Democrats running to replace Donald Trump are vowing to wipe away much of the president’s foreign policy legacy.
It might already be too late.
Through executive orders, regulatory changes, political maneuvers and sometimes mere neglect, Trump has overseen major, possibly permanent, shifts in U.S. foreign policy that will be on full display this weekend in France as the president meets with other world leaders at the Group of Seven summit.
Thanks to Trump, current and former officials say, Palestinians may never get a state of their own, Iran may shun diplomacy with Washington for the foreseeable future and U.S. allies may forever be reluctant to trust their American counterparts. Relations with China, the effects of climate change and ending nuclear proliferation are among other challenges a future president may find harder to tackle in a post-Trump world.
It doesn’t help that U.S. foreign policy is increasingly falling prey to partisan fighting in Washington. A Democratic president focused on reversing Trump’s legacy — the same way Trump has tried to erase Barack Obama's legacy — runs the risk of feeding the perception that U.S. foreign policy will not remain stable over time.
“There is a hunger for the U.S. to get back to its traditional role on the world stage,” said Jeff Prescott, a former senior National Security Council official in the Obama administration. “But after Trump, many of our international partners are going to step back and ask whether signing up with us is going to be a long-term proposition.”
Trump’s defenders view the situation differently.
They argue that Trump has injected a much-needed dose of truth into the foreign policy conversation, especially on problems that have festered for decades, such as North Korea’s nuclear program. They assert that Trump’s pressure on allies is often aimed at ultimately making them stronger. And while they agree Trump’s rhetoric can go too far, they say his policies are not entirely unconventional.
“It’s just a lot about recognizing reality and leveling with the American people,” a senior Trump administration official said. “This administration is adhering to the rule of law and is telling the truth about the world. I’d say that’s a lot more durable than the last administration’s approach.”
In particular, Trump’s approach to two sensitive topics — Iran and Israel — could have lasting effects.
On Iran, Trump has chilled slowly warming relations between the two countries.
It started with Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of a nuclear deal with Iran. Then he reimposed the sanctions lifted under the deal and heaped on new ones.
While most of the Democrats running for president have promised to rejoin the nuclear deal, which was negotiated under President Barack Obama, they must overcome an array of logistical and political hurdles, including Iran’s own steps to violate the deal in light of Trump’s sanctions.
For instance, Trump has declared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group, an unprecedented decision made despite warnings that it could spark retaliatory actions against American troops overseas. But even though Democrats widely disparaged the move, they might find it politically impossible in Washington to rescind the label, given that the IRGC has been blamed for hundreds of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq.
Trump’s provocations have helped raise military tensions in the Middle East and left Tehran proclaiming, “Talks are useless.”
“Now that our enemies do not accept logic, we cannot respond with logic,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech Thursday.
Trump’s supporters argue that such a standoff is the inevitable result of the United States finally getting tough on the Iranian regime. But it also means any sort of rapprochement could remain impossible long after Trump leaves office.
Another area where Trump has perhaps permanently changed the landscape is the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nearly every step Trump has taken in the area has pleased Israel and angered the Palestinians. He ended U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians, closed their office in Washington and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite the Palestinians’ competing claims to the city. In response, the Palestinians have essentially cut off communication with Trump officials.
The Trump administration is also at work on a peace proposal for the Israelis and Palestinians, but the president’s aides have indicated that the plan will not support a separate Palestinian state.
A Democratic successor may recommit the U.S. to a two-state solution — long the American government's preferred approach — and even rebuild some of the bridges to the Palestinians that Trump has torched. Foreign policy veterans say it may be too late, though. Under Trump, an emboldened Israel already has made moves some predict will lead it to annex the West Bank, territory long claimed by the Palestinians.
The United States has found itself in a similar reputational crisis before.
President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and its chaotic aftermath fueled tremendous global anger toward the United States.
The mere fact of Obama’s election was seen as a rebuke of Bush’s ideology and brought much relief overseas. The new president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, to his own surprise, before he’d finished a full year in office.
A Democratic successor to Trump would face a world even more confused about the basic tenets of American foreign policy. Trump has thrown into question America’s support for what were once bedrock bipartisan principles, such as unwavering support for the NATO military alliance, promotion of global free trade and diplomatic respect for allies.
Attempts to rescind Trump’s executive orders or regulations could actually feed into the narrative that the United States is unreliable — that a deal one president signs could be thrown out by the next.
On a purely technical level, though, many of Trump’s policies are reversible, especially if they were put in place through regulatory changes, executive orders or other measures less durable than legislation.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a top contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, signaled in a speech earlier this year that he would quickly move to reverse many of Trump’s foreign policy edicts, including the travel ban Trump imposed on several mostly Muslim countries. Other Democrats eyeing the Oval Office have said they’d take similar steps.
There are some ways, however, in which a technical reversal may be too late.
A Democratic Trump successor will likely rejoin the Paris agreement to combat climate change, which Trump quit during his first year in office. Still, critics say the lost time under Trump — time without U.S. global leadership on the issue — could have caused irreparable damage to the global ecosystem.
A Democratic president could also take office with a new global nuclear arms race under way.
That’s what some fear will result from Trump’s decision to quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the possibility he might let another pact, known as New START, lapse. In response, Russia, China and the U.S. have all shown signs that they are already building up their missile arsenals.
“It takes years, sometimes decades, of diplomacy to secure arms control treaties, and every Trump move makes it that much harder for a new administration to put the guardrails back on,” said Michael Fuchs, a former State Department official who specializes in Asia.
Trump’s supporters, however, see the changes on the arms control front as inevitable. After all, they note, the U.S. quit the INF treaty over accusations that Russia was violating it and over concerns the agreement was limiting America’s ability to counter China’s military rise — challenges that would have confronted a president from either party.
The intense focus on Trump’s rhetoric and mannerisms distracts from that somber assessment, some say.
“America is actually evolving toward a post-Cold War consensus of the global security environment, and nobody is noticing it because we’re still wrapped up in Trump,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Trump also may have given cover to Democrats for series of foreign policy steps that they would have wanted to take but avoided because of the political difficulties.
For instance, past presidents, including Obama, had promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but they eventually opted not to, citing security concerns and other issues. Trump actually kept his promise to move the embassy, and several Democratic White House candidates already have indicated they wouldn’t reverse the steps.
The senior administration official described that decision as one of several in which Trump “recognized a reality” — that Jerusalem is and has been Israel’s capital.
Trump also shattered another diplomatic taboo by meeting face-to-face with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Past presidents had spurned such sessions to avoid granting legitimacy to that country’s brutal regime, but they also made little progress in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear program.
Trump hasn’t made much progress on the nuclear front, either, but he’s shifted the dynamics of North Korean engagement. A FiveThirtyEight survey of Democratic candidates found at least five who said they’d be willing to meet Kim without preconditions.
Trump also gets plaudits from both sides of the aisle when it comes to his treatment of China.
In broad terms, the president has challenged Beijing on multiple fronts, including its theft of intellectual property and other questionable economic practices. Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has urged Trump to “hang tough” on China.
Even though many foreign policy veterans disagree with Trump’s extensive use of tariffs against Beijing — arguing that such measures harm U.S. businesses and consumers — the tariffs could offer Democrats some leverage to go after China over trade practices they’ve long decried.
The biggest challenge a successor to Trump might face is rebuilding trust with the rest of the world. Already, some foreign leaders have looked to bolster their ties with Russia and China as the United States, under Trump, has appeared a less reliable global power.
“Other countries have noticed that America can tear things down and blow things up easily, but it has a hard time sealing the deal and getting things done,” said Brian Katulis, a foreign policy analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “As a result, many countries are moving to assert their own interests with less regard for America’s views.”
The politics of rebuilding American trust with the rest of the world are treacherous.
As Obama reached out to his foreign counterparts in the post-Bush years, Republicans accused him of staging unpatriotic “apology tours.” There’s no reason to believe they won’t level the same accusation at a Democratic successor to Trump.
That is, of course, if one of them can defeat Trump.
“The next president inherits a singularly high-risk environment, much of it due entirely to the brinkmanship of the current president,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a specialist in European and trans-Atlantic policy with the Brookings Institution. “It’ll be interesting if that turns out to be the same man.”