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President Trump at a rally

Trump Takes on the World

Donald Trump’s top advisers and the leaders who clashed with him lift the lid on the critical moments of his foreign policy.

About the programme

After one of the most shocking presidencies in history, Donald Trump’s top advisers and the leaders who clashed with him lift the lid on the critical moments of his foreign policy.

Trump Takes on the World was broadcast on Wednesdays for three weeks from 10th February 2021 at 9PM on BBC Two. To find out more, visit the BBC programme page .

A photograph of The White House, with its green lawn in the foreground

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

Trump’s international relationships in Tweets

What were some of Trump’s most controversial Tweets regarding international relations? What do these show about the US relationship with key global players over the course of his presidency?

On 8th January, 2021, Twitter took the unprecedented step of permanently banning the sitting US President , Donald J. Trump, from its platform for inciting violence on the platform prior to the storming of the US Capitol building. This was a significant blow for a President who had communicated directly – and often controversially - through Twitter throughout his term. As a candidate in the 2016 US Presidential campaign, Trump became well-known for his extensive use of his personal Twitter account as a campaign tool, and this personal Twitter activity continued undiminished after his January 2017 inauguration, all the way through to his permanent ban from the platform in January 2021. Trump’s Twitter account essentially became a public diplomacy tool, used to communicate to global publics – and political elites – about his changing foreign policy interests in priorities. Here, we take some of Trump’s most controversial Tweets as a starting point to investigate the US relationship with key global players over the course of his presidency.

Russia

A picture of the Russian flag

I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I've already given my opinion.....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017 

The relationship between the US and Russia came under the spotlight as early as the 2016 US Presidential election campaign, which was subject to serious allegations of Russian meddling. Investigations were rapidly carried out by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), CIA, FBI and NSA. They all determined that a hack of compromising DNC emails  released during the election campaign had been directed from the highest levels of the Russian government. The involvement of Russia’s military intelligence agency – masquerading as an anonymous hacker – was subsequently uncovered. After an in-depth investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, thirteen Russians were indicted in February 2018 on charges of ‘conspiracy to defraud the United States’. Their alleged aim was to advantage candidate Trump in the US electoral process, but Muller found no evidence that the Trump campaign had colluded  to achieve this – a finding emphasised by Trump on Twitter. President Trump subsequently caused consternation among the US intelligence community by referencing President Putin’s denials of involvement and commenting that he could not “see any reason why it would be” Russia that had meddled; the following day Trump announced that he had misspoken, and meant the opposite .

Very good call yesterday with President Putin of Russia. Tremendous potential for a good/great relationship with Russia, despite what you read and see in the Fake News Media. Look how they have misled you on “Russia Collusion.” The World can be a better and safer place. Nice!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 4, 2019 

Recent years have seen escalated tensions between the US and Russia due both to Russia’s military engagements in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, and to fears over Russia’s willingness to try and influence the democratic process. Throughout his Presidency, Trump made numerous calls for a normalisation of relations with Russia, but suggestions of impropriety persisted. One of the charges in his December 2019 impeachment, for example, related to abuse of power over pressure allegedly put on Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate the US cyber-security firm that had determined that Russia was responsible for the 2016 DNC hacks. While the votes were divided almost exactly along partisan lines, and Trump was ultimately acquitted on 5th February 2020, Republican Senator Mitt Romney made history as the first ever member of an impeached president's party to vote to convict.


North Korea

North Korean Flag

Being nice to Rocket Man hasn't worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won't fail.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017 

Right from the start of his Presidency in 2017, Donald Trump began tweeting about the danger posed by North Korea, and placed pressure on China to use its economic leverage to help address the problem. The US-North Korea relationship deteriorated through 2017, after North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test. Trump made multiple public references to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as ‘Rocket Man’, and North Korean officials responded by branding him a ‘dotard’. However, by 2018, an historic first meeting between a sitting US President and North Korean leader had been arranged. This was followed up with a 2018 Singapore Summit and 2019 Hanoi Summit. One of their key aims was the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in return for the cessation of sanctions on North Korea. Trump represented these meetings as a significant diplomatic coup, while others argued that the diplomatic coup belonged to Kim, a previously internationally isolated leader who gained an audience with the world’s most powerful leader without making any concessions. Ultimately, this experiment in personal diplomacy failed to achieve any substantive deal. The US delegation cut short the Hanoi Summit, and North Korea conducted further short-range missile tests in 2020.


China

China flag

If the U.S. sells a car into China, there is a tax of 25%. If China sells a car into the U.S., there is a tax of 2%. Does anybody think that is FAIR? The days of the U.S. being ripped-off by other nations is OVER!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2018 

President Trump campaigned on a promise to re-write US economic relations with China, consistently ‘talked tough’ on China over his term, and oversaw major fluctuations in the relationship between the two states. After expressing his dissatisfaction with Chinese progress on North Korea in 2017, Trump began tweeting in 2018 that trading practices between China and the US were ‘unfair’. A two-year trade war quickly ensued, after the US imposed a 25% tariff on various Chinese goods, with China responding in kind. This trade war came to an end with the signing of the Phase One Deal in January 2020. Under the deal, the two sides agreed to roll back tariffs and expand trade, while boosting commitments on intellectual property (IP) and technology transfer. The same year saw Trump refer repeatedly on Twitter to COVID-19 as the ‘China virus’. Negative views of China in the US rose by 20% during Trump’s presidency, but the evidence suggests that the trade war and subsequent deal created no lasting improvements  in the US position in respect of its trade deficit, manufacturing jobs, or IP infringements. You can find out more about US-China relations under Trump here.


NATO

NATO flag

President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 9, 2018 

Throughout his first election campaign and the first three years of his presidency, Trump was highly critical of NATO. He called the alliance ‘obsolete ’ and criticised its members  for not contributing sufficiently to the organisation. He pointed out that some NATO members were not in line to meet agreed targets for the proportion of GDP to be allocated to defence, or for the proportion of defence expenditure allocated to new equipment.

NATO members published a statement of unity for NATO’s 70th birthday in late 2019, and agreed a new funding formula . This agreement set out a rise in contributions from most European members and Canada, and a reduction in contributions from the US. Trump – backed up by NATO officials, including the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg – argued that his interventions had increased NATO’s relevance , and presented the substantial rise in NATO spending from 2016 as a major achievement of his. Others have argued that NATO members increased their spending in response to the increased threat from Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea.


The UK

The Union Jack - British flag

Too bad that the European Union is being so tough on the United Kingdom and Brexit. The E.U. is likewise a brutal trading partner with the United States, which will change. Sometimes in life you have to let people breathe before it all comes back to bite you!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2019 

Over Trump’s presidency, the Lords International Relations Committee raised concerns that his foreign policy activities on issues as diverse as climate cooperation, the Iran nuclear deal, and trade/tariffs ran contrary to the UK’s national interests . However, following what was arguably the most significant security threat faced by the UK during Trump’s presidency – the 2018 nerve agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal on British soil – the US actively contributed to an unprecedented internationally-coordinated expulsion of allegedly undeclared Russian intelligence  officers. Strikingly, Trump did not personally tweet at all about the affair.

US-UK relations over the Trump presidency were to a large extent framed by the UK’s decision to exit the EU. A long-term critic  of the EU, Trump imposed various tariffs on EU exports while in office, saw Brexit as “a great thing ”, and forged strong relationships with leading figures in the Brexit movement, including Nigel Farage. He was highly critical of former Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, which he said would damage prospects for new  trade deals with the US. In 2019, confidential emails were leaked, in which the UK’s Ambassador to the US made unflattering assessments of the Trump administration’s competence. Trump tweeted various personal  insults  in response, and the Ambassador subsequently deemed his position untenable and resigned . Despite being vocally supportive of May’s successor as PM, Boris Johnson, Trump reiterated cautions  about the negative impact that Britain’s post-Brexit agreements with the EU could have on future US trade. Trump’s 2021 removal from the presidency represents the loss of the highest-profile international supporter of the UK’s Brexit initiative.


US vs China trade graphic

Five things you need to know about US-China Relations

What are the main areas of competition and cooperation between the USA and China?

The relationship between China and the US is one of the defining features of twenty-first century international relations. How these two countries cooperate and compete on the world stage has a profound impact on the international system and on the way in which the relations between states unfold. But how have their ties evolved over the years? What are the main areas of competition and cooperation between the two? Are we heading towards a “New Cold War” between Washington and Beijing? Here’s all you ever wanted to know about US-China relations in five talking points.

1: How have bilateral ties evolved over the years?

Richard Nixon in China 1972

Richard Nixon in China 1972

Three key phases in ties between Washington and Beijing have led to the development of the relationship between two world superpowers as we know it today.

First, after years of virtually non-existent relations, in 1971 then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to China, shortly followed by the United Nations’ recognition of the People’s Republic of China. In February 1972, Richard Nixon made the first ever visit of a US President to China , and met with Chairman Mao Zedong. The two countries signed the Shanghai Communiqué  aimed at improving Sino-US relations.

The second critical juncture in the US-China relationship resulted from China’s opening up under former President Deng Xiaoping. In the 21 years between 1979 and 2000, this process brought about China’s emergence as the world’s factory. As a result of this key trend set in motion in the late 1970s, the two countries went on to normalise their trade relations, when US President Bill Clinton signed  the US-China Relations Act of 2000. This granted Beijing permanent normal trade relations with the United States and paved the way for China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Third, as China’s rise became increasingly prominent, in 2011 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, announced  a “substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia–Pacific region” as one of the US’s strategic priorities for the following decade. Defined as the Obama’s administration’s “Pivot to Asia”, this policy made clear that in the context of a rising China, the Asian theatre was at the core of US interests.


2: What are today’s key issues?

Participants of the Belt and Road Initiative

Participants of the Belt and Road Initiative

Several flashpoints frequently recur in Sino-US relations. These include human rights, the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities (especially the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang), and territorial disputes (Taiwan, Tibet, and the Himalayan border with India). But one aspect that has really epitomised China’s rise and potential challenges to the global order is Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) . This project was rolled out by President Xi Jinping in September 2013 and aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe, through infrastructural investments in more than 126 countries  that have so far signed cooperation agreements with China.

The BRI has been at the heart of very polarised debates, with scholars, analysts and policymakers debating China’s motivations. Some see it as China’s quest for global domination and as an attempt to undermine the US-led liberal order. For others, the BRI represents a much-needed resource of infrastructural development and opportunity to rethink global development. Regardless of motivations, the BRI represents a potent reminder of the competition between the two countries and their attempts at vying for global influence.   


3: Strategic competition or economic interdependence?

U.S China Trade Discussions

U.S China Trade Discussions

Many discussions around the shift in power from Washington to Beijing revolve around economic and military might. From a strategic standpoint, the Trump administration has viewed China’s rise in zero-sum terms, assuming that any gain for China represents a loss for the US. This logic has prompted a containment approach to China’s expansion in Asia and beyond. In December 2017, the US’ National Security Strategy described  China as a “revisionist” power that “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favour”. Along similar lines, the summary of the National Defense Strategy  issued in 2018 by the US Department of Defense declared that “China is a strategic competitor”. It accused China of “leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries” and achieve regional dominance having as the ultimate ambition the “displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future”.

Beijing has constantly rejected these claims, and has instead criticised the US’s arms sales and political support towards Taiwan. Moreover, in its 2019 Defence White Paper , Beijing noted how the US “provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability”.

The economic situation is similarly complex. The US and Chinese economies have grown interdependent trade-wise and in terms of supply chains, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic  and by the US’s reliance on China for the supply of pharmaceutical products and face masks. However, the Trump administration has sought to decouple American economic interests from those of China, thereby reversing a policy of ever closer economic ties that was initiated from China’s opening up onwards.

President Trump has engaged in a trade war with China that was aimed at weakening its economic firepower and at pushing back against the process of transformation rolled out by Chinese President Xi Jinping with the “Made in China 2025”  initiative. This aims to transform China from a low-cost manufacturing country to a great innovation power, thereby presenting China as a competitor for the US in key technological sectors, ranging from robotics to clean energy vehicles. But for all the attempts to decouple the two economies, this is far from an easy process given the size and existing links that have solidified over the years.


4: What about 5G?

Huawei Offices

The “Made in China 2025” strategy aims at making Beijing the powerhouse of technological advances for the years to come, thereby trying to supplant the competitive advantage the US has in this field. One of the key areas of competition is 5G wireless technology. Close links between government and private companies in China have led to concerns in the US about allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei – which on its part denies any government backing – to develop 5G critical infrastructure.

While key US allies, like the UK, have ordered  the complete removal of Huawei’s kit from the entire 5G network by 2027, China is likely to move ahead with its plans for developing digital infrastructure abroad. The Digital Silk Road  is already part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and with the deployment of digital tools (e.g. contact tracing) to fight the COVID-19 pandemic globally, this will continue to represent a growing arena of great power competition.   


5: Looking ahead: the future of the international order

What does this all mean for the global order? Are we heading towards a “New Cold War” as some observers  are claiming? In the power shift from West to East, is conflict inevitable? Scholars and policymakers have been grappling with these questions for years now. The US and China are competing over the rules, norms and institutions that govern international politics. While the US accuses China of deliberately undermining some of the key principles behind the liberal international order, including human rights, Beijing responds to these allegations that its only aim is to create a “community of shared destiny” and it accuses the US of having double standards in its conduct of foreign policy.

A popular view is that the result of this competition will end in what Harvard scholar Graham Allison defined as the “Thucydides's Trap” . The parallel is with the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens, that according to Greek historian Thucydides was caused by “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. Whether the US and China are on the same collision trajectory is difficult to tell. What is clear is that in recent years, US presidential administrations across the partisan divide have increasingly placed China at the centre of their strategic calculations. Despite differences in their preferred tone and tactics, the centrality of China to US foreign policy is set to continue.


Meet the OU experts

Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, Lecturer in Politics & International Studies at the Open University
Dr Precious Chatterje-DoodyLecturer in Politics and International StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, Lecturer in Politics & International Studies at the Open University
Dr Precious Chatterje-DoodyLecturer in Politics and International Studies

I'm an International Relations academic, and Chair of a final year undergraduate module on continuity and change in global politics. My research is centred around questions of communication, perception, identity and security - with a particular focus on Russia’s international and media relations. 

I've published academic articles and public outreach pieces on populism, emotion and the ‘post-truth’ media environment. My 2021 co-authored book, Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: People, power, politics on RT, examines the circulation of conspiracy theories between the Trump administration and Russian international broadcasters. 

A photo of Dr Filippo Boni, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University
Dr Filippo BoniLecturer in Politics and International StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photo of Dr Filippo Boni, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University
Dr Filippo BoniLecturer in Politics and International Studies

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