President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign will surely be helped by the foreign policy story he can sell to voters.
Foreign policy isn’t something Americans usually care about at the ballot box — they mostly have domestic concerns — although a major foreign policy blunder could weigh down a candidacy.
But it helps that Trump’s Democratic opponents aren’t particularly strong on foreign policy — in fact, only two have seriously put forward their ideas so far. And more importantly, Trump actually has a pretty good story to tell.
Consider what he could conceivably say:
When asked to describe his foreign policy, Trump campaign national press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told me “President Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments are vast” and that he “has undeniably put America First and exhibited strength on the world stage.”
Of course, all of these boasts would require caveats — a lot of caveats. But there’s some truth to them, too. For example, the US-North Korea standoff is certainly at its lowest tension point in years, ISIS did lose its territorial “caliphate,” and the as-yet-unapproved trade deal with Mexico and Canada is better for workers.
That’s not to say Trump is bulletproof on foreign policy: He’s also cozied up to several dictators, ignored major threats like climate change, supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen, backed Riyadh after its de facto leader orchestrated the murder on US resident and dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, slashed refugee levels, and global attitudes toward America worsened during his presidency.
And Democrats will surely try to make the case that Trump’s foreign policy isn’t as good as he’ll say it is. “He’s going to run on a series of claims about his foreign policy ‘achievements,’” a top Democratic presidential campaign staffer who was not authorized to speak to press told me. “Anyone who follows this stuff knows they’re not true, but maybe not if you’re watching Fox News. It’s like foreign policy gaslighting.”
Overall, though, Trump can still boast that his “America First” approach on the surface looks pretty good — and it could help him win again.
Trump’s strong foreign policy narrative in 2020
There’s just too much to cover in Trump’s foreign policy, so it’s worth focusing on what (as of now) will likely be his three main talking points: beating ISIS, diplomacy with North Korea, and improving US-Israel ties.
Trump defeated ISIS
In 2014, ISIS controlled an area of land the size of Britain. The Obama administration quickly took action to make it fall: it built a global coalition, initiated airstrikes, and worked with ground forces to root out the terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria.
Despite his claims on the campaign trail that he would do things differently, Trump mainly adopted Obama’s strategy. There was one major difference, though: he gave greater authority to commanders on the ground. That allowed US troops to call in airstrikes more quickly and make critical decisions affecting any fight.
ISIS’ so-called caliphate continued to crumble. With US support, Iraqi troops retook Mosul — the group’s Iraqi capital — in July 2017. Three months later, American-backed troops recaptured Raqqa, the group’s Syrian capital. And in March, the White House announced that the last patch of land nominally under ISIS control finally fell.
It is undoubtedly a major accomplishment. It was always likely that the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS would win militarily, of course, since it has greater resources and equipment. But victory wasn’t guaranteed, and the Trump administration deserves credit for completing the job. Barring a major setback, Trump will surely brag about this continually on the campaign trail.
However, while ISIS’s territory is gone, the group itself remains.
According to reports by both the Pentagon and the US intelligence community, ISIS still has thousands of fighters spread across Syria and Iraq. One estimate from last August found that ISIS had as many as 17,100 fighters in Syria, and about 30,000 total between the two countries.
It’s clear, then, that the job isn’t done, but you can be pretty sure Trump will spend the next several months claiming “mission accomplished” anyway.
North Korea isn’t testing weapons right now
In 2017, it really looked like the US and North Korea were on the path to nuclear war. Pyongyang tested missiles that could potentially reach the United States, and even tested its biggest-ever nuclear bomb. Trump, meanwhile, said he would unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it kept threatening the US or its allies.
But that all changed at the start of 2018 when North Korea said it wanted to participate in the Winter Olympics, and South Korea — the host — agreed to the request. That initiated a series of events that lowered tensions on the Korean peninsula — and between Washington and Pyongyang.
It’s led to some extraordinary scenes, none greater than the two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and Vietnam. Trump now says he and Kim “fell in love,” and North Korea, while still releasing typical threatening messages toward America, rarely criticizes the president.
Most importantly for Trump, though, North Korea hasn’t tested a nuclear bomb or missile since September and November 2017, respectively. That allows him to say he minimized the North Korean threat and put Washington and Pyongyang on the path to peace.
It’s quite the compelling argument, and on its face it looks very, very good. But upon closer inspection there are significant problems.
First, the two countries have made very little progress in negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear program. Both sides are at an impasse: America is demanding that North Korea offer a full, detailed list of its nuclear inventory before the US lifts any sanctions on the country, and Pyongyang is demanding the sanctions be lifted before it offers the full list and seriously begins to downgrade its nuclear capabilities.
Second, North Korea expert Sung-Yoon Lee from Tufts University’s Fletcher School points out that there have been lengthy lulls in Pyongyang’s weapons testing before.
For example, about three years passed between North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests, and about four years between its second and third. It’s completed six tests in total, only one of which took place during the Trump administration. There have also been years-long gaps in North Korea’s missile tests over Japan, which started in 1998.
There’s more, but you get the idea.
Still, the feeling of imminent danger that much of the country felt in 2017 is currently gone. Trump does deserve some credit for that, but he hasn’t solved the North Korean crisis just yet. After all, it has yet to get rid of any of its nuclear weapons.
Trump has pleased Israel’s government
There are three main reasons why.
First, in May 2018 Trump withdrew the US from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu didn’t like the agreement, which capped Iran’s nuclear program and delayed its path to the bomb in exchange for sanctions relief, because he thought it would only help Iran acquire a nuke. Israel has long worried about Iran, but Netanyahu believes Tehran is an existential threat to his nation.
Just over a week later, Trump declared that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. It was a controversial move, as both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the city contains sites sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Though Israel’s parliament and the prime minister’s home are in Jerusalem, they sit in West Jerusalem, on the side of the city Israel has controlled since 1949. Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed that half of the city.
Netanyahu applauded Trump’s decision, saying “you have made history” during the official opening of the embassy in its new location.
Third, Trump recognized the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory on March 21, a strategic area of elevated land situated along Israel’s northern border with Syria. For decades, it was part of Syria but Israel conquered the region during the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community.
That’s why Trump’s decision was so controversial: Most other countries see Israel as illegally occupying the plateau. But last week, Trump tweeted that “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
Netanyahu once again thanked Trump, and went so far as to call him “my dear friend, Donald” during a White House press conference.
Polls show that support for Israel among Republicans and conservatives — Trump’s base — is growing, while it’s dropping among Democrats. Trump is making Israel a wedge issue during the campaign, brazenly calling Democrats critical of Israel “anti-Jewish.”
Trump will certainly hit on this theme over and over again to stir up support from his base. While that’s in part a cynical ploy, there’s no question he has made Israel’s far-right leader very happy and made it seem that US-Israel relations have never been stronger.
Trump is still vulnerable on foreign policy
Few experts I spoke to said Trump’s foreign policy has been overall successful, but some did agree that he has a good story to tell. Yet Trump may still not be able to turn that rhetoric into an advantage for three key reasons.
The first is that Trump’s messaging on foreign policy so far has been mostly doom and gloom: that the world has taken advantage of the US at the expense of Americans, and only he can fix all the problems.
Heather Hurlburt, a US foreign policy expert at the New America Foundation in Washington, says Trump will have a hard time turning that negative message into a positive one — even if it’s to boast about his foreign policy successes.
Bragging about his global accomplishments is a “narrative that’s really good for an establishment Republican to run on,” she told me, “but not for Trump.”
Thomas Wright, the Brookings Institution expert who tracked Trump’s foreign policy since the campaign, agrees. “His message that the US has been taken advantage of has resonated,” he told me, “but it could be shown that he’s the one that’s been taken advantage of.” For example, Trump claims his friendship with Kim doesn’t require him to be as tough on North Korea, all while Pyongyang continues to improve its nuclear program.
Second, Trump has faced opposition from his own party on foreign policy. Republicans in Congress have consistently rebuked Trump’s desire not to place further sanctions on Russia, and they also pushed back on his warm embrace of Saudi Arabia even after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman apparently ordered Khashoggi’s murder last year.
That’s a weak spot, as the president’s own party usually stands firmly behind him on major foreign policy issues. Those rebukes may weigh on the mind of voters as global affairs become more prominent during the campaign.
Finally, some Americans may see through Trump’s rhetoric, even if he tries to brag about his foreign policy. Here’s just one example: even though Trump keeps saying North Korea is no longer a threat, polls show the majority of Americans still believe it is. It’s possible that his claims of total success with Kim may fall on deaf ears as the election progresses.
Those vulnerabilities give Democrats an opening. The question, then, is what will they do with it?
“We have to run on a proactive message of our own”
Democrats, unsurprisingly, aren’t convinced by Trump’s narrative. When asked about the positive case for his foreign policy, they immediately point to how he underfunds the State Department, trashes allies, fetes autocrats, and lowers America’s standing in the world.
But the left is still in search of a coherent foreign policy message. The main theme emerging from the Democratic campaigns — based on foreign policy positions taken from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — is that they want to focus more on the United States, because only a strong America can project power and promote its democratic values abroad.
The best way to do that? Mainly by reforming America’s trade arrangements, ending US involvement in foreign wars, and improving the US economy. That’s all well and good, but it barely distinguishes them from Trump’s own efforts to put “America First.”
Partly to help Democrats message better on foreign policy, groups like National Security Action have popped up around Washington to work with campaigns. Ned Price, the organization’s director of policy and communications and a former Obama administration official, says they’re already helping.
The main message Democrats will likely offer, per Price, is that Trump has done more harm than good in the world — “he’s not the firefighter, he’s the arsonist” — and that they have the right vision on how to renew America’s standing at home and abroad. They’ll make the argument that America’s domestic strength is increasingly interconnected with its foreign policy. Of course, Democrats will also say Trump is overselling his foreign policy accomplishments.
Ultimately, though, some Democrats say they need to make a better argument than Trump when it comes to foreign policy.
“We have to run on a proactive message of our own,” said the Democratic presidential campaign staffer, “instead of spending all of our time attacking Trump.”
Which means that not only does Trump still have a lot of work to do to convince Americans he’s the right person to lead on foreign policy, but Democrats do as well.