The stamp of America First on US foreign policy

Donald Trump
Credit: AP

What if the implementation of the tenets of America First onto US foreign policy was for real? What if Donald Trump had been consistent on telling Americans and the world, that he was serious on taking the US out of the liberal order? and, ultimately on bringing the US status down from being the centerpiece of the liberal order to a simple superpower?

Since 2017, it seems that Trump and his advisors/implementers have been working on cutting all the strings attached around the US in terms of commitments, engagements, responsibilities and duties to transform the US from the ‘indispensable’ power into a simple sovereign power. After years of trying to grasp the logic of Trump’s foreign policy, it appears to be the most likely hypothesis at this point of time.

For two years, foreign policy experts and American allies have been trying to understand the logic of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. And based on the structures, heritage, norms and values of the post-World War two order, Trump’s decisions are incomprehensible. For instance, the departure of the US from the Paris climate deal, the different rounds of tariffs and quotas (washing machines, solar panels, aluminum and steel, and potentially car tariffs), the withdrawal from the Iran deal, the visceral despite for the European Union and deep support for Brexit, the departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the lingering NAFTA talks, and lately the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem are all a direct affront to the trust of allies. These radical shifts are not increasing American security, not advancing American interests and undermining global security.

What does that tell us? Donald Trump wants nothing to do with the liberal order and believes that the US can be better off alone dealing on bilateral basis and imposing its weight and will onto others. Trump and his administration may appear to see a success in this approach considering the limited response by the Europeans (still at awe by the permanent affront of the liberal order), and a mild reaction by China (so far).

Donald Trump believes, as a large segment of the American electorate, that the US has no business in playing the role of the world policeman. The international institutions, designed post-1945s, making the liberal order are in fact limiting the American sovereignty and national interests. The multilateral system orchestrated via the United Nations system, the World Trade Organization, and the multitude of regimes undermines the way the US can act. In December, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, wrote “these omissions [of the liberal elements in Trump’s NSS] undercut global perceptions of American leadership; worse, they hinder our ability to rally the world to our cause when blithely dismiss the aspirations of others.” Barry Posen summarizes it into the argument that Trump’s grand strategy is “primacy without a purpose.”

This approach and shaping of American foreign policy are extremely dangerous for the US and the world at large. Donald Trump inherited a strong economy and a relatively stable global order. The US is not involved in any major crises, at the exception of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Donald Trump did not have to save the American and world economy the way his predecessor needed to respond. These domestic and geopolitical realities have in fact created an illusion for this administration that has not proven itself in addressing any critical crises. The Trump administration feels almighty when it has in simple terms only been in cruise-control mode. Most of the crises faced by the Trump administration are in fact self-inflicted, as proven by the sudden cancellation by Donald Trump of the upcoming Singapore summit between the US and North Korea.

If Donald Trump continues on this trend and truly takes the US out of the order designed by the Americans and Europeans post-1945, he will not only launch the US into a motion of de-credibility of the US, weaken the liberal order, and simply downgrade the US into a regular superpower. Here are the dangers of such trend: first, history has taught us that multipolarity is greatly instable. The probability of war at a regional and global scale would increase. Second, the challenges ahead are becoming more global and complex to solve than ever before. The case of climate change, nuclear and chemical proliferation, free-trade, pandemics, mass migration, and stability of the financial system all require a imagesnetwork of institutions and regimes as a platform of discussion and interaction among states. These multilateral platforms permit to align interests, deepen cooperation and coordination and design mechanisms to implement and enforce agreements and policies. One country, as economically and militarily powerful as the US today, cannot solve any of these issues alone. Third, in his quest to greatness (almost like Don Quixote) Donald Trump will simply undermine the status, influence and power of the US and downgrade it to a superpower. Ironically, a long-term decline in influence and power will require the US to increase its alliances to balance its progressive global decline. That is the story of past hegemons. Fourth, this abrasive style may alienate once and for all American allies. The comments by President Donald Tusk at the recent EU summit in Bulgaria speak volume about the state of transatlantic relations. He said “We are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration. Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, some could even think, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’”

The US foreign policy under this Trumpian paradigm is due to a lack of understanding of the past 70 years and world history, the arrogance of inheritance of such power, and ideology. Furthermore, the Republican establishment in power and control of the Congress (House and Senate) seems to agree with the current direction of US foreign policy considering the lack of opposition (at the exception of Senator McCain). The decline of the US has been projected for quite sometime and it certainly won’t occur overnight. However, the trends these last years of this administration confirm to American allies and the world that analyzing Trump’s foreign policy decisions based on past paradigms will lead to more confusion than understanding. Trump’s America first is for real and could have lasting negative impacts on the US, world affairs and global security.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).
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Sovereignty versus Voices – Thoughts on Trump and Macron’s Addresses at the UN

2017-09-18-23.05.02

World  leaders are gathered in New York for the opening of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. This year is quite unique with a series of major unknowns and new players. The 2017 session included the recently elected American president, Donald Trump, and French president, Emmanuel Macron. In addition, the United Nations (UN) is headed by a new Secretary General, António Guterres, trying to make a name for himself. If these players matter, the geopolitical context requires a concrete and thoughtful reflection on its engaging world players on a multilateral basis. Comparing Macron and Trump’ speeches permits one to reflect on the internal forces at play and visions within the liberal order at a time of growing instabilities and complex challenges.

Unknowns Ahead of the 72nd UNGA Session

President Trump was elected in November 2016 on a nationalist platform summed up in his campaign slogan, America first. Trump’s vision of the world is dire, dark and negative, requiring the US to start defending his interests and national security on unilateral basis. Historical alliances, global governance, multilateral institutions and global trade are undermining American interests and supremacy. Trump perceives diplomacy in transactional terms, wherein only the US can win. Months later, in May 2017, on the other side of the pond, Emmanuel Macron won the french presidential race by campaigning on an agenda calling for audacity and grounded on a pro-Europe and pro-multilateralism agenda. Macron’s election was perceived as the end of the populist rise beginning with Brexit and allowing Trump to win the White House. The two leaders met on a series of occasions, the first time at a NATO summit and the second in Paris for the 14 of July. Both men could not be more different, but appear to be developing a relationship.

Ahead of the 72nd session, the future engagement of the US as part of the Paris deal (global fight against climate change), North Korea, the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, and multilateralism at large remain unknown. These four issues are at the center of the global agenda due to a shift in American foreign policy since the election of Trump. Soon in office, Trump called for the departure of the US from the Paris deal and has been more than unclear about the reality of climate change. Interestingly enough, many experts were, positively, surprised by the fact that world leaders remained committed to the Paris deal despite the departure of the US. On North Korea, Trump has escalated the rhetorics, as part of his tweeting war, threatening to unleash ‘fire and fury‘ against North Korea ensuing the launch of  intercontinental ballistic missiles. With regard to the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump had used this issue on the campaign trail to undermine diplomacy and multilateralism and Secretary Clinton (whom did not finalize the deal). The Iran deal is widely perceived among conservative and republican circles as a failure, which will undeniably result with Iran becoming a nuclear power. Lastly, on multilateralism, Trump has never shied away from the fact that unilateralism and transactional foreign policy serve better American interests than complex organizations like the United Nations.

In less than a year, President Trump has managed to shape a new narrative about the instability of the international order, in particular the liberal order, and the need for the US to use military might at all costs to advance its interests (i.e. the limited bombing over Syrian and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan).

Trump-Macron Ping-Pong

The speeches of both leaders could not be more at odds. If Trump sees the world and foreign policy as a transaction and through unilateralism, Macron has expressed his support towards multilateralism and global governance. Both leaders made their debut at the UN earlier today and their respective speeches confirm the prior statement.

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UN Photo/Cia Pak

President Trump’s speech (here) certainly marks a breakup with his predecessor. Trump opened his address before global leaders with a campaign tone talking about domestic matters (the growing economy, the strengthening American military and American resilience). Trump emphasized at great length the concepts of sovereignty (used 21 times in total including the word sovereign), security, prosperity and power. Regarding the way he sees American foreign policy, he underlined that the US was guided by outcomes and not ideology. “We have a policy of principled realism,” he argued “rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.” Some claimed that this speech demonstrated a return to realpolitik for the US. But half way through his speech, the American president made the following statement, “The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based.” These rogue regimes were identified as North Korea and Iran.

On North Korea, Trump used the platform to directly threaten the regime in Pyongyang claiming that the US may have no other option than “to totally destroy North Korea.” The language utilized to describe the members and leader of the North Korean regime was undiplomatic to say that least. He used this part, without mentioning it, to point the finger at Beijing. Ensuing his menace, he said “That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for.  Let’s see how they do.” The use of the pronoun ‘they’ in the last clause indicates the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the world. It indicates that Washington has its strategy ready (use of military force), and now the members of the UN can try to find an alternative via diplomacy.

Macron’ speech (here in French) had a totally different tone. His opening sentences emphasized the core ideas, values and norms encompassed by the UN and the desire to design a new system putting human rights at its center (with a natural

Opening of GA 72 2017 AM
UN Photo/Cia Pak

reference to René Cassin). The issues laid out by the french leader consisted of Syria, terrorism (Iraq), Mali (G5 Sahel and MINUSMA), protection of refugees, climate change, nuclear proliferation, multilateralism, and the reform of the UN (less bureaucratic and more active).

On climate change, President Macron directly responded to President Trump by expressing absolute opposition to renegotiating the Paris deal. On nuclear proliferation, Macron expressed deep concerns with the way North Korea behaves on the international stage, but rejected Trump’s reference of the Iranian deal as a bad one.

If Trump’s narrative was centered around the theme of sovereignty, the structure of Macron’s address was organized on the idea of France’s ability to hear the voices of the weakest and defending their rights and empowering them by speaking for them. Through the emphasis of voices, Macron presented France as a guardian of the weakest with French national interest being directly intertwined with global security. In reading and analyzing Macron’ speeches (for instance with his recent speech in Athens), one can identify a series of commonality: bringing France into the sphere of superpower (at least in rhetorics); similitude with an Obamaesque style of narration; deep reference and understanding of history; and a bold and global call for audacity. This style certainly breaks with the recent past of addresses of French presidents (in particular Sarkozy and Hollande) and re-unites France, for better or worst, with its gaullo-mitterrandist heritage.

Concluding with Secretary General Guterres’s comments seems appropriate. “We are a world in pieces. We need to be a world at peace.” The antipodal addresses of the American and French leaders illustrates a clear split within the West about framing critical menaces, developing a cohesive strategy, and ultimately shaping world affairs. The transition from rhetorics to actions, if any, will be fascinating to observe.

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).