From Hanoi to the Middle East: Trump's failed foreign policy

From Hanoi to the Middle East: Trump's failed foreign policy
Comment: Trump's foreign policy from East Asia to the Middle East has proven to be a haphazard exercise in futility, writes Imad K. Harb.
6 min read
09 Mar, 2019
Trump returned from his second summit with the North Korean leader empty-handed [Getty]
What there is of an American foreign policy has just received a kick in the chin.

President Donald Trump's second summit with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un in Hanoi, Vietnam 
fizzled before the two could delve deeply into the complicated aspects of the DPRK's nuclear file.

This failure robbed Mr Trump of the opportunity to distract observers from his former attorney Michael Cohen's scandalous testimony to Congress about the president's past malfeasance, in which he described him as a racist, a conman and a cheat.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this was one of the worst weeks for Trump's embattled presidency. Equally unavoidable is a poignant realisation that the next couple of years are unlikely to bring much respite.

To be sure, Trump's domestic troubles will be daily occurrences until the end of his term in January 2021. But it is the disarray that besets American foreign policy that will arguably rob the United States of much prestige and influence around the world.

In that regard, the Hanoi summit stands out as a combination of wishful thinking and willful ignorance that added to the other continuing failures.

Debacle in Hanoi

While reaching a deal with North Korea regarding its nuclear programme is both necessary and laudable, the president's unfounded optimism about accomplishing it quickly, given the attendant complications, set him up for disappointment.

In fact, the president's own decision to withdraw from the 2015 Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran was arguably the most indicative of things to come with North Korea.

The Hanoi summit stands out as a combination of wishful thinking and willful ignorance

Other Trump withdrawals from the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and disparagement of European and NATO allies, have perhaps convinced North Korea that Trump is not to be trusted.

In fact, it's folly to believe that Kim Jong-Un is a standard bearer of the rule-governed international order. To be sure, he'd rather have Trump use the power of the United States to disrupt it for him.

But Kim's trouble was in how to be certain that any agreement with the American president would be ironclad, and inviolable. It was also in how Kim might gurantee his stifling control over North Korea, something a potential denuclearisation agreement with the United States might weaken.

Instead, Kim opted to humour the American president in the hope that he might get concessions. That ruse worked the first time the two men met in Singapore in June 2018, a meeting no North Korean leader has been able to secure with a sitting American president.

As it happened, Singapore signaled American acknowledgement of Kim's legitimate leadership of his impoverished country, allowing him to meet the 45th president of the United States as an equal. After that astounding success, Kim received another concession when President Trump suspended US-South Korean military drills.

Nevertheless, the Singapore meeting was a fiasco.

Kim merely 
gave ambiguous assurances about denuclearisation and peace on the Korean Peninsula that, since last June, have not borne out. That meeting should have warned Mr Trump and his lieutenants not to attempt another.

Last week's Hanoi summit only reaffirmed the free concession Mr Trump granted in Singapore: Coveted American recognition of Kim, despite his dismal record of human rights violations, and threat to South Korea and the region.

And even after walking out of the summit, the president exonerated the North Korean leader of his responsibility for the torture and ultimately the death of American student, Otto Warmbier.

It was as if Mr Trump was still trying to convince Kim of the efficacy of reaching a deal, despite evidence that not even each side's basic conditions could be satisfied.

To add to the president's self-inflicted humiliation, the North Koreans held a post-summit news conference to dispute his announcement that the summit failed because he rejected The Korean Supreme Leader's demand for an end to all sanctions on his country.  

Still, after the president's return, the United States announced it is ending the large-scale exercises with South Korea that it only suspended last year. The administration laid the blame on the high cost of these drills that the president wishes to transfer to South Korea.

In review, it is now evident and indeed a welcome fact, that President Trump having walked out of the Hanoi meetings was in fact a relief, given the good chance he might have given up more free prizes without much in return.

Read more: Saudi long-range missile factory sparks fears over weapons proliferation

That a third Trump-Kim summit is not planned is testament that President Trump's slapdash negotiating style is ineffective, and only results in more embarrassment for US foreign policy.  

Other blind pursuits

If the costly letdown in Hanoi spells an uncertain future with North Korea, the continued pursuit of other foreign policy follies and ill-advised choices is likely to erode whatever international influence there remains for the United States.

President Trump's coddling of one-man rule in Saudi Arabia in the person of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) has weakened the American position when demanding accountability for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It has also deprived the administration of the ability to question the kingdom's violations of human rights.

The president's advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner is recently returned from meeting the crown prince in Riyadh, signaling continued support at the expense of what little might remain of Washington's moral standing.

It also appears that the White House was working on allowing the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia without adhering to the safeguards necessary for the export of this sensitive technology.

That June meeting should have warned Mr Trump and his lieutenants not to attempt another

And as the 2017 Gulf crisis approaches the end of its second year, the Trump administration seems to have thrown in the towel in trying to force a reconciliation that serves the interests of the United States and its Gulf allies.

On Yemen, the administration has allowed Saudi Arabia some disgraceful behaviour, sullying whatever scraps of American reputation and credibility that might help end one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.  

In Syria, the Trump administration has given up working towards a political process that could help the transition away Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian rule. Russia and Iran have in fact arguably become the most consequential actors at the expense of the Syrian people.

Finally, any semblance of rationalism in pursuing an even-handed process on the Palestinian-Israeli front has long disappeared.

What Trump, Kushner, and their so-called Middle East team have engendered is the utter collapse of any hope that the United States will one day help bring about a fair resolution to the oldest ongoing conflict in the region.

Indeed, Trump's foreign policy from East Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere has proven to be a mere haphazard exercise in futility.

It is likely that what remains of Trump's term will witness more abject external failures that will accurately reflect equally problematic domestic fortunes.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.