FOR CRITICS of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the administration’s response to it tell you everything you need to know about its shortcomings. The outsize faith placed in Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi prince whose minions are accused of killing Mr Khashoggi, smacked of naivety. The administration’s flat-footed response to Turkey’s revelations of Mr Khashoggi’s fate was the chaos you get from running a major alliance via Jared Kushner’s mobile phone. Mr Trump’s continued effort to deny the grisly obvious was callous and cynical. These criticisms are deserved. Yet they do not capture the drift of Mr Trump’s foreign policy, which is a bit more encouraging.
The administration has negotiated updated versions of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a trade deal with South Korea. It has levied tariffs on $250bn of Chinese imports, and made clear that it views them as part of a wider pushback against China’s commercial abuses and military provocations, which has bipartisan support. European NATO members have raised defence spending after years of failing to. It is possible to debate how significant the revisions to the trade deals are, or how sustained the pushback might be. But the first are at least better than expected, and the second could be historic. Neither would have happened without Mr Trump’s disruptive approach.
The same can be said for the administration’s talks with the Taliban. Barack Obama pursued this policy, but let it slide after the Afghan government objected. Mr Trump wants a route out of Afghanistan and does not care what its government thinks. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy to Afghanistan, held a second meeting with the militants’ representatives in Doha this month. This is starting to look like a foreign-policy record that deserves a cautious reconsideration. Thoughtful supporters of the president’s foreign policy always acknowledged his shortcomings. Yet they argued that with naivety comes audacity, with chaos unpredictability, with cynicism realpolitik, and that these are qualities a somnambulant superpower lacked in its dealings with the world. This is sounding more plausible.
Progress of a more conventional kind has taken place, too. Under James Mattis, the defence secretary, America accelerated the demise of Islamic State in Syria and sent more troops to Afghanistan. After a year-long lag, Mr Mattis and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, re-emphasised America’s partnership with India. Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran was controversial, but the fallout is at least going as well as could be expected. Iranian crude exports have fallen in response to the prospect of sanctions due next month. Importers of Iranian oil such as India and South Korea are likely to be offered waivers while they arrange alternative supplies.
Mr Trump’s foreign-policy team appears to be working more effectively than some of its predecessors. Mr Trump and assorted hawks are focused on China, John Bolton on Russia and Mr Pompeo on everywhere else, especially Iran. A Republican admirer suggests that if Mr Trump gets bogged down in domestic brawls after the mid-terms, his team could make even more headway.
As that implies, it is not hard to see how Mr Trump could make a mess of this. He remains spectacularly ill-informed and incurious about world affairs. He appears to view them mainly as a means for partisan point-scoring and personal glory. More resistance to his presidency at home, if the Democrats take the House of Representatives, would probably therefore lead to more foreign-policy turbulence, not less. Mr Trump already appears to be itching to replace his competent defence secretary. He would then be even likelier to withdraw from Afghanistan, with or without a deal with the Taliban. He might even withdraw from NATO, especially if trade negotiations with the EU go as badly as European insiders fear. Even so, on the basis of his recent progress, Mr Trump’s bullyboy diplomacy is not as worrying as it once seemed.
That is mainly because it looks more manageable. The best thing about his rejigged trade deals is that they prevented some of the protectionist measures he had threatened. Much the same is true of North Korea, whose dictator Mr Trump menaced but now claims to love. The most concrete achievement of his North Korea gambit, in short, is to have avoided his own threat of war. There is no sign Kim Jong Un means to give up his nukes and, in the normalising of North Korea’s neighbourly relations, a growing risk the world will put up with them. That was once considered a nightmare prospect. On the other hand, it is not obvious Mr Trump’s histrionics have made it much likelier. And the dialogue he has launched with Mr Kim retains a hope of more substantial progress.
That may be doubly true of Mr Trump’s effort to extract better trade and commercial terms from China. Hit much harder than America by the trade war between the two countries, President Xi Jinping may be prepared to make concessions. Mr Trump’s norm-busting diplomacy would in that case look like a catalyst for progress. In other instances, however, the president’s pragmatism, recently manifest in his broader trade policy, may be a welcome safety-check on conservative orthodoxy.
He cares about moolah, not mullahs
The Khashoggi debacle illustrates the need for this. It is not primarily a window into the haplessness of Mr Trump’s foreign policy. It mainly reflects America’s weakness in the Middle East, after decades of misadventure, and an over-reliance on an embarrassing ally that long predates Mr Trump. The notion that Saudi Arabia could do the heavy lifting for America in a confrontation with Iran, as Republican hawks inside and outside the administration maintain, looked wishful even before Prince Muhammad showed his stripes. Happily, Mr Trump appears to have no interest in starting a Middle Eastern war. He would always rather cut a deal. On this issue, that makes him almost a reassuring figure.