The new president has sounded an unprecedented retreat for the United States from its role as a world leader.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
America’s foreign policy has changed more in the week since Donald Trump took office than it has at any time since the end of World War II. Given the changes that occurred in 1991 with the end of the Cold War and after the attacks on 9/11, that is saying something. But the changes ushered in by Trump — often without benefit of consultation with his cabinet departments, experts of any sort, or the legislative branch of government — cut to the core philosophies that have guided America in the modern era, as well as to the specifics of relations with an extraordinarily wide array of countries and regions.
The most profound of these changes is that after almost a century of American leadership on the world stage, Trump has unabashedly sounded the retreat. Whether under the umbrella of his “America First” views, his willingness to let other powers take the lead, his distrust of international institutions, or pure ignorance, he has ushered in a shift from what was hailed as the Pax Americana to what may soon be seen as the Pox Americana, a blight befalling the world as a consequence of mean-spirited, ill-considered, short-sighted U.S. foreign policy.
This can be clearly seen when we take each of the major foreign-policy actions one at a time.
First, there is the shift away from the foundational concepts that have guided American foreign policy since World War II. At the heart of American leadership since the defeat of Nazism, fascism, and the Japanese empire has been a belief in an international system of laws and institutions with the United States playing a central role. A corollary has been the ongoing commitment to promoting, preserving, and actively protecting certain core American values, which include standing up to potential global threats, rejecting aggression, promoting free markets and global trade, supporting democracy, honoring our alliances and commitments, and infusing our actions with a sense of humanity and compassion wherever possible. We have also shown a respect for science and technological progress as a force for good. Have we strayed from these principles? Of course. Have we violated them from time to time? Yes, that too. But have we always made an effort to at least seemingly be guided by them, and have we usually sought to do so? Yes.
In short order, Donald Trump has discounted serious threats, embraced aggressors, announced a reversal in international trade and economic policy (that echoes American policies of the Smoot-Hawley, pre-World War II era), embraced anti-democratic forces at home and abroad, threatened to reject or not honor alliances or treaties from NATO to NAFTA, and turned his back groundlessly on refugees and immigrants including those whose plights America has contributed to. He has also undercut our commitment to long-standing efforts to improve the world and America’s standing in it — from announcing an intention to no longer support vital health programs for women to rolling back climate change mitigation policies to cutting back on international aid and support for multilateral institutions.
From the mentality of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” we have gone to one of building new walls that separate us from friends and vital allies. From the soaring spirit of the poetry inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, we have gone to turning a deaf ear to those most in need. From working to knit together Europe to help ensure its stability and ours, we have gone to supporting nationalist movements that seek to tear it down. From focusing on the Atlantic alliance as the centerpiece of U.S. security, we have a commander in chief who has posited that not only is NATO obsolete but that we may not honor its most important provision — that an attack on one is an attack on all. From the present-at-the-creation moment at which we helped build the United Nations and the other institutions of the international order (not purely to help others, but often to advance our own interests), we have announced a policy to defund the U.N. and to undercut the international trading system. From being the nation that used science and technology to put a man on the moon and built the internet, we have become a nation whose leader rejects science, seeks to suppress facts on government websites, and denies the indisputable global threat of climate change.
America was once a nation that was seen as actively arguing for the principles that made the country great — sometimes too actively for the taste of many around the world. We made the case for a free press; now the president assails the media, publicly attacks journalists as “the most dishonest people” on Earth, and thus sends a message to authoritarian leaders worldwide that he is a kindred spirit. We celebrated freedom of religion; now we have become a nation that has embraced Islamophobia and seems to be taking steps to punish individuals simply because of their religious beliefs. We opposed ethno-nationalism; now we have overnight emerged as an acknowledged leader and supporter of a global movement based on nationalism and fomenting hatred of “the Other.”
Rather than seeking to preserve the sanctity of democracy and the principle of self-determination of peoples, this president has actively called for foreign governments to meddle in U.S. elections, rejected assertions that one such government, Russia, had done so despite all the evidence to the contrary, and has subsequently defended and embraced the leadership of that anti-democratic regime — as well as given comfort to many others and to dubious or rogue leaders from Syria to the Philippines.
Foundational policies that both Democratic and Republican administrations have hewed to have also been cast aside or dramatically undercut. This is the first administration since the 1930s to actively embrace and even promote the interests of the government in the Kremlin. The “One China” policy that has been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy for almost half a century was cast aside during the transition (as was the important concept that the United States had “one president at a time”). The long-standing friendship America has had with its neighbor and one of its most important trading partners, Mexico, has been imperiled by Trump’s desire to vilify Mexicans for political game and to literally erect a wall between our two countries. As noted above, America’s most important alliance, NATO, has had its future thrown into doubt. The policy of supporting right-wing, anti-EU parties in Europe (which also advances the interests of Russia) is contrary to America’s long-established support for multilateralism and undercuts the economic and political strength of our allies. Our long-standing policy of siting the U.S. Embassy in Israel in Tel Aviv has been thrown into question (not for the first time … but in a way that was, at least at first, troublingly abrupt).
While the administration of Barack Obama had a record of indecision, inaction, and a failure to protect U.S. interests in Syria and Iraq, the former president recognized Bashar al-Assad as a menace to his people and did not explicitly support Russia’s intervention in support of Assad. The new president’s press secretary recently announced a willingness to have U.S. forces fight alongside Russian ones in Syria (despite questions of whether or not this is even legal).
The George W. Bush administration embraced torture and rendition in a way that produced an international outcry and U.S. legislation against future abuses. The Trump team has sought a reversal in these areas as well.
All this in a week. It is made all the more worrying because candidate Trump indicated many other areas where he would deviate from long-standing, proven, sound U.S. policies — from being open to the use of nuclear weapons by U.S. allied nations in the Pacific to embracing a more hostile stance with China to entering into trade wars with important economic partners despite oceans of evidence suggesting how damaging such actions are. And if the last week is any indication, we should expect the White House to continue to deviate from policies that have proved to be wise and effective.
One friend of mine who is a smart commentator has suggested that Trump is on many issues a throwback, turning back history and perhaps emulating Ronald Reagan — who entertained some of these ideas. But I would say it is worse. Trump is ahistorical. I think he has no idea of history. And let’s remember — Reagan was fiercely tough on Russia, pro-free trade, and his policies in many areas evidence a humanity and respect for fundamental U.S. values that Trump’s do not. It is also not irrelevant that Trump has less government and international experience than any president in U.S. history. Nor is it of no consequence that his transactional approach to life to date, combined with his global business interests, creates enormous ethical challenges that could color his behavior and further lead him to deviate from what is in America’s best interest.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether and how he follows through on actions taken to date or on his other threats and promises. It is unclear whether he has any real understanding of what he is doing. (Though even the most fair-minded observer could not help but think at this point that he does not.)
Perhaps once he has more of his government in place, he may solicit, get, and perhaps even heed better advice than he seems to be receiving from his “gang of five” or his own “very good brain.” But there is no question that significant damage has already been done. Further, should it emerge that he has the ability and the inclination to institutionalize the changes he has put in place, it is undoubtedly true that by the time he leaves office, America’s standing will have fallen greatly. Make no mistake: By then, other countries will have stepped in to fill the void left by the United States, and it will take many, many years to undo the consequences of electing this impulsive, values-challenged, foreign-policy neophyte as president.
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