concession of two face-to-face meetings, there has been no progress toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
But Trump is also not taking Kim’s latest bait — a sign that his gullibility revealed in their first summit in Singapore last year might be less of a factor.
“What appears to be happening is North Korea is testing the United States, trying to push them towards some sort of negotiation, reopening the talks,” Amy Pope, a former senior Obama administration official, said Thursday on CNN.
“The President is right not to kowtow to that and to accept that as an appropriate way of negotiating, but at the same time there is a more serious question that undergirds all of this.
“What is the President’s strategy on North Korea? What is the diplomatic negotiating going into it behind the scenes?”
Trump is seeking to keep his channel to Kim open, but the fear is that the North Korean leader will further escalate tensions if he does not get the economic concessions he seeks.
If he goes back to long-range missile tests or nuclear detonations, the prospect of a horrific war on the peninsula could quickly return.
“Nobody’s happy about it, but we are taking a good look and we’ll see,” Trump said when asked about missile tests overseen by Kim this week.
As for the future: “We will see what happens.”