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Trump 2020 foreign policy

Foreign Policy Post-Election: A (Trump) Primer

Words: Emma Ashford
Pictures: Library of Congress

It’s getting to be crunch time. In any normal election, this is the point at which candidates would be crisscrossing the country, shaking hands, kissing babies, and frantically trying to remember if they’re in Montana or Minnesota. Of course, it’s 2020. So, Joe Biden is engaged in a semi-virtual and socially distanced campaign, Donald Trump is conducting what observers are increasingly describing as a COVID super-spreader rally tour, and no sane person is going to let a presidential candidate come anywhere near their baby. Donald Trump’s probability of winning a second term continues to decline; now, less than a week out from the election, his odds of winning have dropped in the 538 model to just ten percent. But with suspicions of voter suppression, the difficulties of conducting an election in a pandemic, and the memory of 2016 hanging over everything, most observers seem to have concluded that anything could happen.

Want to know what could happen with foreign policy after a Trump win? Read on:


As we’ve all learned in the last four years, guessing what Donald Trump will do in foreign policy is a bit of a gamble. At times, he has proven the predictions right, withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal, getting in a trade war with China, and badly mishandling the international aspects of COVID-19. But in other ways, he’s surprised us all, backing down from starting conflicts with Iran and North Korea or sending arms to Ukraine. His foreign policy in a second term is thus challenging to forecast, but unlike 2017 – when he entered the presidency totally inexperienced in foreign policy – the president now has a track record. And his record suggests four big themes that are likely to continue during a Trump second term:

1. The president’s almost legendary distaste for multilateralism, institutions, and international treaties has been a key driving force of his foreign policy. During his first term, Trump withdrew from arms control treaties, from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty to the Open Skies Treaty. He withdrew from international organizations, most notably the World Health Organization. And Trump has repeatedly made clear his distaste for US alliance commitments, and for free-riding allies. In a second term, expect this to continue. The United States will likely continue a strongly unilateral approach to the world, and – though there aren’t many arms control agreements left to trash – we could see the US stepping back from other institutions, or even from its alliance commitments.

A second term would probably include an even less professionalized foreign policy team – and fewer constraints on Trump’s ability to make foreign policy as he wishes.

2. Trade has formed a core component of the Trump administration’s approach to the world – to the extent that questions about protectionism and domestic industrial policy re-entered the mainstream of national security discussion for the first time in several decades. But it’s notable that despite that, the linkage between trade and national security was often rhetorical. Sure, the administration started a trade war with China that some national security experts argue (wrongly!) is a necessary first step to “decoupling” the US and Chinese economies and handling the threat from China. But Trump also started a trade war over steel with some of America’s closest European allies. So while trade would likely remain a core concern in a second Trump term, it’s not necessarily going to be focused on national security concerns as much as the president’s personal distaste for trade.

3. All foreign policy is to some extent personal. But Donald Trump has taken it further than most, both in how his own personal relationships have shaped his foreign policy, and in his obsession with publicity over substance. The president’s penchant for strongmen authoritarian leaders, his inability to deal with female leaders, and the relative ease with which his ego can be flattered have all contributed to poor foreign policy outcomes in the first term. High-profile summits with Kim Jong Un, for example, did little to actually solve the nuclear question. And that’s without accounting for all of Trump’s slightly shady attempts to work with foreign leaders to make business deals, or to undermine his political opponents. It’s easy to forget now, but that’s what got him impeached early in 2020. Expect this trend to continue – and likely worsen – in a Trump second term.

4. Many observers began the Trump presidency with the notion that the so-called “adults in the room” could constrain the president’s worst impulses, educate him on foreign policy, and guide him towards a better path. Needless to say, that’s not how it panned out. Instead, the trend over time has been decreasing professionalization among the president’s advisors. Sure, there are still foreign policy experts in the administration, but his fourth national security advisor has limited government experience, his Director of National Intelligence was appointed primarily for his support during impeachment proceedings, and most Pentagon appointees now come either from backgrounds in defense consulting or as Fox News talking heads. No matter how you look at it, the bench is getting awfully thin for future Trump appointments. A second term would probably include an even less professionalized foreign policy team – and fewer constraints on Trump’s ability to make foreign policy as he wishes.


A second presidential term usually means a slightly freer hand for a president, but – aside from a few notable exceptions like Ronald Reagan – typically doesn’t bring major changes in foreign policy. With Donald Trump, however, there’s no knowing what a second term could bring in foreign policy. The trends discussed above are liable to continue. There are other areas, like support for Israel, or hostility towards Iran, where we can expect some continuity. But there are a whole host of other questions with no clear outcome.

Will Donald Trump finally succeed in removing US troops in Afghanistan, or will the Department of Defense manage to slow-roll that withdrawal even further? Will he pull troops from Syria, or be persuaded by advisors that they must stay to protect the oil fields? Will he withdraw from NATO to antagonize European leaders, or will he decide that increased military spending from allies is good enough? And will he amp up tensions with China further, or instead enjoy high-profile summits to end the trade war?

Your guess is as good as mine. Which means that a Trump second term is liable to look a lot like Trump’s first term in one key way: it would be predictably chaotic… and exhausting.

Emma Ashford


Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative, where she focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, Middle Eastern affairs, energy politics, and US grand strategy. She holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia.


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