Trump’s retreat from American leadership

Trump’s retreat from American leadership

Since coming into office, President Trump has broken with 70 years of American commitment to global leadership. The successive withdrawals from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement, combined with the potential shift away from the alliance vis-à-vis the European powers, create several areas of political risk.

On June 1st, Mr. Trump announced that the United States will leave the Paris Climate Accord, thereby respecting one of his electoral campaign key promises. According to the President, the Paris Accord is a glaring example of “Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.“ Pointing out the unfairness of an agreement that was ratified by 148 countries, Mr. Trump called for a new deal, a “deal that’s fair” to the US. On his first day in office, President Trump had already abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through an executive order, which reflected a major pivot for the U.S. on trade policy. These decisions symbolize the administration’s unilateralist stance on foreign policy.

To the President and his “America first“ advisors, the US position as a global leader is more of a burden than a strategic advantage. Mr. Trump’s speech during a recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit emphasized the new administration’s willingness to approach multilateralism and alliances in a transactional fashion. “Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Mr. Trump declared, shocking the Heads of State panel present in Brussels. This “win-win“ stance could have serious consequences for the US position as a major player on the international scene.

American independence

So far, Mr. Trump’s trade policy carries all the hallmarks of a drift toward protectionism. The President’s determination to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is one manifestation of the administration’s mercantilist approach. In his inaugural address, President Trump declared that US borders had to be protected from “the ravages of other countries,“ and mentioned the possibility of imposing a special tax on US companies that move their factories abroad. Mr. Trump’s trade policy could cause long-term damage to the liberal economic system that has prevailed since the end of World War II. At the same time, it seems likely that this protectionism will jeopardize US interests on the international chessboard.

Trump’s narrative of industrial decline shakes the very foundation of the liberal international order that United States and its allies built during the twentieth century. For decades, American leadership provided the essence of this complex order: The Bretton Woods institutions, the United Nations (UN), NATO or the World Trade Organization (WTO) – to name but a few – were all initiated under US leadership. Since President Roosevelt’s administration, 13 successive American presidents shared the common view that it is incumbent upon the United States to spread internationalist ideals, democratic solidarity, economic openness and security cooperation.

This vision of a leading America working for the common good is likely to gradually evaporate as Mr. Trump moves towards an “independent America” doctrine. The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, one week after a G7 summit, sent a clear message to the world: the Trump administration will not make any compromises regarding its diplomatic agenda. In the long-term, Mr. Trump’s transactional approach of foreign policy is likely to generate suspicion and distrust among US allies, which might ultimately lead to the division of the world into several spheres of influence in which the United States will not figure prominently. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement, asserting that Europeans must take their destiny into their own hands, is a strong sign of the general disarray among US allies.

NATO minesweepers in the Baltic.

The fruits of protectionism

At the root of President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine lies the conviction that trade protection could revitalize US economic sectors such as the coal and steel industries. In this regard, Mr. Trump follows the line of President Warren G. Harding, who said during his inaugural address: “It has been proved again and again that we cannot, while throwing our markets open to the world, maintain American standards of living and opportunity, and hold our industrial eminence in such unequal competition.” Some of the President’s economic advisers, such as Peter Navarro, often use the import barriers imposed by the Reagan administration in the 1980s as an example of a successful protectionist economic policy.

However, as highlighted by the 1982 US International Trade Commission Report, those policies did not save the declining industries. According to the Commission, the difficulties experienced by most industries were not due to exacerbated imports: “much of the firm’s injury was caused by non-import-related factors, or because the decline of imports following relief was small,” the report said. In 1986, the report published by the Congressional Budget Office echoed the US International Trade Commission’s sentiment, stating that “trade restraints have failed to achieve their primary objective of increasing the international competitiveness of the relevant industries.” In this way, the administration’s rapid slide into protectionism could backfire and hurt the very industries Mr. Trump’s claims to “fight“ for every day.

Independent America and the emergence of a new world order

The United States’ abandonment of global leadership will have significant consequences on the international scene, particularly with regard to NATO. In Europe, France, Germany, and Italy will likely seek to form an independant European security structure. The European Commission’s proposition on the setting up of a European Defense Fund is a step in this direction. Newly-elected French president Emmanuel Macron’s willingness to strengthen the European Union as a balancer between the United States and Russia could reduce US influence in the continent. In the east, the Baltic states could also bear the cost of the Trump doctrine: a potential weakening of NATO would increase the Russian influence in the Baltics.

However, this paradigm shift may not be limited to Europe. In Asia, Mr. Trump’s foreign policy inconsistencies might push Japan and South Korea to sideline Washington by independently engaging in trilateral dialogue North Korea. Likewise, Asian powers could work to enhance their regional security without the United States by working toward the strengthening of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A US withdrawal from the region would benefit China, and one might witness some strategic alliances between Beijing and key American partners, such as Vietnam and Singapore.

US and Singaporean ships train together during exercises.

Finally, in the Middle East, Mr. Trump’s business-oriented doctrine and his determination to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” have probably played a major part in the recent decision made by seven countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Maldives) to sever ties with Qatar. Mr. Trump took credit for the Persian Gulf rift on Twitter, even though the escalations of tensions in the region threatens the US-led fight against ISIS (Qatar hosts the US Combined Air Operations Center, which is in charge of the conduct of air operations throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations). This is another area where the President shows a lack of foresight about the issues and challenges underlying the US policy in the Middle East.

Categories: Politics, Security

About Author

Leo Kabouche

Léo is currently a Master’s student at the University of Montreal completing his studies in International Affairs. He has specialized in U.S. foreign policy with a focus on Europe and the Middle East.