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Trump’s ‘America first’ agenda rejects the world

As Trump begins his second year as president, the prospects that he will reverse America’s disengagement appear unlikely.

Thomas J. Scott

The interplay between foreign policy and domestic policy requires a delicate balance in the exercise of executive power. Nations typically act out of self-interest; national preservation is critical to the creation and implementation of foreign policy. Presidents are generally elected on a domestic agenda; their legacies are often defined by foreign policy successes or blunders. Donald Trump’s first year as president has been characterized by his unyielding loyalty to his political base. His positions on immigration, North Korea, Israel, and free trade, for example, have been made to galvanize and appease a minority segment of the American electorate.

Trump’s mandate to “drain the swamp” of Washington’s bureaucracy certainly has influenced his contrarian foreign policy. History, precedent set by other presidents, and the contextual elements of diplomacy have been ignored out of Trump’s loyalty to his base. In a Pew Research poll taken in October of 2017 there were clear partisan divisions regarding America’s role in global affairs. However, two groups that are critical to Trump’s electoral base felt the U.S. should concentrate on problems at home and pay less attention to problems overseas. Country First Conservatives (66 percent and Market Skeptic Republicans (72 percent) overwhelmingly preferred isolationism to global engagement.

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As Trump begins his second year as president, it has become evident that America’s disengagement from the world after over 70 years of global leadership may not be easy. Rogue states like North Korea demand attention. Climate change creates destructive storms that cannot be ignored. Existing free trade agreements have become institutionalized and their rules must be honored. Immigrants from other countries still see the United States as a beacon of opportunity both politically and economically. A wall will not deter their dream of a better life. Trump can proclaim “America First,” but the world demands equal time.

Abandoned accepted rules of statecraft

Foreign affairs are a troubling domain for all presidents. Trump may be the least qualified modern president in terms of international experience and expertise. Clearly, Trump is ill at ease in foreign settings. It’s as if foreign policy is a distraction, an arena that makes him look weak, exposing his vulnerabilities. This inexperience may explain why Trump has abandoned accepted rules of statecraft such as using specific channels of protocol when communicating issues related to foreign policy. Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy is evident in his use of Twitter, which has created significant consternation in foreign capitals as well as within the West Wing. Using a social media platform limited to 280 characters creates an obvious problem in foreign relations: It reduces complex international issues and delicate intercultural relationships to simplistic slogans and trite, spontaneous reflections.

Those who read Trump’s tweets have to interpret not only their meaning, (and the colloquial language Trump often uses), but their connection to official policy of the United States. As one State Department official recently noted in The Atlantic, “One can never be sure whether the policies we’re working on will be supported by the president or not.” The art of diplomacy requires patience, nuance and, at times, calculated ambiguity. Twitter feeds are rooted in immediacy, emotion, and a complete lack of context. Trump seems oblivious to the fact that his words and actions are an integral reflection of U.S. foreign policy. The words of any head of state in international affairs matter, and cannot be ignored. Misinterpretation from abroad can lead to unintended and irreparable damage between allies and adversaries. In the nuclear age, it can lead to the unthinkable: nuclear war.

Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington has had a devastating impact on the State Department. Trump has proposed 30 percent cuts to the department’s budget, more than 40 Ambassadorial positions — including strategically critical countries like Egypt, Australia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — are awaiting nominees. Senior leadership positions in several international organizations and regional specialists have yet to be filled. Staffing cuts and a proposed redesign of the department by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is creating morale problems among career foreign service workers.

America on the sidelines

Trump’s “America First” agenda has led to U.S. withdrawal from several existing international commitments involving intergovernmental organizations, conflict resolution around the world, and multinational efforts to confront pressing global problems. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade negotiations and continues to threaten withdrawal from NAFTA. His decision to severely weaken the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change will make it more difficult to maintain binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees claimed there were more than 60 million displaced persons in the world. Despite this alarming figure the Trump administration ended the U.S. commitment to the U.N. Global Compact on Migration because the compact was “incompatible” with U.S. sovereignty. Finally, the United States has chosen to sit on the sidelines as Russia, Turkey and Iran negotiate a settlement for the conflict in Syria. 

Trump’s lack of decorum and racist comments (Mexicans as murderers and rapists, Haitians all have AIDS, Nigerians living in huts) or his recent characterizations of Haiti and African countries as “shithole countries” does insurmountable damage to the image of the United States abroad. Trump’s thoughtless and vulgar comments are a tremendous blow to U.S. soft power. In an age of global communication such vile rhetoric can instantaneously destroy diplomatic initiatives that have taken decades to establish. For example, Trump’s decision that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel upended almost seven decades of painstaking negotiations undertaken by both Republican and Democratic presidents. The decision, strongly supported by evangelical Christians who voted for Trump, came at a heavy price. It may destroy U.S. hopes of bringing a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As U.S. soft power erodes, so does its hard power. The two forms of power are inextricably linked. Bombastic rhetoric — such as threatening North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” or cutting aid to members of the U.N. General Assembly who voted in favor of a resolution against the U.S. position on Jerusalem — make the U.S. appear as a “paper Tiger.” Trump’s naiveté, lack of nuance, and poor diplomatic skills have contributed to negative opinions of American leadership, according to a January 2018 Gallup poll. Gallup found the median approval of U.S. leadership across the 134 countries is at a new low of 30 percent. The world is watching Trump and its people do not like what they see.

As Trump begins his second year as president, the prospects that he will reverse America’s disengagement appear unlikely. In the White House inner circle, the battle between “globalists” and “nationalists” persists. It appears the “nationalists” continue to exert the most influence on Trump. Isolationism resonates most favorably with those who make up Trump’s base, and they are the key to his re-election prospects. Diminished global leadership and declining soft power has significant risks. As the United States continues to turn its back on the rest of the world, ignore existential threats to the welfare of the planet, and allow authoritarian states to carry out oppression with impunity, national security is compromised. The normative values associated with American democracy become superfluous, and the prospect of America’s future role in the world is reduced to irrelevance. 

Thomas J. Scott is a Twin Cities writer who analyzes international affairs, globalization, and education issues. He is a frequent contributor to Truthout, a nonprofit news organization.