To the U.S. government, diplomacy means imposing sanctions and announcing threats of aggression. The case of the Russian natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 is no exception. However, Donald Trump’s punishing policy can become dangerous.

Anyone looking for U.S. footprints in world politics at the moment would not find much. America is experiencing a foreign policy drought. The country owes this to its president, who has no understanding of strategy, and a government that merely seeks to clean up after its head of state’s worst messes. Only when it comes to sanctions does an abundant rain pour over the steppe.

What the U.S. government lacks in terms of diplomacy and political imagination it makes up for with a singular slap-happy policy. Sanctions, tariffs, threats: The policy of the punitive hand is enacted by the stroke of a pen, by presidential decree. It does not require international bodies, troops or allies. Not only is it a sign of isolation and lack of imagination, but it also represents a danger.

The uncompromising aggression in the trade policy against China and the sanctions against Russia (which now also affect China) are the latest fruits of this strategy. There is no question that China's lack of action concerning the elimination of unfair trade regulations and Russian manipulation of the U.S. presidential election (the extent of which is coming to light slowly and has not yet been completely grasped) give rise to legitimate complaints. In both cases, it is reasonable to consider trade penalties or other sanctions.

The Message to Russia Is: Trust Me and Accept the Pinprick

At the same time, however, the Trump administration is enmeshed in contradictions and vulnerable to attacks due to the vacuity of its worldview. The best example of this is provided by the president himself, who has been hopelessly entangled in his policy toward Russia. His sympathy for Vladimir Putin is evident, his independence has been compromised by the manipulation of the election, his behavior is driven by the special counsel and the approaching midterm elections. This murky situation makes clean policies impossible, as demonstrated by the latest sanction package. The president is actually addressing Congress and signaling to the senators: Look, I'm doing something against Russia, give me leeway. The message to Russia is: Trust me and accept the pinprick, because I am protecting you from Congress’ much harsher sanctions.

This policy toward Russia will fail because of its contradictions, especially as the relations are much more complex, as is often the case when it comes to world din. When considering sanctions regarding Nord Stream 2, not only does Trump supposedly defend the noble values of American democracy, but he also has his eye on American energy interests and the export market for liquid gas.

Of course, Trump's punitive policy transcends issues with a gas pipeline. It is evidence of a lack of imagination and political loneliness. Successful foreign policy is the art of making a state gladly do what is wished of it. Pressure, coercion and punishment will not bring about alliances forged out of shared interests. On the contrary, they are tearing allies apart, as the Europeans are painfully experiencing now. Helmut Kohl worked according to the wise saying, “Do not bite the hand that feeds you.” For Trump, the opposite is true: The punishing hand gets bitten.