Six months on, the gap between President Donald Trump’s grandiose promises on foreign policy and what he’s actually achieved seem galactic in scale. Not only are his headlines bad, but the trend lines for wins on many big, important issues seem grim as well.

Richard Sokolsky
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. His work focuses on U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
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From what we’ve seen so far, is Trump the consummate negotiator, the former real estate deal-maker par excellence whose “America First” strategy abroad was going to be so successful that Americans got sick of winning? Has Trump demonstrated the wily negotiating skills of a Henry Kissinger or James Baker, earning respect on the world stage and leaving his interlocutors reaching for their wallets?

Hardly. Granted, international diplomacy is a lot tougher than cutting real estate deals in New York, and there’s still a lot of time left on the presidential clock to make Trump great again. But half a year into the Trump era, there’s little evidence of Donald Trump, master negotiator. Quite the opposite, in fact: In several very important areas and with some very important partners, Trump seems to be getting the short end of the proverbial stick. The president who was going to put America first and outmaneuver allies and adversaries alike seems to be getting outsmarted by both at every turn, while the United States gets nothing.

Putin Plays Trump

Let’s start with the president’s recent encounters with the president of Russia, a man who admittedly has confounded his fellow world leaders for nearly two decades. Apparently without any reciprocal concessions, the world’s greatest negotiator bought into Russia’s plan for Syria, where U.S. and Russian goals are in conflict; ended America’s covert program of support for the moderate Syrian opposition, then confirmed its highly classified existence on Twitter; and had an ostentatious one-on-one meeting with the Kremlin strongman at the G-20 dinner, sticking a finger in the eye of some of America’s closest allies. It’s bad enough to give Putin the global spotlight he craves while accepting Russia’s seriously flawed vision for Syria. But to do so without getting anything in return gives “the art of the deal” a whole new meaning. Trump’s failure to hold Putin accountable for Russian interference in the presidential election is the most egregious example of putting Russia’s interests first and America’s interests last, but it’s hardly the whole of the matter. There’s no other way to put it: Trump has become Putin’s poodle. If it weren’t for Congress, public opinion and the media, Trump would be giving away more of the farm on sanctions, Russian aggression in Ukraine and other issues that divide the United States and Russia. That’s not winning; it’s losing.

The Saudis' Pushover

Frustrated by President Barack Obama’s policies, particularly the Iran nuclear deal, the Saudis were looking forward to a change in administrations. But there’s no way they could have imagined how lucky they’d be with Trump’s election. Since January, Trump has bonded with the aging King Salman, while Trump's son–in-law Jared Kushner has established close ties with the king’s son and new crown prince.

The Saudis have milked Trump’s inexperience and gullibility for all it’s worth; they’ve convinced his administration to ramp up its support for their disastrous war in Yemen and somehow persuaded Trump to back the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, over the objections of his own secretaries of state and defense. It’s now clear that the timing of the move against Qatar was triggered by Trump’s visit to the kingdom — remarkably, his first stop on his first foreign visit — and the Saudi conclusion that Trump had their back. Instead of creating a measure of distance from the Saudis, Trump has forfeited U.S. leverage, allowed Riyadh to set the agenda and to drag the U.S. into local conflicts in Yemen and between two U.S. security partners in the Gulf.

None of this furthers U.S. interests. In fact, if Trump’s willingness to accommodate the Saudis results from his desire to enlist them in a campaign to contain Iranian influence, he may have produced the opposite effect: Saudi pressure on Qatar has only deepened its dependence on Tehran, which is re-supplying Doha in a bizarro Islamist rendition of the Berlin Airlift. U.S. presidents have worked closely with the Saudis for decades, relying on Riyadh for help in a troubled Middle East. But Trump is letting them dictate the terms of the relationship.

The Kim and Xi Tag Team

Hampered by the absence of a coherent strategy and a set of options ranging from bad to worse—sanctions, military pressure, threats of regime change and pre-emptive military strikes—the White House has given Kim Jong Un an opening to barrel ahead with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. And here’s the great paradox: The man who fancies himself the world’s greatest negotiator has so far refused to sit down with Kim to try to find a negotiated solution to the North Korean problem, even though Trump said during the presidential campaign that he would be happy to do so over a hamburger. Instead, he asked the Chinese to carry America’s water with North Korea and got taken in by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise to tighten the noose on Kim. The Chinese, as they did when Obama tried the same basic approach, failed to ratchet up sanctions in any serious way. Beijing fears the collapse of the North Korean regime would bring chaos, not to mention South Korean and U.S. troops, to China’s doorstep. In response to Xi’s dithering, the administration slapped sanctions on Chinese individuals and entities enabling North Korea’s ballistic missile program. But Xi had already gotten what he wanted: the royal treatment at Mar-a-Lago and softer Trump positions on trade, Chinese currency manipulation and Chinese military operations in the South China Sea. Some deal.

A Free Ride for Netanyahu

As with the Saudis, the president, eager to free U.S.-Israeli relations from the tensions of the Obama years, has given the Israelis a free pass on the peace process. He continues to talk in fantastical terms about the “ultimate deal” — a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that is simply not possible now. And yet he refuses to validate the central assumption behind any such deal: the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, living in peace and security. By failing to recommit the U.S. to this basic principle, he gives Netanyahu room to undermine it further, leaving the future of Mideast peace in serious doubt. Israel has already ramped up its unhelpful settlement program, and this week there are reports that Netanyahu’s Likud party is preparing to formally abandon the two-state concept altogether, something even Netanyahu has previously at least pretended to support. Let’s be clear: There’s little chance of reviving a serious peace process on the big issues. But in the Middle East, things can always get worse, and violent actors often fill the vacuum. The current crisis in Jerusalem may well be defused, but Israelis and Palestinians almost certainly face a future of serious violence and confrontation. Not everything is Israel’s fault—hardly—but Trump has in effect allowed Netanyahu to set the table on his terms and created the impression that the U.S. agrees with him. And in exchange for Trump’s willingness to abandon the two-state solution—a departure from at least two decades of U.S. policy—the president has gotten absolutely nothing from Netanyahu.


Our knock on Trump is not that he hasn’t solved the world’s problems in six months. Nobody could—not even genuinely masterful negotiators like Kissinger and Baker. U.S. interests diverge fundamentally from those of many of the leaders with whom Trump deals, and his leverage isn’t all that great. No, our problem with Trump is that he’s behaving not as a smart and tough negotiator but as a president who readily succumbs to flattery and personal attention without having any negotiating strategy at all, while his negotiating partners rob him blind. Far from the master deal-maker with transformative goals, Trump is emerging as a guy whose America First mantra actually ends up putting America last. That’s bad news for Trump’s presidency—and a tragedy for the American people.

This article was originally published by Politico.