Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Real Problem with the Trump Foreign Policy
The Real Problem with the Trump Foreign Policy

The Real Problem with the Trump Foreign Policy

A shorter version of this essay appears as “The Problem with Trump’s Foreign Policy,” RSIS Commentary 179/2019, 12 September 2019.

Consider this general recent criticism of the Trump administration’s foreign policy from an intelligent and experienced journalist:

In the ocean of international relations, “icebergs” have always popped up that threatened the post-World War II world order and sought to dictate an order based on force rather than decisions by the international community as expressed in UN conventions on issues like occupied territories, human rights, nuclear proliferation and ballistic missiles. These icebergs, usually in the form of tyrants in Africa, Asia and South America, have largely melted. . . in the warm currents of the international community under the leadership of the United States and Western Europe. This has happened even though these leaders too sometimes sinned by using arbitrary force. . . . Donald Trump’s shirking of the U.S. commitment to the international community’s “Gulf Stream” once again leaves international relations to the forces of aggression. The Trump administration even switched sides and became a giant iceberg threatening an ice age on the existing order, which is based on the lessons from the world wars.

The criticism goes on to define this “Gulf Stream,” listing “the three bases of world order—international consensus, international law and UN Security Council resolutions.”

This remark happens to come from a senior Israeli journalist who writes for Ha’aretz, Shaul Arieli, but absent his reference to “occupied territories,” it is generic: It could easily have come from virtually any random, reasonably attentive, observer, journalist, or politician in Western Europe, or from virtually any random academic ensconced in most American university faculties. The problem with the Trump foreign policy, in short, is that it spurns the norms, multilateral institutions and legal apparatus of the “international community.”

This view, which goes under the general label of “liberal internationalism,” is today the default template of what passes for the Western intelligentsia—and indeed, one reason that this intelligentsia is understood to be “liberal” is because it takes this view. (The domestic and cultural components of what define “liberal” are not irrelevant here; the dance they all do together is important, but will not detain us.) The liberal internationalist template is not without many critics in the West, notably among policy-oriented scholars and, especially, practitioners of statecraft and diplomacy. Neither is it a monolithic point of view; several variations defined mainly by the scope of their claims may be discerned.

Whatever the variations, however, the view itself is fundamentally in error; indeed, not a single sentence in Arieli’s foregoing description of the sources and nature of international order is fully accurate. The error also shows in the logical presumption that since the Obama administration did not spurn those norms and institutions during the preceding eight years, everything was just fine during that period. That is a hard argument to make with a straight face.

The main reason for the error of liberal internationalism is that its advocates have mistaken an aspiration for reality, and by so doing have gotten a basic chunk of causality exactly backwards. International consensus, international law, and UN Security Council resolutions have not produced the post-World War II international order, and what remains of it today. These are consequences, not causes, of an order produced by the advanced democracies of the West, led by the United States and girded by American power and reputation. In other words, these abstract nouns are epiphenomenal of more substantive realities, and it follows that if those substantive realities change so, eventually, will their downstream effluvia. Put another way, liberal internationalists get the ontology wrong.

A telltale sign of getting cause and effect backwards is the presence of the phrase “international community.” The “international community” is to a real community what Lewis Carroll’s March Hare is to a real rabbit: a figment of an active and tender, if well intentioned, imagination. If one likes a metaphor instead of a literary reference, international consensus—whatever exactly that is supposed to mean in practice—and multilateral institutions are shadows whose existence depends on ontologically prior realities; and as Charles H.W. Manning once wrote, “one does not affect the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow.”

Allow just one illustration of this error to prove the point. Arieli refers in passing to a UN convention on nuclear weapons proliferation, and of course he means the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1967. It is an article of faith—word carefully chosen—among liberal internationalists that the NPT has been mainly if not exclusively responsible for staunching nuclear weapons proliferation, a specter that in the mid-1960s was expected to spread widely, dangerously, and all too quickly. This is a typical liberal internationalist form of magical thinking, of believing that shadows move substance rather than the other way around.

What has really staunched the proliferation demon all these years, to the extent that it has been staunched, is U.S. foreign and national security policy based on American military might and the reputational resolve to use it as necessary. The spread of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, principally through its alliance structures in Europe and Asia, protected vulnerable countries from nuclear extortion and, in extremis, attack, thus sharply reducing incentives to acquire their own nuclear weapons. The guarantees embedded in these regional alliance structures—multilateral in Europe and more hub-and-spoke in form in Asia—also obviated or at least palliated most intra-regional competitions and arms races, thus deflating further any rationale for acquiring nuclear weapons.

The proof is almost too obvious to need pointing out, and Asia provides the proof text. Japan, protected by a U.S. nuclear umbrella as the nuclear age evolved, did not acquire its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems, though doing so was well within its technological capabilities; India, not protected, and Pakistan, protected much less robustly for not being a U.S. treaty ally, did—and did so after the signing and ratification of the NPT. QED.

The Power of the International Community

So are multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the associated apparatus of international law and norms completely feckless? No, not at all. They can be feckless, as the tergiversations of the UN General Assembly illustrate on a daily basis. But these shadows of power can and often do usefully augment the suasive reality of actual power.

Norms in international relations represent the benign habituation of state behaviors originally founded on calculations of self-interest, and as such they represent a valuable economy for those powers with an interest in and an ability to shape norms. They matter to the extent that the powers which create and sustain an international order want them to matter; in other words, the extent to which they invest in the articulation and enforcement of those norms. The effort to maintain benign norms also matters when things change—the end of the Cold War for example. The normative environment at such times is far short of an iron cage keeping miscreants at bay, but it does set some guardrails for acceptable behavior. It works as a kind of Overton Window.

In the U.S.-devised post-World War II liberal international order, that investment has been considerable, until lately. It takes time and patience to build such norms, and the building can never end because the international “weather,” so to speak, always implies deterioration in the face of any protracted respite. That well describes the “retail diplomacy” trade in which U.S. and allied diplomats have been invested during most of the past 70 years—and rightly so. It’s often a thankless job requiring no small dollop of eyewash dispensing; at least that’s how it seems to those who have not themselves drunk from the fountain of liberal internationalist Kool-Aid. But, after all, someone has to do it.

As with keeping any set of tools in good repair, however, norm-building exercises are auxiliary activities of powerful bodies in action. What they produce institutionally, however useful, has no independent existence, clout, or “mind” of its own. The UN Security Council, for a prominent example, is wholly a creature of the member-states that compose it. It is useful as a means to articulate the interests of the major powers on those relatively rare occasions when they are in at least temporary, tactical agreement—no less, but also no more. When the members are not in agreement—take Syria for a current example—UNSCR resolutions, such as one against dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas, are rendered meaningless. That is especially so in a case where one of the Security Council members is actually doing the bombing.

The Damage Caused by Trump’s Foreign Policy

The real problem with the Trump administration’s foreign policy is not its disparaging attitudes toward the United Nations, inherited arms control agreements with the USSR-cum-Russia or Iran, or other international legal instruments such as the Paris Accords on Climate Change, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade arrangement. Many of the actions the administration has taken in these regards have been foolish unforced errors driven by some shifting combination of long-stifled personal pique and domestic political considerations. (That description does not apply, by the way, to U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, which Russian deployment of the 9M729 cruise missile violated in 2017.) But they have been but marginal errors because these are but relatively marginal issues.

Nor is the White House’s disparaging attitude toward diplomacy the main issue. It does, indeed, manifest such a harmful attitude, which shows in the radical de-funding of the State Department, the general lack of both consultation and genuine negotiations with other governments with respect to everything but trade, and the basic freezing out of the Secretary of State from most key foreign policy decisions. Its substitute for diplomacy much of the time is the application of intemperate language and sudden sanctions. But the real damage that has been done, which is already cumulatively quite serious, has other sources and manifestations.

For example, in recent weeks, no fewer than six oil tankers have been attacked by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units in the Strait of Hormuz, and one British vessel has been seized outright in a commando operation. Never mind for the moment the backstory reasons for Iranian actions, which in the main represent responses to sanctions and sanctions enforcement actions. What has the Trump administration done about this threat to the flow of energy upon which the world economy still largely depends, a common security goods responsibility the U.S. government has undertaken to supply more or less since the British left East of Suez in 1971?

Aside from a tit-for-tat downing of drones, it has so far done worse than nothing. It volubly “dispatched” a carrier battle group toward the region that was headed there in normal rotation anyway, a cheap trick that fooled no one. It only very belatedly decided to assemble an international naval force to patrol the Strait, at British urging and so far without much effect.

Trump let it be known, too, that he called off a limited strike on Iranian/IRGC targets because it might have killed 150 people. The result? Within days, an Emirati delegation travelled to Tehran in what must be seen, and has been seen, as classic hedging behavior; and within days too, like clockwork, the Russian government proposed a new security structure for the Gulf that would require the removal of all U.S. forces and facilities based in the area. In even the recent past, such a proposal would have been seen by all concerned as propagandistic bluster; today, with the Trump administration seeming to lunge for the exits anyway, that’s not obviously the case. Chances are, too, that it is not only the Emirati and Russian government that has taken the measure of U.S. passivity. The Abqaiq and Khurais attacks of September 14 suggest that the Iranian leadership thinks the risk-aversion of the Trump administration runs deep, indeed.

The administration has also elevated the stature of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with predictably pointless summitry, thus rewarding one of the world’s most brutal tyrants in return for, so far, nothing but acrid smoke and cracked mirrors. In the process, Trump agreed to suspend joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises (subsequently rolled back thanks to the exertions of since-departed U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis) and opined that he wanted to “bring those troops home.” Doing that is not necessarily a mistake, for those troops have become over time more of a strategic liability than an asset. But that sort of thing must be done right if it is to have a salubrious effect, and no signs have emerged that the administration knows how to do that. So what is left is that the sentiment, once expressed by the President of the United States, cannot be rolled back. As the late Chris Farley would have said, that kind of thing “leaves a mark.”

The President also announced, and then sort of un-announced, the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria—a small but effective deployment of 2,000 soldiers that has provided oversized diplomatic leverage in a tough situation. The troops remain for the time being but, again, the reputational damage is done.

The Lasting Effect of Trump?

The President has also since authorized talks with the Taliban that seem to presage an abandonment of the current government there no less than the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 presaged abandonment of South Vietnam. He even invited the Taliban leadership to Camp David on, of all dates, September 11. He then suddenly pulled the plan and disinvited the Taliban after a Taliban attack in Kabul, but no one knows how long his pique will last. Once again, the merits of these decisions can be argued, but not the image they have cast.

The President himself has also several times cast doubt on U.S. adherence to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, thus undermining the key pillar of the security and prosperity of Europe. He has also consistently downplayed provocative Russian behavior for fear that somehow it would delegitimize his election as president, even though the two concerns are logically unrelated. That in turn can only raise the prospect of green little hybrid men showing up on the soil of some Baltic state, forcing NATO to either resist or essentially collapse. Given NATO’s unanimity rule and the persistence of Turkish membership, it would take a strong U.S. effort to galvanize the alliance into action. Who thinks Donald Trump is the man for that job?

If the Putin regime gets away with that, it will have achieved a hat trick. Russian policy has already helped by several means to undermine the integrity and international influence of the European Union—the “other” key aspiration of postwar Soviet foreign policy aside from destroying NATO. And part three? Putin et al. have managed to use the window-dressing of a Potemkin democracy to ensconce a deeply illiberal regime in power essentially forever short of revolutionary upheaval. Not bad, considering how things were when Putin came to power. None of this bothers Trump, Mitch McConnell, or their media poodle Tucker Carlson because they have never had much use for the EU or NATO anyway.

Not entirely unrelated, the President, in his monomaniacal mercantilist obsession with trade deficits as a stand-in for geostrategic reality, has alienated almost every ally the United States has for reasons totally unbecoming a real statesman. If systematic Chinese violation of WTO rules is the real problem here—and it is—elemental common sense would have counselled gathering the allies in common cause instead of dissing them. But the dissing of allies as “free riders” seems to be baked into the President’s being as if it were a Tourette’s tic.

In late August, Trump expressed hope that things would calm down in Hong Kong. “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”, he tweeted, just hours after having expressed the hope that the “tough situation” would work out “for everybody, including China.” One can imagine the tone of private conversations these days in Taipei.

These half dozen and many other similarly launched words and deeds represent over all what Richard Haass has aptly called the “abdication” of American superpower status. Unless the 3rd-century BCE after-story of Ashoka is more real than fable, the regression of American foreign and national security policy from the unipolar moment to an isolationist/fortress-unilateralist posture may be unprecedented in recorded history. But then the geography of American power that could enable such a sharp turn without a near surety of national suicide is unprecedented, too.

One ought not to perseverate overly much on Donald Trump, for his rise has been more symptom than cause of current anxieties, international as well as domestic. Much of the same body language of geopolitical retrenchment purveyed the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which is one reason those eight years were not just fine. Some still hold out hope that with the end of the Trump era in American politics, whether sooner or later, things will go back more or less to the way they were, with the United States in its own enlightened self-interest providing common security goods to the global order. Alas, just as hope is generally not a policy, this particular hope is not a prospect to bet on.

Finally, what this means, among many other things, is that the institutional sinews of the postwar liberal international order, their associated norms along with them, will surely weaken and decay in time unless the U.S. government suddenly switches direction and recovers the sense of its inner virtue, which is the sine qua non of an activist and liberal global policy. The simulacrum of a global institutional order can persist for a while, like the evanescent light halo that persists after flash photography. But with the European Union in profound and likely protracted disarray and no other substitute for disinterested American verve imaginable, the magic spell cast by a triumphal liberal imagination will be revealed for what it has always been, just as a similar, earlier spell cast by idealist aspirants over the League of Nations was unveiled as illusion during the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s.

Not to push the historical analogy too far, or to insinuate necessity into contingency, but then what?