The US Foreign Policy: Obama and Trump Administrations Comparison

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 11
Words: 2988
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: Bachelor


The Obama and the Trump administrations dealt with various issues of foreign policy in strikingly different ways such that the two administrations form good examples for comparison of presidential foreign policy legacy. This analysis will demonstrate that although both presidents pursued the interests of the US, their approaches to issues were starkly different from each other. While it is easy to evaluate a president’s foreign policy against that of his predecessor, such an examination is often more detailed and likely more objective. When two regimes served at times that are far apart historically, it becomes difficult to ascertain the prevailing conditions domestically and globally accurately. Moreover, comparing the foreign policies of an ancient president like Abraham Lincoln against those of a modern president like George W. Bush would present the inherent difficulty of establishing an equal measure since the two led when the prevailing issues, conditions, and status of the nation were vastly different. Thus, it is difficult to compare the immigration policies of the Lincoln administration which had slavery to deal with, and the Bush administration which existed at a time when democracy had already spread across the world.

To gain a more objective comparison, it is prudent to compare two administrations that governed the nation at approximately the same or close historical moments. This way, a look at how a particular administration handled a particular issue and its comparison to another administration’s approach would be accurate, reasonable, and actionable. Therefore, based on this criterion, the Obama administration and the Trump administration form the two of the most analyzed and highlighted administrations of modern American history. Although the two administrations were successive and Trump’s just a one-term administration, their approaches and stands on multiple foreign policy issues were so diverse that they constitute an intriguing subject of study. In analyzing these two administrations, a consideration of each administration’s handling of the primary issues of immigration, defense, trade, and climate change will provide the most objective and guided presentation of foreign policy issues.

Immigration as an Element of Foreign Policy

The issue of immigration is perhaps the most defining element of the Trump administration. The debate about Trump’s immigration policy became a subject of debate by pundits, politicians, and the public right from the day he announced his candidacy. However, some still argue that he had demonstrated a disdain for immigrants way before that memorable day. This particular thinking is primarily informed by Trump’s challenge and questioning of then-President Barack Obama’s status as a US citizen. In so doing, Trump had famously claimed, albeit with no evidence, that President Obama had been born in Kenya and was, therefore, unfit to be the US president, a claim that was perpetuated mainly by the so-called “Birther Movement” (Abramson, 2016). In addition to this, Donald Trump launched his presidential bid on the promise of revolutionizing the way America handled immigration, all in a bid to “Make America Great Again.” This mantra became the slogan for his campaign. Perhaps the most telling thing about his immigration policy, however, would be his famous spat with Mexico.

During the announcement of his candidature, Trump claimed that Mexico had been taking advantage of the US by exporting to the US drug dealers, rapists, and criminals. To rid the United States of this ill, Trump famously promised to build a wall on Mexico and the US border and further still claimed that Mexico would pay for the wall (Wojczewski, 2019). These statements, coupled with his earlier stand on Obama’s citizenship, effectively led to the categorization and viewership of Trump as an anti-immigration politician. This view would persist throughout his presidency he was often faced with adverse claims about enacting and executing anti-immigration policies.

Following the highly controversial and harsh handling of immigration by the Trump administration, one might think that the preceding Obama administration was lenient on immigration. Contrary to this popular belief and perception, however, the Obama administration was tough on immigration and is best considered as having had a mixed approach to the issue. Regarding some issues, the Obama administration became the toughest among all the previous regimes, while on some other elements, the administration would accurately be considered to have been lenient.

First, consider the administration’s toughest policies and actions against immigration. To put things in perspective, it is worth noting that until Donald Trump, Obama was the harshest enforcer of the US immigration laws in the country’s history. This conclusion is arrived at in view of the statistics that show the number of illegal immigrants that the Obama administration deported, all totaling three million immigrants, exceeds that of any other administration (Nowrasteh, 2020). On the other hand, however, the Obama administration undertook some executive actions that protected immigrants, thereby earning his administration the reputation of also being a protector of immigrants, especially the vulnerable populations. For example, Obama issued de-facto legalization for individuals who, despite being illegal immigrants, had arrived in the US as children. This action became known as the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA)” program. By the time the administration’s time in the White House was coming to an end, the program had resulted in the shielding of more than 750,000 individuals from deportation.

The two administrations, therefore, are comparable in their harsh crackdown on illegal immigration. Although their approaches to the issue were different, it is arguable that both administrations were keen on ridding the US of the deeply rooted challenge of illegal immigration. Therefore, this difference in approach is the primary difference between the two administrations since it is also the one that led to Obama’s executive actions that shielded close to a million immigrants from deportations. While Obama was diplomatic and methodical in executing his immigration policy, Trump was brazened and often issued blanket declarations and alarmist remarks. The latter led to his viewership as a president who was anti-immigration. Consequently, Trump’s political competitors, the Democrats, capitalized on this public perception to paint President Trump as a dangerous and reckless president who had caused the US ridicule on the global stage, thereby necessitating his removal.

The Defense as an Element of Foreign Policy

Defense is the second issue that defines the foreign policies of both the Trump and the Obama administrations in a major way. Just as was the case in the issue of immigration, Trump also proved to be unconventional in his approach to the subject of Defense, especially on the elements that pertained to international security and the US’ role in it. From the outset, Trump was clear that he would take a tough and bold approach to defense. It was not uncommon for him to criticize his predecessor by labeling him a coward and claiming that Obama’s cowardly approach had downgraded America’s stature as the strongest superpower in the world. Trump’s tough talk on defense was, therefore, targeted at specific defense interests of the US, whereby he endeavored to explain how he would handle each of those critical aspects.

In this regard, the most prominent one was his handling and approach to the relationship between Russia and the US. Being a traditional foe of America, Russia has almost always been viewed by Americans as the most significant threat to US security and leadership status in the world, at least on matters of security and defense. As a result, the subject of Russia is always a common thread for debate during the US presidential campaigns. It was, therefore, a foregone conclusion that Trump, the candidate, would have to address the issue, and he did during both the Republican Party primaries and the subsequent run against Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Party’s nominee. At that time, while responding to the question of the country that he viewed as the biggest threat to US security and dominance in the world, Trump went against the usual expectation of mentioning Russia and instead settled on China. Even more surprisingly, he heaped praises on Putin, the Russian leader whom most American politicians consider a dictator and whom they accuse of violating numerous human rights.

Per Trump’s view, however, Putin was a strong and efficient leader who drew respect for his country contrary to what President Obama was doing and achieving (Walsh, 2016). Following this bold and open praise for Putin, Trump invited upon himself immense criticism. However, this controversial approach to the subject of Russia and Trump’s expression of a desire and willingness to cooperate and even work with Putin provides the first glimpse of his would-be administration’s foreign policy on defense.

Another issue that famously defined Trump’s foreign policy was his dealing with the US’ allies with whom the nation cooperates on multiple engagements and partnerships concerning global security and defense. Therefore, a discussion of the Trump administration’s foreign policy on defense without highlighting his relationship with the likes of NATO and the United Arab Emirates would be incomplete. Accordingly, it is worth noting that even on matters of defense Trump still applied his administration’s basic principle and mantra of “America First.” His insistence and pursuit of this line of thought and action, therefore, made his association and dealing with both allies and foes reasonably controversial.

One of Trump’s most controversial and often termed isolationist acts as president was his onslaught on NATO. Often considered one of the US’ most formidable and robust relationships, NATO has always been considered untouchable and has never been an issue for discussion in American defense politics. However, Trump did not spare it in his pursuit of the “America First” policy. Accordingly, he was quick to highlight areas such as funding where he felt that Europe was taking advantage and ripping off the United States. Consequently, Trump famously mused that if the US was to continue with the alliance, then the European countries ought to foot their fair share of the bill (Demirel, 2021). This move, therefore, earned Trump both praise and condemnation in equal measure.

The Middle East is another frontier through which the foreign policy of both administrations became evident. Trump’s approach to the Middle East question was just as controversial as his handling of the other issues already discussed. First, he went against the unspoken American tradition of keeping tabs on the Middle region while seeking to establish a balance between America’s competing interests in the region. Typical of his style, Trump kicked off his presidency by undertaking the controversial move of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and subsequently moving the US embassy from Telaviv to Jerusalem. This move caused immense tension and controversy since both Israel and Palestine lay claim to the city as theirs (Mahmood, 2020). In so doing, Trump was going against his predecessor’s approach to diplomacy whereby he had sought to negotiate a two-state solution to the ages-old conflict.

In addition to the Israel issue, the Trump administration is also remembered for its controversial handling of the Iran nuclear crisis. When Trump came into office, he found an existing Iran deal in which the US was both a party and sponsor. In fact, the Obama administration often cited the deal as one of its major and unique foreign policy achievements as far as the Middle East was concerned. However, Trump often termed the deal as a poorly negotiated agreement and proceeded to unilaterally pull out of the deal, much to the chagrin of the rest of the world (Wojczewski, 2019). Trump’s controversial and often globally-opposed actions in the Middle East are, therefore, often cited as some of the major failures of his administration on foreign policy.

Obama’s approach to the matter of the Middle East as a factor in his administration’s foreign policy was clear right from the time he was merely a candidate running for the office of president. At the time, Obama, while criticizing the preceding Bush administration for engaging in the Iraq war, pointed out that his primary focus would be the fight against terrorism, with either capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden, America’s most wanted man would be a key objective. True to his word, upon election, Obama oversaw a sustained onslaught against terrorist groups such as the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. He maintained and, at some point, even increased the troops in Afghanistan in support of the war against terror. The highest moment for the Obama administration in this regard was when American Commandos raided and killed Osama bin Laden in 2010, thereby scoring one of Obama’s biggest and proudest victories in the war against terrorism.

However, Obama’s handling of the Middle East issues ended up having mixed results. For example, he was determined to withdraw American troops from Iraq as promised during his campaign. However, his critics often site this move as a significant contributor to the emergence of a new Islamic terrorist group, ISIS, in the region. In addition to this, the Obama administration is memorably remembered for facilitating and even supporting the removal of several leaders of the Middle East countries in a wave of ousters that came to be known as the Arab spring. Again, these developments became a blot on Obama’s foreign policy legacy. The Arab Spring is largely considered to have destabilized the region. It became the center stage for numerous global challenges such as the immigration crisis in Europe and the emergence and spread of ISIS’s influence and control in the region.

Considering how both administrations handled matters of defense, it is evident that both presidents primarily focused on the traditional foreign policy issues that are of concern for almost every US administration of the modern era. However, the administrations employed different tactics and modes of operation to achieve their objectives. Interestingly, however, Obama, often considered the more diplomatic of the two, ended up having engaged in more armed conflicts than Trump, although the latter served one term only (Steff, 2020). Nonetheless, both administrations registered notable gains but also losses in their handling of defense matters.

Trade as An Element of Foreign Policy

In addition to immigration and defense, trade is the other point of focus of the US foreign policy. Accordingly, the Obama and the Trump administrations had trade playing a critical role in defining their foreign policies. A comparison of their legacies in this subject would highlight the main policies that each administration championed in a bid to achieve its desired trade and commerce goals. In considering the Trump administration first, it is important to note that his trade policies were firmly anchored upon his administration’s central policy of “America First” (Olsen, 2019). Priding himself as an established and world-renowned businessman, Trump used the business card during his campaign and his tenure. When launching his bid, Trump pointed out that the US was at a disadvantage when trading with other nations globally, especially the main industry players. Consequently, he promised to reverse that trend once he was elected. From the word go, he filled his cabinet with former business executives, demonstrating the central role that the economy would play in his administration.

However, his clearest indication of the trajectory that his foreign policy would take with regard to trade was visible in his administration’s interactions and dealings with China, the nation that Trump considered the greatest threat to the US. Trump was quick to pick a war with China by applying punitive taxes against Chinese products as well as American products that were manufactured in China and later exported to the US. Through this tactic and other similar ones, Trump aimed to discourage job flight and encourage local manufacturing and production (Huenemann, 2017). Additionally, the administration sought to renegotiate existing trade deals such as NAFTA, which the president felt were unfavorable to the US.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s approach was more in favor of globalization. Accordingly, the US engaged in multiple bilateral and multilateral negotiations and agreements that sought to strengthen America’s leadership position as a global trading partner. Ultimately, the administration’s trade policies can be described as having followed the established patterns that had been set in previous administrations.

Climate as An Element of Foreign Policy

Finally, the issue of climate change was a major point of departure between the foreign policies of the Obama and the Trump administration. On the one hand, Obama was a huge proponent of environmental conservation and efforts to minimize and reverse the effects of climate change. Consequently, under his leadership, the US became a party to major climate conservation treaties such as the Paris climate accord. The signatories committed themselves to cutting down on carbon emissions and the use of harmful products such as fossil fuels. On the other side, Trump took an opposing stand and often dismissed climate change, preferring instead to claim that it was a hoax (Stavins, 2021). His denial of climate change culminated in another of his controversial executive actions whereby he pulled the US out of the Paris Accord.


The Obama and the Trump administrations provide are ideal for a comparison of their foreign policies. Being successive regimes, the two presidents were faced with more or less similar challenges and global scenarios during their leadership. Their foreign policies centered on the primary themes of America’s foreign policy; immigration, defense, trade, and climate. The long-established tradition of America’s handling of foreign policy notwithstanding, the two administrations took such different approaches. They pursued such different objectives that one could easily believe that they served in different historical periods.

On the one hand, Obama was stern on immigration but methodical in his implementation of immigration laws. On the other hand, Trump was obvious in his slurs and abusive language when referring to immigrants. On the issue of defense, Obama was diplomatic and maintained the traditional focus on the usually perceived opponents of America. At the same time, Trump talked tough and disenfranchised all, including the allies like NATO. Trump also took a protectionist approach to trade, while Obama favored globalization. Therefore, the two administrations demonstrate the two divides in America’s foreign policies that come into play depending on the leader’s personality and the party that he leads.


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