- By Michael CarpenterMichael Carpenter is senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. He is a former a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia and foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Follow him on Twitter: @mikercarpenter.
President Donald Trump portrayed himself during the campaign as a brash, unconventional outsider who would “drain the swamp” of establishment elites and upend the status quo. Nowhere was his campaign more unorthodox than on foreign policy matters — he advocated for a radical departure from the Republican establishment. Calling NATO “obsolete” amidst mounting threats to transatlantic security, embracing the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the face of spiraling Russian repression at home and aggression abroad, and advocating for less U.S. leadership in international affairs hardly seemed like a winning formula for a Republican presidential candidate. Yet Trump doubled down. He disparaged vital institutions like the European Union. He criticized stalwart American allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He railed against the military establishment, calling it a “disaster.” Perhaps most alarming of all, he expressed open admiration for authoritarians and dismissed the notion that American values were a beacon for the rest of the world.
The Trump worldview was sufficiently jarring to unite neoconservatives, traditional realists, and liberal internationalists in a common defense of the postwar international order. Architects of the Iraq war joined with its critics, while human rights advocates made common cause with practitioners of realpolitik to sound the alarm over Trump’s failure to defend, or even fully understand, the basic institutions that they held dear. But after a dizzying number of U-turns during his first 100 days, many now seem to think Trump will drop his more outlandish positions (having satisfied his patrons), and revert to a more traditional foreign policy. After all, he proclaimed NATO to be no longer obsolete, launched cruise missiles at Syria, and talked tough on North Korea and Iran. A visibly giddy Senator Lindsay Graham said he was “the happiest dude in America.”
Trump may well be changing tack, but rather than trying to divine the overarching strategy driving every presidential tweet or tactical decision, we need to look at the broader picture of how this administration is approaching key issues to make sense of the cacophony emanating from the White House. I suggest looking at six key metrics of support for the international order to judge the foreign policy direction the Trump administration takes going forward.
First, the bedrock principles of the international order are sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the inadmissibility of the use of force to change borders. President George H.W. Bush’s decision to forcibly reverse Iraq’s territorial gains in 1991 after its invasion of Kuwait was a classic defense of the international order. Today, these principles are most conspicuously under attack in Ukraine, where Russia continues to deploy its troops in the Donbass to subvert Ukraine’s sovereignty. A key question for the Trump administration going forward is whether it will support Ukraine’s sovereignty not just rhetorically, but by taking concrete actions to reverse Russia’s ongoing occupation, such as by providing military assistance.
Second, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined human rights as one of the pillars of the liberal international order. While different administrations have gone about supporting human rights in different ways, Republicans and Democrats alike have embraced the need to speak out about violations and take action in egregious cases. So far, the Trump administration seems to have outsourced human rights issues to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to attend this year’s rollout of the State Department’s annual human rights report and neglected to meet with dissidents and human rights activists during his trips to China and Russia.
Third, the liberal international order is based on treaties and norms against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This includes biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. North Korea will provide an early test, in the form of the administration’s response to Pyonyang’s moves to develop nuclear capabilities. The United States met with a military response Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons, but a key test going forward will be whether America doubles down on its initial missile strikes if Assad decides to use such weapons again. Finally, Russia’s clear violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will soon allow Moscow to deploy potentially nuclear-capable missiles within range of America’s Asian and European allies. This too will test whether the new administration is prepared to respond to a clear treaty violation and take military countermeasures against a dangerous new capability in the hands of a revanchist power.
Fourth, the Bretton Woods institutions were established as part of the postwar consensus to support global trade, investment, and commerce. Although the IMF and the World Bank have rightly been criticized for aggressively pushing neoliberal solutions on transitional economies as part of the so-called “Washington consensus,” Trump has paradoxically argued for both protectionism and massive neoliberal-style deregulation at home. Going forward, will Trump double down on the campaign’s mercantilist rhetoric and scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement, or embrace a more moderate stance on global trade?
Fifth, support for democratic development has been a central tenet of American foreign policy since the World War II. Grassroots programs that support civil society, party building, free media, and other democratic institutions have helped to spread democratic norms to many parts of Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America over the last few decades. Currently these democratic institutions are under assault as part of a global authoritarian revival. So far the Trump administration has said next to nothing about the promotion of democratic norms, while massive cuts to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets imply that these will not be priorities for Trump.
A final aspect of the liberal international order is protecting citizens from the threat of terrorism. Here the administration has signaled strong resolve, but again the proof will be in the actual policies that the White House adopts. Fighting terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and countering the radicalization that sustains them requires American leadership, as demonstrated by the U.S. role in assembling the 68-member coalition to defeat the Islamic State. The Trump campaign wanted to have it both ways: retrenching the United States from its global commitments, but pledging to defeat and destroy the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Sahel, Syria, and Yemen. Accomplishing that goal without investing in American leadership will be difficult, if not impossible.
How the administration acts on the six pillars of the international order — sovereignty, human rights, nonproliferation, global trade, democracy, and countering terrorism — will allow us to judge over time the true content of Trump’s foreign policy. Given the fact that the administration’s rhetoric has been all over the map, it is pointless to try to distill a strategic approach at this time. Trump may prove to be a maverick, or perhaps he will revert to a more traditional foreign policy, but for now it seems the one thing we can count on is an unscrupulous defense of one family’s parochial interests.
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