The months before and after a presidential election are particularly fragile for foreign policy. Each of the five presidents I served understood, as did his team, the weight of this time. Politics and legacy were always front of mind. They were all also conscious of the ways they could help pave an easier path for their successors. They all ultimately put country over party. That won’t be the case with Donald Trump. If the next 150 days turn out to be Trump’s final days in office, he could still wreak a lot of havoc on American foreign policy.
As a young National Security Council staffer, I sat in the Oval Office in December 1988 as Ronald Reagan—the fireplace crackling behind him—authorized the first-ever U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. He saw it, at least in part, as a way to spare his successor, then–Vice President George H. W. Bush, from spending precious political capital early in his administration on an essential, if controversial, step toward Middle East peacemaking.
At the end of the George H. W. Bush administration, in January 1993, as the head of the State Department’s policy-planning staff, I wrote a long transition memorandum for incoming Secretary of State Warren Christopher. That memo was not appreciably different from a draft I had written six months earlier, prematurely titled “A Foreign Policy for the Second Bush Term.” The point of the exercise was less the title, or even the content, than the commitment to a responsible transition and the national interest.
In the summer of 2008, serving in the No. 3 position in the State Department, I accompanied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Oval Office to discuss with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney whether the administration should reverse its policy and join our international partners at the negotiating table with Iran. No fire burned in the fireplace that July day, but the same unspoken sense of responsibility pervaded the room. The issue was not only whether the decision made sense on its merits, but also whether it would help strengthen a diplomatic legacy and create a little bit more room for the next administration to maneuver. Bush made his choice briskly and authorized me to travel to Geneva for the talks. Cheney objected, arguing that we should not reward Iranian misbehavior. “Dick,” President Bush said with a wave of his hand, “I’m okay with this, and I’ve made up my mind.”
I can’t imagine Trump taking the notion of a responsible transition seriously. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, has argued that the president cannot see any foreign-policy question in terms other than his reelection prospects or ego gratification.
None of this means, however, that the Trump administration is incapable of constructive foreign-policy moves, or ignorant of their legacy-burnishing potential at a moment when Trump’s foreign-policy legacy has unlimited space for burnishing. The recent breakthrough toward normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a significant achievement, with considerable potential if—and it’s a big if—it is tethered to more serious diplomacy on either the Israeli-Palestinian issue or the challenge posed by Iran.
Further withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, in accordance with agreements negotiated with the Taliban and in close coordination with the Afghan government, would be a useful step toward extricating ourselves from that forever war. And extending the New START agreement with Russia, which is due to expire early next year, would be important. Without it, what remains of nuclear-arms-control architecture will collapse in a dangerous heap. None of these steps would rewrite Trump’s corrosive foreign-policy legacy, nor would they have any significant political effect on the November election. But they would matter a great deal for American interests.
Trump is unlikely to discover his inner Hippocrates and do no harm in foreign policy over the next five months. In fact, the evidence suggests the exact opposite.
Any leverage against Iran produced by the UAE-Israel agreement is already being swallowed up in the serial diplomatic malpractice of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign—aimed more at toppling the Iranian regime than at changing its behavior. Doubling down on failed policy is not a smart diplomatic prescription—that’s why Bush eventually decided to join negotiations with a member of the “Axis of Evil.” But the Trump administration is not likely to see the light. Instead, it will continue to pretend that the United States can participate in only the punitive parts of the Iran nuclear deal that it likes and opt out of all the others. The U.S. tried—and spectacularly failed at—that strategy earlier this month, when it sought to trigger the nuclear agreement’s “snapback” of multilateral sanctions against Iran, despite having already abandoned the deal.
That effort is not only silly, but guaranteed to further embarrass and isolate the U.S., further alienate our closest allies, and further risk collisions with Tehran. The only “snapback” will be against U.S. interests, and the only result will be scorched diplomatic earth for Trump’s successor, exactly as the administration intends.
Navigating the serious challenge posed by Xi Jinping’s China is another area in which the administration can make it harder, not easier, to mobilize other countries to manage the rise of a more aggressive and ambitious Chinese competitor. The president has already trotted out his four horsemen of the apocalypse—National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Bill Barr—to give speeches castigating China for the “Wuhan virus” and Xi for being the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin. The severity of the threat posed by Xi’s China is real enough, but casting the struggle in cosmic terms will only make it harder to manage. That tactic will also undercut the administration’s born-again zeal for assembling an “alliance of democracies”—after four years of unprecedented assault on both allies and democracies.
The Trump administration is not the only one with agency during this fragile period. Other leaders will continue to perceive opportunity in Trump’s autocrat envy. Having invited Vladimir Putin to undermine his last Democratic rival, Trump is entirely capable of doing it again—and incapable of the kind of firm, consistent approach, and careful coordination with allies, that could be essential to limiting Russian overreach in crises in Belarus or elsewhere. Other authoritarian leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, will be tempted to take advantage of the U.S. while they can still count on Trump’s indulgence.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world will continue to work around, not with, the United States in this terrible pandemic—during which “America First” has come to mean winning in all the wrong categories. American passports, once a symbol of our country’s appeal and reach, will open fewer and fewer doors abroad. Our national-security institutions will continue to be gutted by the Trump administration, our career public servants pilloried as “deep state” political enemies.
If Trump is reelected in November, what happens in the next 150 days in foreign policy will be an insignificant footnote to the end of an American-led international order. If he loses, I doubt that he will suddenly embrace the traditional bipartisan commitment to effective transitions. At best, he’ll be consumed by efforts to rationalize his defeat and paint the election as rigged; at worst, he’ll seek to contest or undermine the result. Like so many other features of the Trump era, the transition would bear little resemblance to any before, or any of the many I served through as a career diplomat. The costs of confusion, mixed signals, and bureaucratic turmoil could be very high.
The Trump era has been one long quarantine of common sense and competence in American foreign policy, and the next 150 days aren’t likely to be an exception. With a president unfit for office, an administration bent on creating as many “facts” in its favor as it can, and a variety of foreign players trying to score points amid the chaos, we are entering a combustible moment. Trump could still trample many U.S. foreign-policy interests if this is truly his last dance in the White House.