After two and a half years in the White House, Donald Trump has yet to show any notable achievements with his “America First” foreign policy.

Early in his tenure, the president displayed his preference for economic sanctions, not military interventions, to force other countries to accommodate to his view of America’s economic and international security interests. They are in two categories: (1) Political ones that target North Korea’s threat to South Korea and Japan, Iran’s behavior in the Persian Gulf and Arab countries, China’s moves in South China Sea, and Russia’s threatening policies in Eastern Europe and the Caribbean; and (2) Economic moves that focus on trade issues with China, Japan, the European Union and NAFTA members Canada and Mexico.

Trump used economic sanctions, trade restrictions and military pressure to convince North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to negotiate his nuclear policies. He also pressured Iran to conclude a new nuclear weapons deal and stop undermining Arab governments. and he increased sanctions and military pressure on Russia as it threatens Eastern Europe and the Baltic area.

In 2018, Trump imposed tariffs on some Chinese, European, Japanese and NAFTA-zone imports after his administration decided that their efforts in 2017 failed to produce results. Trump then succeeded in re-negotiating the NAFTA treaty with Canada and Mexico, and ratification by Congress seemed likely. However, the other week Trump threatened a new tariff to begin June 10 unless Mexico stopped a massive flow of refugees from Central America across its territory to the U.S. border.

On China, negotiations were broken off last month and Trump threatens higher tariffs if China proves unwilling to meet a few key U.S. demands. His early boast that he’d replace the cancelled Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with bilateral agreements has not produced a new deal with Japan, our third-largest trading partner. Administration negotiations with the European Union to cut their tariffs on cars and open markets to U.S. agricultural products have not borne fruit after a year of negotiations.

Iran’s Revolutionary regime is a prime target of Trump’s pressure campaign. He cancelled the Obama administration’s nuclear limitation deal with Tehran in 2017, asserting that it didn’t prevent Iran’s withdrawal in 12 years nor curtail interventions by its Revolutionary Guard Force (Quds) in civil wars in Syria, Yemen or control its efforts to undermine governments in the Persian Gulf, including Iraq. Although Trump says he doesn’t want a war and expects negotiations will take place, Iraq’s foreign minister says his government has no interest.

It’s of interest to recall that Washington and Tehran have had no diplomatic relations for 40 years. They were broken in 1979 after gangs sacked the U.S. Embassy, and the new revolutionary regime imprisoned 52 American diplomatic personnel and held them for more than a year.

Although the president cites his success in persuading North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to stop testing inter-continental missiles and dismantle his nuclear arsenal, talks have broken off and there’s no evidence Kim intends to comply with U.S. and United Nations demands that he do so. Trump recently visited Japan to reassure its government that he intends to keep up both economic and military pressure on North Korea.

A peace agreement between Israel and Palestinian Authority was another objective of the Trump administration. It’s a dream that has eluded five U.S. presidents for over half a century. However, the president ignored the United Nations and our European allies when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and further alienated Palestinians by cutting economic aid. Many observers think there’s little hope for Trump’s expectation for a success in the Middle East.

These foreign policy initiatives were based on a large assumption, that Trump’s economic sanctions and stiff tariffs would bring recalcitrant trading partners and adversaries to the bargaining table to negotiate on U.S. terms. The results so far are negligible. So, the obvious question must be asked: Has Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy been a failure?

If he hopes to win reelection in 2020, the president needs to demonstrate achievements in foreign policy, so that voters won’t question whether “America First” was just a slogan, instead of a policy he couldn’t achieve. Nevertheless, if a trade deal with China is agreed on, that would be a giant plus for him in 2020.

Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville. Email him at

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