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Explainer: The foreign policy legacy of Trump’s first term | News



President Donald Trump made some of his flashiest 2016 campaign pledges in foreign policy areas, such as vowing to reevaluate the US relationship with NATO, abandon a landmark nuclear deal with Iran and bring US troops back from “forever wars”.

The Republican president, a former businessman from New York who boasts about his deal-making skills, has delivered on some of his pledges, while partially meeting a few others.

Some have ended in failure.

If Trump is defeated in the November 3 election by Democratic rival Joe Biden, the new administration’s hardest challenge will be to restore the global standing and trustworthiness of the United States, according to analysts and former officials from the US and Europe.

Biden, vice president under President Barack Obama, would inherit a scarred transatlantic relationship, deep antagonism with China and sanctions-dominated pressure campaigns against Iran, Syria and Venezuela.

Here is a look at some of the key policy priorities of the Trump administration and potential challenges for Biden:


A central theme in Trump’s 2016 campaign was to accuse China of “ripping off” the US while promising to seal a fair trade deal with Beijing that would help American businesses and create US jobs.

After almost two years of a tit-for-tat trade war with the world’s second-largest economy, Trump has so far managed a stalled first phase of such an agreement.

Meanwhile, Washington and Beijing have slapped tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of each others’ goods and the global spread of the coronavirus from China has left bilateral ties at their lowest level in decades, raising fears of a new Cold War.

Washington has acted against Beijing on multiple fronts: It ended the special status of Hong Kong after China imposed sweeping national security legislation, sanctioned top officials over human rights abuses and sought to ban Chinese technology companies from operating in the US.

A Biden administration would have little option but to maintain the hard stance, analysts say, but would probably try to create room for engagement.

Iran nuclear deal 

In 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, saying he could strike a better one. He also launched a “maximum pressure” campaign to choke off Tehran’s sources of income.

Despite almost two years of sanctions on everything from oil revenue to minerals and Iran’s central bank, Washington has yet to get Tehran back to the negotiating table. Instead, escalating tensions have carried the two nations to the brink of war.

Biden has said he would deal with Iran through diplomacy and re-enter the agreement, but only if Iran first returned to compliance with the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear programme.

NATO and transatlantic ties

Trump has repeatedly complained about the failure of many NATO partners to meet defence spending targets. He has also questioned the continued relevance of the organisation created in 1949 at the start of the Cold War with Russia.

His attacks soured ties with several European allies, but more members of the alliance have now increased spending to meet its target of 2 percent of GDP.

This year, Trump promised to cut the number of US troops in Germany, accusing Berlin of taking advantage of the US while not meeting its NATO obligations. In July, the Pentagon announced 11,900 troops would leave Germany and the US would move its European military headquarters from Germany to Belgium.

Analysts said repairing the transatlantic alliance will take time, but should be one of the easier tasks awaiting a potential Biden administration.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sits in a tank as he talks to US soldiers based in Grafenwoehr, Germany [Reuters]

Troop withdrawals 

Trump promised in his 2016 campaign to stay out of foreign wars and bring home US troops deployed in Afghanistan, the US’s longest war, which is now in its nineteenth year.

Washington has begun cutting troop numbers in Afghanistan after striking a deal with the Taliban in February that envisaged the withdrawal of all US troops. This depends, however, on talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which have stalled.

Trump also ordered a pullout of US troops from Syria. The decision was repeatedly watered down by aides and the military, but numbers have still been reduced by more than half.


One of Trump’s most controversial decisions was his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, something he had repeatedly promised to do during the 2016 campaign.

Trump said the agreement imposed “draconian” financial and economic burdens on the US and said he would negotiate a better one.

A new agreement has not materialised. The Biden campaign said he would recommit to the original Paris deal and lead an effort to get major countries to toughen their domestic targets. 

Middle East

Trump delivered on his 2016 campaign promise to relocate the US embassy in Israel to the divided city of  Jerusalem.

The move was condemned by most of the Arab world but won praise from the Israeli government and its supporters, as well as evangelical Christians.

His wider Middle East Peace plan was rejected by Palestinians as it allowed Israel to maintain control of lillegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, but received some encouraging responses from several Arab states.

One, the United Arab Emirates, this month normalised ties with Israel in a deal brokered by the US, a move that many analysts saw as a foreign policy win for Trump at a time when he has been trailing Biden in polls. 

North Korea

Trump surprised the world by entering unprecedented talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Despite the summitry, he made no progress in persuading Kim to give up his nuclear weapons, and talks remain stalled.

But some believe his ice-breaking diplomacy could be a building block for a future administration. 

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