Bob Ehrlich: Trump Is Making High-Stakes Foreign Policy Plays Like No President Before Him


Trump the disruptor. Trump the maverick. Trump the establishment protagonist. All three descriptions fit our 45th president.

No modern president has challenged Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment in a more confrontational style. For his efforts, no president has been more ostracized by the foreign policy elite.

Some will argue that the president missed an early opportunity to recruit some members of the elite; that a percentage of the establishment was willing to give the novice politician the benefit of the doubt — and their expertise — country over party, you know.

That observation may indeed be correct; we may never know. But it is of little consequence now. After numerous swings and misses, it appears the president has found a team of senior advisors (Pompeo, Bolton, Lighthizer, Navarro) that reflect his preference for high stakes threats, high stakes engagement, and sometimes both. Note that all have adopted the president’s “hit and hug” modus operandi on the world stage. Its effectiveness will play out on four extraordinarily important policy fronts over the next 18 months.


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Recall the president’s early move to question “One China” policy but simultaneously engage Chinese President Xi Jinping over North Korea and trade. Principal to principal engagement did follow as an early visit by Xi to Mar-a-Lago met with generally positive reviews. But to what effect remains unclear. Negotiations with Kim Jong Un are presently at a standstill while world markets remained transfixed with more than a dash of pessimism over the status of American-Chinese trade negotiations. The success or failure of the latter will constitute a major part of the president’s foreign policy legacy — and the real test of hit and hug.

Talk about breaking the mold. No American president had dared engage the Chinese on ever-widening trade imbalances and the wholesale theft of intellectual property in such an aggressive way. Think about it: what establishment politician would risk the short-term economic health of his political base (midwestern farmers) in an effort to get the Chinese to curb subsidization of their inefficient state industries and stop the blatant theft of Western IP?

The Bottom Line:

Failure here carries a serious downside. Trump needs at least a partial deal that will move the (trade) ball forward in tangible ways.


Admittedly far more a hit than a hug, the president not only stopped enabling the world’s most notorious sponsor of terror (recall the load of cash Barack Obama delivered by plane to the Ayatollahs in consideration of his flawed nuclear deal), but he doubled down on a sanctions regime that is wreaking havoc on the Iranian economy.

As usual, our European allies have been less than pleased with the strong-arm tactics. This is not the way the game is supposed to be played — which is the president’s point. That game allowed the Chinese to leverage their way into first world economic power status (see above), while the West stood passively by as Iran expanded its Middle Eastern terror empire into Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Alas, the Trump administration’s crippling sanctions are hitting hard enough to rekindle domestic unrest.

The Bottom Line:

A declining economy that starves the regime of dollars needed to fund its terror activities throughout the Middle East would be a big win. So, too, would a restive Iranian street demanding regime change. There is reason to be optimistic here.

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North Korea:

Herein is the original field test for hit (“My button is bigger than yours”… “Little Rocket Man”) and hug ([Kim Jong-Un] is “very open” and “a very honorable” negotiator). A unique negotiating approach to say the very least. How else to describe an American president praising a ruthless, despotic dictator who has refined the art of systemic starvation? But Trump’s response to the resulting bipartisan criticism was (is) on target. To wit: nothing the bipartisan foreign policy establishment has attempted over the past half-century has worked.

Why not try something new?

The Bottom Line:

Early positive movement from Summit #1 was lost when the president prematurely left Summit #2. No opponent has tested Trump’s salesmanship skills more than Kim Jong Un. It would be helpful (but probably not a necessity) if the president could point to tangible progress prior to 2020. Otherwise, a North Korean status quo provides little to brag about.


It looks like a Cold War redux. The Russians and Cubans support a corrupt socialist dictator while America and the West cast their lot with the Democratic opposition. But this is different. Venezuela is in the Western hemisphere. The opposition (Juan Guaidó) has been democratically elected but denied office. The Venezuelan economy is in freefall. Neighboring states are increasingly nervous as they receive thousands of starving refugees. And plenty of Florida-based democratic sympathizers are asking for the U.S. to “do the right thing.”

To date, the right thing has been harsh sanctions that have further weakened the brutal Nicolás Maduro while placing additional strain on his socialist sponsors in Havana.

The Bottom Line:

A home (hemispheric) game means higher stakes for a Trump administration doing all it can (short of military intervention) for the good guys. A Maduro departure would be a huge win for democracy — and Trump-style diplomacy — over militarism. Again, reason to be optimistic. Enough said.

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Robert Ehrlich is a former governor of Maryland as well as a former U.S. congressman and state legislator. He is the author of “Bet You Didn’t See That One Coming: Obama, Trump, and the End of Washington’s Regular Order,” in addition to “Turn This Car Around,” “America: Hope for Change" and “Turning Point.” Ehrlich is currently a counsel at the firm of King & Spalding in Washington, D.C.