Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

February 27, 2019

The elements central to understanding Donald Trump’s foreign policy are: his egocentrism, the expansion of his business, and the preservation of his political base to meet the former two elements and thereby maintain power. He is a constant bully to critics, those weaker than him, and competitors.  On the other hand, he is submissive with strong, authoritarian leaders, especially if they possess compromising information against him or can provide him global media coverage. Add all of this to his vast ignorance of scientific and international themes, inability to focus much time on one key issue, disdain for intellectuals, routine lies, authoritarian profile, racism, sexual and financial corruption, arrogance, and narcissism. Under this perspective, his slogan “America first” becomes “Trump first.” 


Since the beginning of his term up to early February 2019, Trump has told 8,459 lies or exaggerations. What is more, he has created a culture of truth-distortion by surrounding himself with staff-- many of whom have been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Muller III– that lie to cover for him or because they fear getting fired. Ironically, Trump treats media outlets that report the truth as “false news,” calling them “enemies of the people,” as Stalin did.


Thus, it is naïve to search for principles, values, moral guides, ethics, knowledge or proven experience that guide the president’s conduct. An external policy that is well-thought, all-encompassing, coherent, systematic, and defends the interests of the U.S. and its allies is not attractive to Trump because it would be a strait jacket that prevents his improvisations, often caused by a tantrum, jealousy of another world leader, or the need to appease his minority base. Trump’s actions, all stick and no carrot, radically change by the minute for absurd reasons, which explains the colossal crisis that has occurred in U. S. foreign policy in the past two years.


A brief example of how Trump makes decisions. Last November, he criticized the U.S. Federal Reserve’s policy of continuing to increase the interest rate— “a much bigger problem than China” —because this could provoke an economic slowdown and stock market decline that would hurt his business: “I am not happy with the Fed’s policy, they are making a mistake and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” Historically, the Fed has employed the nation’s top economists, but Trump’s guts are wiser.


It is astonishing that the Republican Party, supposedly based on principles like free trade, fiscal balance, and the reduction of foreign debt—all violated by Trump—, maintains its silence and does not criticize his actions. This suggests that beneath its façade, the Republican Party hides behavior as objectionable as the president’s: they accept everything in order to maintain power.  Such servile attitude was changing at the end of 2018 and early 2019 when some Republicans-- worried about the 2020 elections--began distancing themselves from the president.


In this article, I analyze Trump’s actions and their effects on the world, especially in Latin America. The information comes from U. S. European, and Latin American press, as well as the Internet.




Trump has been a constant bully of Western democratic leaders. At the G-7 Summit in Singapore in 2018, he refused to sign the final communique.  He also said that Germany “was totally controlled by Russia,” for receiving Russian petroleum, and accused the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, of “false statements… [and being] dishonest and weak.” At the NATO Summit, the president labeled the organization as obsolete, accused the European Union (EU) of trade enemies, and threatened that, if NATO members did not increase their financial commitment, he would not automatically defend them against a Russian attack. Trump criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May for not following his “thoughtful” advice on how to conduct Brexit (sue the EU!) and added that Boris Johnson—who had just resigned in protest of May’s Brexit politics—would be an excellent Prime Minister. Additionally, Trump posted a series of tweets condemning the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who, during a speech commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, defended globalism and criticized nationalists, a direct reference to Trump that infuriated him.  


Contrasted with his ignominious treatment of democracy, Trump has cultivated the sympathy of dictators and autocrats, such as Kim Jung-on, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Recept Tayying Erdogan, and Andrzej Duda. His engagement with Vladimir Putin is the most despicable, considering Putin’s annexation of Crimea, destabilization of Ukraine, and responsibility for the downing of a passenger plane flying over said country in 2004. This is in addition to Putin’s use of lethal gas to assassinate his opponents residing in the United Kingdom and his military intervention in Syria to aid Bashar al-Assad, who had destroyed his country, assassinated hundreds of thousands of citizens and displaced millions. At the G-7 Summit, Trump asked for the reinstatement of Russia, which has been excluded since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. 




Before last July’s Helsinki Summit, it was obvious that Trump faced a risk due to his usual lack of knowledge and preparation. Take, for example, his arrogant assertion that he is a “stable genius,” vis-à-vis an ex-member of the KGB, who is clever, well prepared and experienced in dealing with three previous U.S. presidents. During the weekend before the summit, the American sheep played golf while the Russian wolf sharpened its teeth. Before Trump’s departure, Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence military officials with meddling in the 2016 presidential election.


After a meeting between the two leaders, a reporter asked Trump: “President Putin has denied having anything to do with the 2016 election [but] American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia did it, who do you believe?” Trump responded: “Dan Coats [the head of the National Security Council] and others told me that they believe it is Russia and President Putin just now told me it is not Russia… I see no reason it would be… I have confidence in my intelligence agents, but President Putin was extraordinarily strong and powerful in his refusal today.”


In his final public statement, John McCain condemned such action: “Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin.  He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script…. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Other U.S. leaders accused Trump of treason. In November, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen confessed that his boss offered to gift Putin a penthouse valued at $50 million dollars in the new Trump Tower in Moscow, in exchange for encouraging Russian oligarchs to buy the rest of the building’s apartments.


During the election campaign, Trump argued that U.S. sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea were not necessary, a conciliatory gesture to Putin. In November 2018, Russian warships attacked three Ukrainian ships in their own territorial waters, capturing the boats and their 23 crew members—Putin testing how far he could go. Ukraine could not win this war without external support, but the American warships that sail in the Black Sea avoided passing through the Sea of Azov and NATO did not take action. We have seen that Trump would not necessarily defend an ally against Russian aggression; first he blamed both sides, only to then ask Russia to return the ships and detained sailors. In protest, bully Trump became a meek sheep, canceling his meeting with Putin at the G-20 Summit. According to Russian officials, the true reason for the cancellation was the aforementioned revelation of the apartment offer to Putin. Last January, Trump suspended the U.S. sanctions against Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, another gift to Putin; the U.S. Senate eventually approved the measure.




Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which facilitated the expansion of Chinese business and investment in the region; moreover, he boasted about abandoning NAFTA (see below).


Likewise, he refused to sign the international treaty to monitor global warming and repealed measures enacted by Barack Obama to protect the environment, opposing the resounding report ordered by Congress, prepared by 300 scientists and signed by 13 federal agencies that demonstrates the existence of global warming and its already grim effects in the United States. In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump confirmed “[there are] a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence,” to which the reporter retorted, “then how is it possible that you don’t believe in global warming?” Trump responded with two incoherent sentences: “You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean” and regarding the atmosphere, he argued “oceans are really small,” in spite of the fact that oceans make up 70% of the earth’s surface. He concluded: “As to whether or not it’s [global warming] man-made, I don’t see it.”


Trump canceled the international nuclear treaty with Iran (“a disaster… one of the worst in history”) which caused damage to Iran: “their economy is destroyed… their dollar has collapsed, there are riots every week….” Though the Iranian economy has suffered, Trump exaggerated, and most of signatory countries, including the EU and China, remain part of the treaty. 


What is more, he gave Russia 60 days to comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty or the U.S. will withdraw from it, which he eventually did; Putin walked out of the treaty too and announced an escalation in nuclear weapons.


In December, Trump withdrew 2,000 North American troops stationed in Syria and half of those stationed in Afghanistan, without consulting the coalition of countries or the Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, causing his resignation. In his resignation letter, Mattis accused the president of undermining alliances essential for national security since World War II, on par with maintaining relations with authoritarian governments. Putin readily praised this. For the first time, the Senate—controlled by the Republicans—voted against Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops.


In the same month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raged against the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Union, reaffirming U.S. nationalism.




In the past, Trump repeatedly attacked Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea, nicknaming him “rocket man,” but following the 2018 summit, Trump said that they “fell in love” and Kim was “very talented,” proclaiming: “We were going to have a big war with millions of deaths…. [now] we have a good relationship with Jong-un… No more missiles… no more [nuclear] tests… they are closing their [nuclear] sites….” Supposedly, Kim “would work for a complete denuclearization,” but U.S. intelligence services have proven that North Korea continues producing nuclear material and intercontinental missiles and expanding a key launch base. Trump had to cancel a second meeting with Kim due to the adverse reaction of Americans, but agreed to have it at the end of February 2019.


The initially amicable relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping later resulted in a trade war. On this issue, the Trump team is divided into two antagonistic factions: one favoring compromise and the other an iron hand. Trump saw the Chinese goal of surpassing the United States in 2049 as a danger to national security and decided to deal with it as such. He condemned China for devaluating its currency, robbing U.S. technology, spying on industry and gaining a trade surplus. He placed a tariff on the importation of Chinese products: 10% first (at a value of $250 billion dollars), a rise to more than 25% at the start of 2019 and an expansion on all imports if an agreement was not made. China implemented tariffs worth $110 billion dollars, stopped buying U.S. liquid natural gas, and reduced 40% of soybean purchases. The conflict harmed both countries. In spite of Trump’s bravado—“the trade war will be easy to win” and “China badly needs this deal”—the U.S. stock market suffered serious losses in 2018 and farmers of certain products were hurt by the tariffs, the danger of a recession has risen in 2019. The Chinese economy cooled even before the tariffs’ impact.


By the end of the G-20 Summit, the two leaders announced a 90-day truce; Trump suspended new tariffs but maintained the pre-existing ones. There was not a final communique and each party interpreted what had been discussed in their own manner. Trump cheerfully assured: “It is an incredible deal… If it happens, it will go down as one of the largest deals ever made…. Farmers will be the greatest beneficiaries… [China] will begin to buy agricultural products immediately.” China would also reportedly remove the 40% tariff on automobile imports and will buy $1.2 trillion dollars in American products, more than ten times the amount sold in 2017. The Chinese said that the meeting was “very successful,” but did not mention anything Trump claimed (except the truce) and declared that both sides would work to gradually reduce the trade imbalance. The director of the National Economic Council commented that he was not sure what the President said. After 48 hours, Trump changed his rhetoric and threatened that if China did not comply, he would raise tariffs. This chaos provoked a crash of 3% in the U.S. stock market, which spread globally. Changing his tone once again, Trump alleged that Beijing was sending positive “strong signals.” He ensured that 90 days was a short period of time to achieve the structural changes in China that the U.S. had demanded for decades and feared that—as it had been in the past—Beijing would use the truce to gain more time. Trump named negotiator Robert Lighthizer to represent the hard line against China, and the struggle deteriorated further with the arrest and likely extradition to the U.S. of the chief financer of the Chinese communications giant, Huawei. According to Mei Xinju, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade: “I think we should prepare ourselves for a prolonged trade war.”




Since he was a presidential candidate, Trump has criticized U. S. intelligence agencies. Right after FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress about Russian interference in the elections, Trump fired him allegedly to restore “the trust of the people.”


Trump has accepted Putin’s word in spite of evidence from intelligence agencies. A CIA report demonstrates that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of Iranian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The majority of democratic nations urged the Crown Prince to investigate, and a group of bipartisan senators agreed with the CIA report. Following a period of hesitation and with a total disregard for human rights, Trump decided that the intelligence agencies did not matter; an assassination is not a good enough reason to cut lucrative ties with the Saudis ($450 billion dollars). His reason: “[Salman] totally denied doing it [ordering the crime] and denied it to me on three occasions.” His guts are more accurate than intelligence agencies, his own political party, and world leaders.


The relationship between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu was excellent and the former decided to shift the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, confirming the latter as the capital of Israel. This action undid decades of U. S. foreign policy, as well as the international consensus on the status of Jerusalem; moreover, it provoked the fury of Palestinians and the end of the attempt by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to achieve peace between the two nations. A conviction of Netanyahu for various cases of fraud and corruption or his defeat in the upcoming elections may end the Israeli rule and affect relations with Trump.




Upon announcing his presidential bid in 2015, Trump slandered Mexican immigrants as assassins, rapists, and drug traffickers, and promised to deport 11 million of them and construct a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. This was a mark of his racist and disdainful attitude towards the region. During his first two years in government, he mostly ignored Latin America, except for his campaign against migration and the confrontation of authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. His first action was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, affecting Latin American countries in the Pacific, and the second was to threaten leaving NAFTA. He charged Mexico and Canada of benefitting from a foreign trade surplus with the United States, and persisted in his unwise demand that Mexico pay for the cost of the border wall in spite of refusals from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Trump requested $5.7 billion dollars from congress to build his wall, but was unsuccesful because several Republican congresspersons opposed him as well as all Democrats who now control the House. In one of its major tantrums, the President shut down the government for 35 days, the longest in history, and left without pay 800,000 federal employees, his folly has caused a loss of $11 billion dollars and reduced growth by 0.4 percentage points in the first quarter of 2019. Due to a drop in its population approval and opposition from some Republicans, Trump "threw in the towel" and restored the funding, but only until mid-February. Persisting in his attempt, he has threatened to declare a national emergency in order to raise funds for the wall, taking money from where comes to mind, including social programs.


Trump’s first visit to the region was during the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires. At the start of the event, he removed the headset translating the words of president Mauricio Macri—confirming his inability to pay attention for much time—and claimed he could understand better in Spanish, which, of course, he does not know. Adding to the number of times in which the president gets confused and goes where he should not, just after shaking hands with Macri, Trump suddenly walked off, leaving the leader onstage, and forced an agent to run after him. Nevertheless, a preliminary triumph was achieved through the signatures of Peña Nieto and Trudeau to the revision of NAFTA, now called T-MEC. There is no striking difference between the two treaties, though there is a clear improvement that will allow U.S. dairy farmers to sell more products to Canada. Despite Trump’s optimism, T-MEC faces approval by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. There are officials that believe that the treaty should have gone farther, for example, obligating Mexico to impose mandatory wage increases to avoid unfair competition with the U.S. On the other hand, the far-right criticizes that the treaty puts too many limits on the free flow of goods and services between the three countries. The appeals to review T-MEC would be rejected by Mexican President Manuel López Obrador, who at his inauguration, promised to profoundly and radically change his country, and by Trudeau, who is annoyed by the imposition of U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports.


Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant politics were proven when he said that Norwegian immigrants would be more welcome to the United States than would immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti and African nations. In 2017, Trump ended the DREAM Act (800,000 undocumented youth that Obama permitted to stay in the country) and intended to deport them, but 15 states sued the federal government and a judge stopped the order. Relentless, Trump launched “Zero Tolerance,” which separated 3,000 children from their detained parents, dispersing the first without tracking their destination. After huge national and international opposition, the program was ended, but leaving hundreds of children in limbo. In October, some 7,000 Central Americans, threatened by violence and poverty in their countries, marched toward the United States. Trump branded this caravan an “invasion” of thugs and promised to send 5,000 guards to the border; the first arrivals at the border were met with tear gas. The height of hypocrisy: Trump has employed undocumented Latin Americans at his golf courses and hotels.


Trump has cloned right-wing extremists in several countries or has supported leaders in power or heads of movements with whom he shares ideas, promoting right-wing populism that is eroding the democratic liberalism that has long prevailed in the world. The most recent is the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro. An ex-military and great admirer of Trump, Bolsonaro uses the slogan “Make Brazil big again,” adores weapons, dismisses global warming as a Marxist conspiracy, denounces the critical press as fake news, and his main priority is to establish a close relationship with the United States.


In January, Trump launched an action to support the new president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, who has called for free and transparent elections and proclaimed himself the legitimate president of the country against Nicolas Maduro, who was “re-elected” for a second term of six years in a fraudulent election that has not been recognized by much of the international community. The OAS, which had been trying for months to get support from member countries against Maduro, joined in this action. By the end of January, 21 American nations had joined, including the largest, like Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia and Peru. Opponents include three in the region, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, as well as Russia, China, Syria, Turkey, and Iran that support Maduro. The EU Parliament, as well as Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom—after a deadline asking Maduro to agree holding free elections that he rejected—have recognized Guaidó. China and Mexico have spoken out for non-intervention and proposed a dialogue to get out of the impasse. The U.S. president ordered a seizure of payments for imports of Venezuelan oil, which deprives said nation of its largest income in foreign currency. Moreover, Trump has said several times that “all options are open,” including military intervention. On February 1st, National Security Advisor John Bolton reiterated this threat. There have been massive public demonstrations in Caracas in favor of Guaidó, a failed attempt at military subversion, the resignation of a couple of Venezuelan diplomats abroad, and the desertion of an aviation Division General. Nonetheless, the leadership of the armed forces has backed Maduro such that Guaidó has offered to pardon all those who abandon the dictatorial regime.


Trumpist policy in Venezuela contradicts his collusion with autocrats all over the world; moreover, military action would be a return to past U.S. interventionist policy in Latin America. To the extent that Trump has shown disregard for human rights, this argument to potentially intervene in Venezuela is hypocritical. If Barack Obama had been the president, with his enormous international prestige, strong record on the defense of human rights and supporter of diplomatic solutions to global conflicts (Nobel Peace Prize), the United States would had been better represented. Let’s hope that such intervention is avoided so that the Venezuelan people can emerge from the profound economic and political crisis in which they are currently immersed.




Trump repeatedly claims that, due to this foreign policy, “America is respected again in the world,” another lie unmasked by Gallup and Pew polls: perception of the U.S. abroad has collapsed since he assumed the presidency. According to Pew, in 25 countries a median of 70% have no confidence in Trump (90% in Germany, 91% in France, and 94% in Mexico). None of Trump’s international actions has received support in the United States; 54% disapprove of his performance and in the midterm elections—a referendum on his politics—Democrats won the House by an overwhelming margin, and although Republicans held the majority in the Senate, they only did so with 42% of the popular vote. World leaders are confused, angry, and anguished by Trump’s actions and their fateful effects. In his speech to the United Nations in 2018, the president asserted, “In less than two years, my government has achieved more than almost any other in the history of our nation,” which was greeted by a general laugh that resounded in the enclosure. He has provoked increasing isolation between the United States and its traditional allies and has generated gaps in foreign policy that are being filled by China, especially in Latin America. A coherent and effective foreign policy strategy will be needed for many years to repair the enormous damage that Trump has caused the United States and the world.


This article was originally published in Spanish by Estudios de Política Exterior, Madrid, February. This English version has been updated by the author who has also added new sections.


About Author(s)

Carmelo Mesa-Lago's picture
Carmelo Mesa-Lago
Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Economics & Latin American Studies, visiting professor or researcher in 7 countries, lecturer in 39 countries, author of 82 books and 275 articles published in 7 languages in 34 countries, on social security, Cuban economy, and comparative economic systems; founder Cuban Studies. Most recent book Voices of Change in the Non-state Sector (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). Consultant in Latin America/Caribbean, ex President LASA, member National Academy of Social Insurance, ILO International Prize on Decent Work (shared with Nelson Mandela)