Trump’s Erratic Foreign Policy: Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

The president has a habit of making noise only to back down at the first sign of trouble.

American president Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, February 1
American president Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, February 1 (USAF/Robert Cloys)

The cancellation of Donald Trump’s planned nuclear summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is the latest example of his erratic foreign policy backfiring.

  • Fred Kaplan reports for Slate that Trump frightened aides by refusing to prepare for the summit.
  • Jim Brunsden of the Financial Times reports that the administration is making unreasonable demands of the EU: either a 10-percent cut in steel exports or punitive tariffs above a certain threshold. The bloc’s inevitable refusal to entertain either option — and warning that it will retaliate against tariffs — could lead to a transatlantic trade war.
  • Ilan Goldenberg, a former diplomat now with the Center for a New American Security, tweets that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s economic advisor, Peter Navarro, did everything wrong they possibly could in trade talks with China, from arguing in front of their hosts to leaking to the press, which only caused the Chinese to hunker down. They left Beijing with nothing but vague promises — and yet Trump climbed down from his threat to launch a trade war, which he once said would be “easy to win”.

Speak loudly and carry a small stick

Both David A. Graham and Edward Luce remark that Trump has a habit of making noise only to back down at the first sign of trouble.

Other examples:

  • Announcing aluminum and steel tariffs, then exempting Canada and the EU.
  • Demanding an immediate withdrawal of troops from Syria, then launching airstrikes against the country two weeks later.
  • Demanding China’s help to change North Korea’s behavior, only for a ten-minute history lesson by Xi Jinping to persuade him there was little the Chinese could do.

The cost to America’s credibility

Luce argues that Trump’s basic dialectic is threats followed by conciliation followed by rage followed by threats.

The price of these mood swings is to weaken America’s leverage:

With each fresh cycle, the administration’s threats are taken less seriously.

Ironically, it were Trump’s Republicans who accused his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, of undermining America’s credibility by not taking military action against Syria when it crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons.