But as the Trump doctrine begins to transition from solely inflammatory tweets and grandstanding to actual policy, there are some hints that perhaps the global community just might have some opportunity to benefit from the approach of the so-called negotiator in chief.
The world learned pretty quickly after Trump took office that the former real estate mogul does not play by the more typical playbook of presidential diplomacy used by both Republicans and Democrats alike. Obviously, some commanders in chief lean more heavily on global humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts than others — often cherished among the international community as a result. But pretty universally, those in the Oval Office treat allies big and small like the rest of us treat our relatives: Some are obvious favorites with similar likes and priorities, while others seem to make a slew of bad decisions with everyone else left to clean up the mess. But you pick your battles and choose words carefully to keep the peace. Who really wants an awkward family gathering?
Clearly in terms of politics, that’s not Trump. He came into office railing about NATO allies not ponying up their fair share, touting the America First policy, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and threatening to do so from the North American Free Trade Agreement if terms were not negotiated to his liking. He had his reasons in all cases, with some earning more support than others. But suddenly protectionism and nationalism were being used to describe the agenda of the American president. The U.S. was no longer seen as the leader of the free world, at least not from a diplomatic perspective.
But the last month or so brings some interesting twists.
First, after months of rumors, the Trump administration rolled out a new set of guidelines for conventional arms transfers and unmanned systems, essentially loosening export restrictions most substantially for drones. Days later, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that it is reducing a surcharge on American defense goods sold abroad from 3.5 percent to 3.2 percent, effectively dropping the price foreign nations have to pay when buying weapons through the Foreign Military Sales system.
Obviously, these are not traditional efforts to score points with global allies. The decisions are clearly driven by economics — expanding opportunities for U.S. companies to profit even more off America’s position as top arms exporter. You might say it actually supports America First in that sense — as well as the National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on great power competition.
But these policy decisions are not absent of any positive influence on international relations either, even if benefits are more the byproduct than an intended consequence. Certain allies, Turkey perhaps the most vocal, have long criticized the U.S. for a lack of cooperation on particular defense acquisition efforts. So much bureaucracy was involved with drone buys that the country opted to just develop its own, as the country’s procurement chief has famously said.
And countries with more modest defense budgets have on occasion steered away from U.S. arms buys — sometimes opting to buy Russian alternatives that typically bring a more manageable price point. Perhaps fewer restrictions and lower surcharges could expand access to U.S. systems for allies previously locked out.
Call these policies the Trump version of diplomacy: supporting globalization while also ensuring the U.S. has a clear path to thrive. It’s a practical approach for anyone with a mind for business.
Now let’s extend the theory to relationships between Trump and certain U.S. adversaries. Could his hot and cold interactions with Chinese President Xi Jinping actually prove advantageous? If they land the U.S. and allies with more balanced trade rules, perhaps. Could the upcoming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un improve global security? If they end with some means of denuclearization or at the very least a freeze of the nuclear program in North Korea, obviously.
But those are pretty big ifs.
So are we seeing now what could in the end prove to be the Trump legacy in global politics? I think so — though the jury is out on whether it will be for the better, for the worse or for nothing whatsoever.