The Republican Party’s foreign policy agenda has been almost entirely shaped in the past four years by President Donald Trump’s approach to international relations, including new trade deals, skepticism of international organizations, and calls to reduce U.S. troop deployments overseas.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing protocols, the Republican Party this year did not write a new party platform, which traditionally gives an official outline of the party’s vision and policy priorities. However, the party said in a resolution released at this week’s convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, that if it had been able to convene in 2020 to write a new platform, it would have “undoubtedly unanimously” backed the Trump administration’s agenda.
The party has rallied around Trump’s foreign policy goals, largely encapsulated by his “America First” slogan, which he debuted during his 2016 campaign and repeated Monday in an outline of his second-term agenda released by his campaign. Other foreign policy goals were to “bring our troops home” and “end our reliance on China.”
China has become one of the central foreign policy topics in the 2020 campaign, heightened by Trump’s trade war as well as questions of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The United States and China signed the first phase of a trade deal in January following rounds of tit-for-tat tariffs totaling billions of dollars. The deal has been touted by the Republican Party as evidence that the president can deliver on his trade goals and followed another newly inked trade deal by the Trump administration for North America.
However, negotiations on a second phase of the China trade deal have stalled. Trump said in July the accord means “much less to me” because of what he called China’s role in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and this month he called off a new round of trade talks with China, saying, “I don’t want to talk to China right now.”
Some members of the Republican Party have urged Trump to be even tougher on China.
Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said if Trump is reelected, he would expect the president to become more confrontational with China.
“Both parties, but particularly the Republican Party, have come to see China not just as an economic rival, but as a growing security threat,” Alden said.
Trump’s second-term agenda goals include the pledge to “bring back 1 million manufacturing jobs from China,” as well as to prevent federal contracts to companies that outsource to China.
The president’s second-term agenda also pledges to “stop endless wars” and bring U.S. troops home, a sentiment echoing his 2016 campaign.
But while Trump has often repeated his desire to end wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, he has struggled to fulfill his goal of reducing overall U.S. troop numbers overseas.
In Afghanistan, Trump agreed in 2017 to a troop increase at the request of then-top U.S. commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson, raising U.S. troop levels in that country to around 14,000.
The number of U.S. troops there now is back to 8,500, around the same level as when Trump took office in 2017, and the president recently laid out plans for further withdrawals as part of still-unmet conditions outlined in a U.S.-Taliban deal signed earlier this year.
Trump has defended his efforts at diplomacy with the Taliban, saying in a 2019 address to the United Nations, “the United States has never believed in permanent enemies.”
Charles Stevenson, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), said candidates of both parties often pledge to reduce troop levels but find it difficult to fulfill their promises once taking office.
“There are costs from totally pulling out” of a region, including diplomatic and political ones, he said.
Trump has approached foreign diplomacy much differently than most past presidents, publicly questioning the value of international alliances and organizations, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
On NATO, Trump has argued that many members do not spend enough on defense to fully meet their commitments under the agreement.
“NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair,” Trump tweeted before attending a NATO summit in 2018.
Economic cost is often a key factor in Trump’s foreign policy stances, and he has questioned the costs associated with large U.S. military bases around the world, including in Japan, South Korea and Germany.
The president has broken off a host of international agreements since taking office, including the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump has not been afraid to criticize traditional allies, getting into public disputes with a number of world leaders, including those from Germany, France and Canada.
Alden said Trump’s “America First” agenda often veers into a policy that is better described as “America Alone.” He said under Trump, “the United States has completely abandoned the notion of allies being important and abandoned the notion of international cooperation as being important.”
Trump has defended his approach, telling the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, “Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first. The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
While Trump is not afraid to have public disagreements with world leaders, his relationships with them often play a key role in his foreign policies.
Nowhere has that been more apparent than with North Korea, where Trump early in his presidency called leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” and threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” but later said of Kim, “We’ve developed a very good relationship.”
Trump has met with Kim three times and the two have reportedly exchanged at least 25 personal letters.
At their first summit in Singapore in 2018, the two leaders signed an agreement to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” but never agreed on the details of what that meant.
Despite the lack of specifics, Trump has had some success with his meetings with Kim. Since the summits began, North Korea has refrained from any major missile or nuclear tests.
For months, however, negotiations have stalled and North Korea has refused to talk. Kim said in January 2020 that he is prepared for a “long-term” standoff with the United States.