Donald Trump’s ‘I’ Presidency and American Foreign Policy

By Allie Spensley ‘20

According to a database of President Trump’s tweets, the issues that Trump has claimed he and he alone can fix include the situation in Israel, illegal immigration, U.S. infrastructure, unemployment, ISIS, the movement of jobs to Mexico, slow GDP, and global terrorism. This individualism rewrites the history of the executive’s relative power in American government. In Trump’s view, America’s policies—for better or worse—often hinge on his actions alone.

What are the implications of what Michael Steele has called “the ‘I’ presidency” in the realm of foreign policy? Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in June that Trump believes the presidency will achieve success or face failure only because of his own personal efforts, so he’s often unwilling to consult advisors. This viewpoint is supported by the level of turnover in the administration, which the Brookings Institution found is higher than the five most recent presidents.

One consequence has been the shifting nature of the presidential summit as a tool for diplomacy. As foreign policy expert Richard N. Haass has pointed out, the summit is Trump’s “favored approach to diplomacy,” perhaps because it reflects the personalist, relationship-based nature of the small meetings that bring about real estate success. Trump has refashioned the modern summit by throwing out the script. He has exchanged the carefully planned, largely symbolic affairs common in recent presidencies for a brief, hyper-productive model–the kind often used in the Cold War.

Examining Trump’s most controversial summits—the North Korea-United States summit on June 12, 2018 and the Trump-Putin summit on July 16, 2018—shows the benefits and drawbacks of this approach. Prior to both meetings, Trump set ambitious agendas and claimed their ultimate success or failure would be due to his personal performance. He eschewed preparation and refused to communicate with his closest advisors.

Before, during, and after, Trump described both summits as historic victories in which he quickly hashed out sustainable solutions to a wide range of issues—a kind of foreign-policy magic bullet. As Trump tweeted one day after the North Korea summit: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat.” Or, a day after Helsinki: “Big results will come!”

With his words and the inherently individualistic format of a summit, Trump asked the world to judge these meetings’ successes through his display of personal diplomatic strength. And the world complied, with mixed results.

In North Korea, this approach paid off among Trump’s own supporters: a Monmouth University poll found that 96 percent of Trump voters approved of the summit, making it one of the most popular actions of his presidency. Yet after the Russian summit, it backfired dramatically. After meeting with Putin, in a joint press conference Trump refused to endorse a report by US intelligence groups finding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, and he was quickly criticized by media on both sides of the aisle. Even his typically vocal supporters—Newt Gingrich, Fox News—lambasted the President for seemingly putting as much trust in Putin as his own intelligence agencies. In both cases, too, sectors of U.S. media criticized Trump for lending respect and prestige to authoritarian leaders.

As a populist president, Trump needs to keep his supporters happy by presenting out-of-the-park successes. The forum of a summit seems to offer a perfect solution: as in the case of North Korea, a photo op, a self-congratulatory tweet, and a 90-minute private meeting can win voter approval with no real policy changes. But the one-on-one nature of the summit can highlight apparent divisions within the Trump government, as in the aftermath of the Helsinki press conference.

Either of these outcomes might repeat itself after Trump’s second summit with Kim Jong Un, to be held in late February. With a partial government shutdown and continued controversy over Russia and the US elections, Trump may be seeking a quick win along the lines of his June tweet that the nuclear threat was over. But how closely he will work with his aides in advance of the summit remains an open question, and one that’s important not only for Trump’s standing at home but for the balance of power in East Asia.