During a second term, little could stop President Donald Trump from remaking the world in his image — and other countries from radically downgrading their relationships with America.
Since the earliest days of his administration, Trump has touted a foreign policy vision in which the United States gains immense military and economic power, works with foreign capitals only when it suits Washington, and takes on all enemies — namely China, Russia, and Iran — in its path. Trump famously labeled that approach “America First.”
Should Trump win reelection in November, many suspect he’ll feel his worldview has received yet another resounding mandate. That won’t just mean more of the same, but much more of the same in a second term. “He’ll stick to his America First policy, but it’ll be on steroids,” said Mark Groombridge, a past aide to John Bolton, former Trump national security adviser, at the State Department and United Nations.
That approach would likely instigate the go-it-alone world Trump seeks to build, experts say, as America’s friends and enemies alike will have to adjust to nearly a decade of Trump in charge.
“Many US allies will give up on the US ever returning to anything resembling its pre-Trump foreign policy,” Kyle Haynes, a US foreign policy expert at Purdue University, told me. “The most important foreign policy decisions taken in a second term won’t be taken by the Trump administration,” agreed Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute. “They’ll be taken by US allies looking for substitutes to reliable American leadership.”
That means the world Trump inherited would be nearly unrecognizable from the one he’d bequeath to his eventual successor — and that’s exactly how the president wants it.
“After decades of the status quo, President Trump has made it clear that Americans will no longer take back seat to the rest of the world,” Ken Farnaso, the deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, told me. Should Joe Biden win in November instead, Farnaso argued, the former vice president would “return us to the days of appeasement and globalism that were catastrophic for American foreign policy.”
Some push back on the “America First-plus” argument, claiming if Trump wanted to pursue some of his more controversial ideas — such as withdrawing the US from NATO or ending US troop deployments to South Korea and Japan — he would’ve done it already. “What makes you think this president has ever been bounded?” said James Carafano, a national security policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who served on Trump’s 2016 presidential transition team.
The disparity in views has to do with Trump as a polarizing figure, sure, but also because his actions are hard to predict. Trying to anticipate a clear, articulate foreign policy agenda from a president who in his first term started a diplomatic fight over a rapper, mused about buying Greenland, and tried to extort Ukraine to help him win an election is obviously a challenge.
That ambiguity — mixed with the president’s record — makes even former Trump aides worry what another four years could bring. “Take everything we see now,” said Eric Brewer, who worked on Trump’s National Security Council, “and multiply it by 10.”
If Trump is reelected in November, here’s what we might expect to see foreign policy look in his second term.
China: Fight or back off?
Engagement with China, meaning consistent and significant dialogue on areas of mutual interest, has defined Washington-Beijing relations since the Nixon era. But to understand just how differently Trump deals with China, consider how the past two presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — approached Beijing.
Both wanted China to become a “responsible stakeholder.” That’s a wonderfully wonky Washington term that mostly means they hoped Beijing would come to abide by the global rules of the game on everything from trade to military affairs to international relations, even as the country gained immense power.
Instead of bullying or threatening China to force it to stop doing things like cheating on international trade rules, stealing other countries’ intellectual property, and grievously violating human rights at home (among other things), the strategy was to develop close economic ties with China and encourage it to become more integrated into the world economy, in the hope that that would lead Beijing to start acting more responsibly on its own because it would be in its own self-interest to do so.
The Trump administration, by contrast, has deemed that policy an immense failure.
“What do the American people have to show now 50 years on from engagement with China?” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked a crowd at Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum last month. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”
“The free world must triumph over this new tyranny,” he continued.
A rethink of the US-China relationship isn’t radical on its own. There’s now a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Beijing has taken advantage of America’s patience.
Among other indiscretions, China has stolen US technological and personnel secrets for its own advantage; antagonized US allies in the South China Sea; killed or imprisoned more than a dozen American informants; taken millions of US jobs over the past 15 years; imprisoned over a million Uighur Muslims in internment camps; cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; and delayed telling the world about the dangers of a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has brought the world to a standstill.
There’s a lot for the US to be angry about, and it was high time an American president did something about it, experts say. The problem is the Trump administration’s remedy has relied almost exclusively on unilateral confrontation. Many experts think that’s a misguided strategy.
“Without an integrated coalition of friends and allies, it will be very difficult for the US alone to balance the growth of Chinese power,” said Aaron Friedberg, formerly a national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney now at Princeton University.
One can see Trump’s “America First” approach in action when he takes on China.
For example, at the president’s direction, the US unilaterally imposed billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods, making them more expensive to sell in the US. Because of that, many companies based in China fled to Vietnam or elsewhere in search of cheap labor and — vitally — no tariffs. That’s good from the administration’s perspective, but it royally ticked off China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping responded last year, saying “we are not afraid” and “when necessary we will fight back.” He followed through on that threat: Beijing responded by placing sanctions on US exports to China, a move that has substantially hurt American farmers.
Last month, Trump signed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act into law, which imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities involved in China’s mass internment of its Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The US has invoked that and other laws to sanction several Chinese companies and individuals — most prominently Chen Quanguo, who governs Xinjiang and is a top member of the politburo in China.
Later in July, Trump ordered China’s consulate in Houston closed because the administration said Beijing was using that outpost mainly to spy on America. That led Xi’s regime to shutter the US consulate in Chengdu, a prominent mission in the country’s southwest that was vital to America’s efforts to keep tabs on Xinjiang.
It makes sense, then, to predict that a second Trump term would see the administration continue its aggressive approach to China. “This administration’s strategy is to get tough and it will continue to walk that road” in a second term, said the Heritage Foundation’s Carafano, “then we’ll see how China responds to that toughness.”
However, he noted an important caveat: China is a powerful country, and so its ability to hit America where it hurts — like it has already with farmers — could dissuade Trump from perpetual aggression over the next four years.
Trump also blames China for the Covid-19 pandemic, in part because of legitimate concerns over how it mishandled the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and in part to deflect blame from his own administration’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic in the US. If the virus is still spreading across the US and no vaccine or effective treatment has been made widely available by the time Trump is sworn in for his second term, it’s entirely likely his verbal attacks on and combative stance toward China will also continue.
Others, though, say Trump may back off China a bit in his second term because he won’t be facing reelection. “His pressure on China is really a domestic ploy to fire up his base,” Purdue’s Haynes told me. That’s possible: Trump successfully rode harsh criticism of China to the White House, and those anti-China sentiments are even more popular now among Trump voters.
“It’s only gotten worse for China in [US] polls,” John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster, told Politico in July. “People always saw China as an economic adversary that stole our jobs, but now they see China as a security threat.”
But if Trump didn’t have to worry about reelection anymore, he might have the political space to rekindle his once-friendly relationship with Xi. “I could see the relationship with China not getting worse in a second term,” Haynes said. “It’d be at more of a simmer than a boil.”
Whichever way Trump chooses to go — full confrontation or “simmer” — matters greatly. The US-China relationship is the world’s most important bilateral one, and it could define this century’s trajectory. Should Trump serve another four years, he along with Xi will be the ones to set that course.
Middle East: Counter Iran, back Israel — and enrich himself?
One paragraph from the Trump administration’s 2017 national security strategy — which outlines how the president and his team view the world and what policies are needed to face it — is useful for understanding how the administration really sees the Middle East:
For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region. Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.
In other words, Trump in his first term saw US policy toward the region through the lens of confronting Iran and backing Israel — whose right-wing prime minister wants the US to confront Iran. Everything else fell in place after that starting point. Experts I spoke to believe such an orientation toward the Middle East would certainly persist in a second Trump term.
After Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal two years ago, his administration launched a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Simply put, the US places more and more sanctions on the Iranian regime until it finally decides not only to give up any pursuit of nuclear weapons but also ceases developing missiles and supporting terrorist organizations (among other changes).
That policy, most experts expect, will stay the same. “A term-two Trump administration will almost certainly look to continue increasing pressure on Iran,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a national security expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
Such an approach, cheered by many who viewed the Obama-era Iran deal as American capitulation, led to years of standoffs, escalating tensions, and some violence between the two countries. Iran attacked oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, oil fields in Saudi Arabia, military bases in Iraq housing US troops, and an unmanned US military drone over the Strait of Hormuz. In response, the Trump administration in January killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top official who led Iran’s covert and intelligence operations.
Since then, Iran has gradually stopped complying with the terms of the nuclear accord by stockpiling and enriching uranium at higher levels than the pact allowed. And while Iran fiercely denies it seeks a nuclear bomb and remains far away from obtaining one, that possibility is more likely now than when Trump entered office.
Yet most experts don’t expect Trump to change his approach. His administration, after all, seems to think simply imposing economic pain on Iran is good enough.
“Sometimes it’s the journey and sometimes it’s the destination,’’ Brian Hook, Trump’s outgoing special representative for Iran, told the New York Times on August 8. “In the case of our Iran strategy, it’s both. We would like a new deal with the regime. But in the meantime, our pressure has collapsed their finances.”
“By almost every metric, the regime and its terrorist proxies are weaker than three and a half years ago,” he continued. “Deal or no deal, we have been very successful.”
Trump hasn’t given up on the deal, though. He’s consistently urged Tehran to “make the Big deal,” and he nearly met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last September at the UN. He even insists he’d strike a pact with Tehran in the first month of his second term.
Yet, after four years in the White House, he still hasn’t shown any ability to make that pact happen or even come close. That’s in part because of the suspected pushback from Republicans who despise any diplomacy with Iran, but also because of the administration’s maximalist negotiating position. Iran is very likely hoping it can wait out Trump and instead deal with a less hostile administration once he’s out of office.
If Trump is reelected, that calculus may change somewhat, but nearly every expert I spoke to strongly doubted the president’s ability to make a deal with Iran anytime soon.
“The idea that Trump will be able to quickly conclude an agreement with Iran if reelected is, without a massive change in the US position, a fantasy,” said Brewer, who worked on the Iran portfolio in Trump’s White House and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Iran would no doubt feel more pressure to come to the negotiating table knowing that they have four more years of a Trump presidency,” he said. “But being willing to talk to relieve some pressure is a far cry from meeting the demands the administration has set out, which are fundamentally unworkable for Iran.”
Which means Iran and the US would be far apart on any deal Trump might want. That, some say, could further ratchet up tensions.
Two weeks ago, the US brokered a deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations between the two countries — making the UAE only the third Arab nation to do so with Israel. Some experts suspect (and Israel has claimed) that Bahrain and Oman, which in recent years have formed closer ties to the Jewish state, may soon follow suit. It also appears a Sudan deal is in the works.
Getting Arab countries to openly back Israel — which would be a marked change from decades of enmity — is a policy Trump will almost certainly continue in his second term.
“Pursuing regional peace is a cornerstone of the whole Trump plan,” said Khaled Elgindy, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Middle East Institute. “It’s cost-free to continue this normalization trend,” he said, especially given that both Democrats and Republicans supported the Israel-UAE deal.
But there are additional reasons Trump will likely continue to strongly support Israel and work to improve its relations with Arab countries.
One is that the grander politics of the Middle East are changing from being organized around the Israeli-Palestinian issue to being organized around Arab nations plus Israel versus Iran. More robust partnerships between Israel and Arab states, mainly those in the Persian Gulf, only enhances the anti-Iran coalition that Trump very much wants to see.
Trump may also have personal reasons to get so close to Gulf Arab leaders: He wants “to generate business opportunities for after he leaves office,” Amy Hawthorne, deputy research director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told me.
That’s certainly possible: The Trump Organization and Saudi Arabia’s government already have a financial relationship, and many of his family’s business have ties to the region. For example: He has a golf course in Dubai, he’s tried to build a trump tower in Tel Aviv, Jared Kushner’s company has taken several loans from Israeli banks, and was bailed out by Qatari money on his 666 Fifth Ave. building.
A State Department official who works on Middle East issues told me that all these parts put together — countering Iran, pushing Israel closer to Gulf monarchies, and backing Israel — isn’t really a strategy so much as a wishlist for Trump’s base. Trump himself suggested as much during a Fox & Friends interview last week.
“It’s an incredible thing for Israel,” he said of the deal with the UAE, before adding: “It’s incredible for the evangelicals, by the way … The evangelicals love Israel. Love Israel.” Should Trump win a second term — and particularly if his strong support among evangelicals plays a significant part in his victory — he may continue to reward them by staying the Middle East course he’s on now.
But while brokering peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors would certainly be a laudable achievement, there’s a question of what that might mean for the Palestinians and their quest for a sovereign country of their own.
Palestinian leaders were outraged over the Israel-UAE agreement. “Israel got rewarded for not declaring openly what it’s been doing to Palestine illegally & persistently since the beginning of the occupation,” tweeted Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the official national representative of the Palestinian people. “The UAE has come out in the open on its secret dealings/normalization with Israel. Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!”
If additional Arab countries follow the UAE’s lead and normalize relations with Israel, the Palestinians will likely feel further betrayed, isolated, and increasingly bereft of allies. That could potentially push them to accept their weak negotiating position and sue for peace — but it could also make them desperate and boost more radical voices who insist violence is the only way to achieve a just outcome for Palestinians.
The Trump administration unabashedly favors Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians and has shown little will to push the Israeli government to moderate its hardline positions and negotiate with the Palestinians. That’s unlikely to change in a second Trump term.
Some experts fear that if Trump is reelected, it will embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow through on plans, currently on hold (sort of) under the terms of the UAE deal, to annex parts of the West Bank where hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers already live.
“I think we are looking at a situation in a second Trump term where we’ll see a much more aggressive push toward annexation,” said Elgindy, who advised Palestinian leadership from 2004 to 2009.
Should that happen, Elgindy said, a two-state solution — meaning an outcome in which both Israelis and Palestinians have sovereign countries of their own, side by side in peace — would be “decisively dead,” and Palestinians would be forced to accept “something less than a state that is more or less permanently controlled by Israel.”
Arms control: Will Trump curb the risk of nuclear war? Or make things worse?
When Trump took office on January 20, 2017, three major arms control-related agreements between the US and Russia were in force. Yet, rather than continue the progress his predecessors made toward making the world safer from the threat of nuclear war, Trump decided to tear it all down while pursuing an exit from the Iran nuclear deal and ineffective nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.
Of those three US-Russia agreements, one is gone, another is almost gone, and the last, it seems, is on the way out. That’s not all bad, some experts say, as Russia did cheat on some of the agreements and the US showed those actions would have consequences.
But most experts I spoke to are concerned that Trump is tearing down an edifice with no new blueprints to make it better, or even rebuild what exists. “The whole arms control regime is under considerable stress,” former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who now leads a think tank called the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told me earlier this month. “It’s badly frayed.”
So if Trump is elected to a second term, the nuclear stakes are incredibly high.
Trump wants to let those old agreements end and negotiate a new, stronger agreement with Russia. “They would like to do something, and so would I,” Trump told Axios about a July call he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A new, even stronger deal would be a good thing. But Trump also wants to bring China into any arms control agreement between the US and Russia — which makes the entire negotiation much, much more complicated and thus makes the likelihood of success much, much lower. After all, if the US and China are at each others’ throats on every other issue, negotiating a major accord on nuclear weapons will be tough.
If Trump does manage to pull it off, it would make the world far safer. If he doesn’t, and the old arms control agreements all go away, we could be in serious trouble. The general animosity between the US and Russia could lead to a nuclear arms race and prompt China to keep building up its forces — a situation unlike anything we’ve seen since the Cold War.
Arms control may not die on Trump’s watch during a second term. But based on the administration’s current stance, it’s clearly on life support — and putting the world at risk in the meantime.
“We’re creating the greater threat of a conflict that could literally destroy each country and perhaps even our planet,” Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary, told me this month.
Trump may just start withdrawing from everything
Most experts I spoke with were reluctant to offer specific predictions as to what Trump might do in a second term. That’s fair, as forecasting any action by the president is usually a fool’s errand.
But when analysts did offer concrete predictions, they weren’t about what Trump might do, but rather what he’d undo. Three predictions in particular stand out.
Pulling out of NATO
First, many I spoke with believe Trump might finally withdraw the US from NATO. “It would not surprise me in the least,” said Purdue’s Haynes.
Take, for example, former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book about his time in the Trump administration. One of its most shocking scenes involves the president casually advocating for withdrawing the US from NATO solely to make a splash. Before the alliance’s 2018 summit, Trump rallied his aides: “‘Do you want to do something historic? … We’re out.”
Later, during the actual meeting of the NATO leaders, Bolton writes that Trump turned to him and asked, “Are we going to do it?” Bolton talked him down from doing so, saying, “Go up to the line, but don’t cross it.” Trump ultimately obliged — but it goes to show just how close the US really came to leaving the political-military alliance America has benefited from for decades.
Some experts I spoke doubt this will happen. “If Trump really wanted to pull out of NATO he would’ve pulled out of NATO,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Carafano.
Benjamin Haddad, the director of the Future of Europe initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank, said instead Trump would place more pressure on European allies to spend more on defense. That, he added, would be a good thing. “Europeans still need tough love,” so “in the long run it wouldn’t be negative.”
Withdrawing US troops abroad
Second, Trump may bring home most US troops from global hotspots, like Syria and Afghanistan, and from allied countries he feels don’t pay enough for America’s military presence, such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan.
“Almost all American troops will be withdrawn” from these and possibly other areas, said AEI’s Schake, “and it will signal to allies and partners that the US will be indifferent to the outcomes of the compatriots fighting in all of those places.”
There’s certainly evidence for this. Trump hastily announced a troop withdrawal from Syria in 2019, only to have the Pentagon and others convince him to keep a smaller presence. Last month, the US announced 12,000 American service members would leave Germany, with some coming back to the US and others relocating elsewhere in Europe. And Trump has openly talked about wanting thousands of US troops out of East Asia.
“We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump told a crowd during a 2018 fundraiser about US soldiers in South Korea. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”
Leaving the World Trade Organization
Trump may redouble efforts on his trade agenda, seeking to — in his mind — get more benefit for America out of other nations.
That means aiming to strike a more complete trade deal with China while crafting others with the European Union and the UK. In the meantime, he’ll likely impose tariffs on other nations — including allies, who he deems hurt American industries, like when he reimposed such penalties on Canadian aluminum earlier this month.
One disturbing possibility experts I spoke to brought up is the possibility that Trump might withdraw the US from the World Trade Organization, the global body that regulates how nations trade with one another.
It’s something he’s long wanted to do. In 2018, Trump ordered his administration to craft legislation that would effectively pull the US out of the WTO. The draft bill, titled the “United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act,” called for the US to ignore some of the core WTO rules that govern how countries are allowed to treat exports from other countries.
Had that measure been signed into law, it would’ve effectively ended America’s ties to the organization. Among other things, it would’ve authorized the administration to unilaterally ignore the “Most Favored Nation” principle that says countries have to treat all their trading partners equally (although countries are granted exceptions to the principle when they share membership in free-trade agreements like NAFTA).
Simply put, it would’ve destabilized the way the entire world exports and imports goods to and from each other.
Trump’s trade agenda in the first term was “a wild ride, but I suspect it’ll get even wilder” in a second term, Peter Petri, an international trade expert at Brandeis University, told me.
That sentiment may also apply to the entirety of Trump’s second-term foreign policy.
Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.