Is Trump’s Unilateralist Foreign Policy an Aberration? Not Really – but His Illiberalism Is


Much of the world watches in bewilderment as American President Donald Trump trashes the alliances and multilateral institutions that the United States itself did the most to create. Trump’s refusal to sign the joint communiqué from the recent G-7 despite the efforts of America’s chief allies to accommodate Trump’s blustering demands offers a recent example. Another is provided by Trump’s misleading complaints about burden-sharing among NATO member states.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the simultaneous trade wars he has initiated against all of America’s major trade partners threaten to tear apart the seven decade-old international trade order. He recently pulled the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal over the objections of Western allies who are also parties to the agreement. The U.S. is in the process of exiting the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has proposed drastic cuts in U.S. funding to the United Nations and has withdrawn the U.S. from the U.N. Human Rights Council. As international opinion turns against Trump’s unilateralist behavior, America First has quickly morphed into America Alone.

An Aberration or a Swing of the Pendulum?

But is Trump’s unilateralism a genuine aberration, or does it fall within the range of oscillation that has characterized American foreign policy over recent decades? The answer is a bit of both. On the one hand, America’s historical relationship with multilateralism has been ambivalent at best and outright hostile at worst. America’s closest allies, for whom multilateralism is a matter of both principle and pragmatism, have often struggled to persuade a reluctant America to remain engaged with the multilateral order. In this respect, many of Trump’s unilateralist moves are hardly unprecedented.

And yet Trump’s foreign policy nevertheless represents a radical departure in three crucial respects. First, no president during the post-World War II era has so openly questioned the value of the security alliances that have provided the foundation for American power and international peace in Europe and Asia.

Second, no previous president has shown such solicitude toward illiberal autocrats – even those leading countries traditionally considered adversaries of the United States – while going out of his way to poison relations with democratically elected leaders in friendly countries.

Third, no recent president has unilaterally initiated simultaneous trade wars with each of America’s main commercial partners.

With respect to international laws and institutions, Trump’s foreign policy represents an extreme version of a longstanding pattern of U.S. resistance to multilateral constraints. Where Trump breaks new ground is in rejecting the liberal character of the existing order – meaning the system’s core embrace of democracy and individual human rights and its economic orientation toward market-driven outcomes. Under Trump, U.S. foreign policy is not only unilateralist, it is also illiberal.

America’s Historical Ambivalence Toward Multilateralism

After the bloody folly of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson proposed a new liberal world order built around international law and multilateral institutions designed to insure against another global cataclysm. The League of Nations served as the key element of Wilson’s global blueprint for peace. Yet, presaging later patterns, an American-inspired institution was embraced abroad but rejected by the U.S. itself as the Senate failed to ratify Wilson’s cherished treaty. Without American leadership, this first attempt at creating a liberal multilateral order floundered, setting the stage for the rise of protectionism, fascism and renewed warfare.

The golden age of American multilateralism followed World War II. Chastened by America’s earlier failure to offer leadership in a chaotic postwar world, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman placed international institution-building at the center of their strategy for crafting a stable global order. The United Nations, a successor to the failed League, was joined by an alphabet-soup of new multilateral organizations, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade. Later came the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and many other organizations led or inspired by the United States.

The U.S. provided political leadership, money, troops, market-access and expertise in support of this new international institutional order. Even during this period, however, the U.S. commitment to multilateralism was conditional.

The new international institutions created under American guidance after World War II embodied rules that bound the behavior of American allies and, in some cases, its rivals far more than the U.S. itself. American leaders insisted upon veto powers, weighted voting schemes, opt-out provisions, treaty reservations and other institutional design features that, in practice, allowed the U.S. a freedom of action denied to other states. In other cases, such as the Vietnam War or withdrawal from the gold standard in the early seventies, the U.S. simply bypassed multilateral forums or even violated international law with fewer consequences than lesser powers.

Among Western countries, the post-World War II international order was based upon a fundamental bargain: the United States would provide leadership and resources to create and support new multilateral institutions while its allies would defer to American leadership and tolerate the special prerogatives of power claimed by the United States.

The Cold War provided the glue that held this bargain together. The United States and its allies both feared the Soviet Union and its potential to disrupt international order. The U.S. needed allies in order to contain Soviet power. Multilateral institutions attracted allies by providing public goods that benefitted all participants. On the other hand, America’s allies needed U.S. protection. They had little choice, as a result, but to defer to American leadership, even when this meant granting the U.S. a privileged position within an ostensibly ruled-based order.

The end of the Cold War gave both sides reason to revisit the terms of the bargain. The U.S. became less willing to carry burdens of leadership or to tolerate free-riding by allied countries. America’s allies, in turn, saw less reason to grant the U.S. special prerogatives or to exempt America from the rules that constrained other states.

In a series of clashes during the nineties, the U.S. sought to push allies to carry greater burdens and the allies rejected American insistence on a privileged position with respect to the raft of new treaties and organizations that emerged during that decade. Without the binding effects of a common great power enemy, the postwar multilateral bargain came under intense strain.

The U.S. failed to ratify international treaties and agreements dealing with nuclear testing, landmines, climate change, the law of the seas, biological weapons, an international criminal court, the trade in small arms and many others. By the new millennium, U.S. was party to only 12 of the 27 international treaties that the Secretary-General identified as most central to the mission of the United Nations.

The most significant evidence of America’s growing unilateralism was President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 without the approval of the United Nations Security Council and despite the opposition of several NATO allies. But European worries over America’s waning commitment to international cooperation began during Bill Clinton’s presidency and extended into Barack Obama’s Administration.

Domestic politics also influence America’s multilateral engagements. The Cold War strengthened the ability of presidents to override the usual domestic constraints and to fashion a long-term strategic approach to foreign policy that included a conditional commitment to multilateralism. An existential sense of external threat compelled deference to presidential leadership at home and overcame the usual fractious politics and checks and balances that so enfeebled American international leadership previous to World War II.

After the Cold War, presidents faced a more constraining domestic environment on foreign policy – one that empowered domestic actors who rejected multilateralism for either self-interested or ideological reasons. Fossil fuel companies opposed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the National Rifle Association lobbied against the Arms Trade Treaty, chemical firms fought against inspection provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention, and the military establishment opposed the constraints posed by the Mine Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

In a recent example, the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly attempted to block a resolution that endorsed breast-feeding due to objections from American companies that sell infant formula. Ecuador withdrew the original resolution after the Trump Administration threatened trade sanctions and the withdrawal of military aid. In the end, the resolution was revived and passed under Russian sponsorship.

Most importantly, the Republican Party, once home to major internationalist figures such as Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush; Secretary of State James Baker and Senator Richard Lugar, turned solidly against any multilateral commitments that purportedly encumbered American sovereignty, even if other countries reciprocated by constraining their behavior as well.

Attacks on the United Nations and other international bodies led by Republican figures such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms became a common feature of American political discourse. Since treaty ratification requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate, Republicans have been in a position to block almost all major multilateral treaties sought or concluded by American presidents over the past three decades. In a particularly absurd example, thirty eight Republicans managed to block U.S. ratification of a U.N. treaty on the rights of the disabled that was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While Democrats have not displayed the knee-jerk anti-multilateralism of most Republicans, neither have they been willing to expend serious political capital to defend multilateralism as a general principle of U.S. foreign policy.

President Barack Obama sent few treaties to the Senate for consideration. Instead he sought international agreements that did not require Congressional approval. The administration referred to the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, as a “political commitment” that was not legally binding and therefore did not require Senate approval. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris climate agreement does not set binding emissions reduction targets, but instead allows each state to submit a plan that includes self-determined targets. Similarly, the Nuclear Security Summits held every two years between 2010 and 2016 produced no treaty or binding agreement. Instead participating countries made voluntary commitments to safeguard nuclear materials and technologies within their own borders.

Obama’s ad hoc, non-binding approach to international cooperation served to bypass U.S. domestic constraints in the short run, but, as we have witnessed, such commitments are easily reversed when a more unilateralist president, such as Donald Trump, takes office.

Not Only Unilateralist, But Also Illiberal

In the century since Woodrow Wilson proposed a rules-based international order, the U.S. attitude toward multilateralism has swung between conditional engagement and outright unilateralism. Trump’s distaste for the commitments and constraints that accompany U.S. engagement with multilateral institutions is extreme, but not unprecedented.

What is new, however, is Trump’s marriage of unilateralism and illiberalism. President George W. Bush, for instance, embraced unilateralism, but unlike Trump he employed the traditional rhetoric of American exceptionalism – America as a beacon for liberty and individual rights. In fact, Bush put American power in the service of an aggressive liberal agenda of promoting democracy and market capitalism abroad.

Trump, by contrast, has gone out of his way to embrace authoritarian leaders abroad who have been associated with serious human rights violations. Most famously, this includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump congratulated for the latter’s victory in a fixed election despite the pleas of his own advisers who wrote in Trump’s briefing book: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

But Trump has also praised Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte despite the latter’s notorious use of extrajudicial killings in that nation’s drug war. And Trump called Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on the passage of a possibly rigged referendum that moved Turkey further down the road to outright authoritarian rule. Trump also welcomed Egyptian strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House, a step President Barack Obama had been unwilling to take in the wake of el-Sisi’s bloody crackdown on political opponents.

Previous American presidents have, of course, often supported authoritarian regimes where strategic interests were viewed at stake. But this was typically balanced with quiet pressure on human rights issues and support for fledging democracies when they arose. Yet even rhetorical support for liberal ideals is absent from Trump’s public pronouncements.

More stunning have been Trump’s constant stream of quarrels with America’s closest allies over defense burden-sharing, immigration, climate change, trade and relations with Russia. At a rally in North Dakota on June 27, 2018, Trump complained that: “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies.” Having previously referred to NATO as “obsolete,” Trump recently ordered the Pentagon to study how much money could be saved by removing U.S. troops from Germany.

On trade, Trump has simultaneously imposed unilateral tariffs on goods from all of America’s major trading partners. Trump ordered staffers to prepare draft legislation that would provide the president with the power to ignore the principles of non-discrimination that lie at the heart of WTO trade rules. He has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada meet poison pill demands.

Trump’s trade policies are based upon the outdated and intellectually discredited doctrine of mercantilism, which holds that countries that run trade surpluses are winners and those that run deficits are losers in some sort of global casino. Trump rejects the liberal idea that markets should determine flows of commerce among nations. Rather, he argues for managed trade: governments should strike deals that lead to desired outcomes. Trade is treated as a series of bilateral contests in which Trump seeks to leverage the size of the American market to impose one-sided deals on smaller trade partners. In Trump’s view: “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

America as a Rogue State?

The world has, during the post-Cold War era, learned to deal with an America that swings between unilateralism and a reluctant multilateralism. But it now confronts a declining, but still powerful, hegemon that threatens to turn its back on key elements of the seven decade old liberal order: international law and human rights, core alliances among Western democracies and a market-friendly and rule-based international trade order. To be sure, the U.S. commitments to liberal principles have bent in the past, but Trump has brought the U.S. to the precipice of an outright break.

Most eerily, Trump and those close to him have at times served as a lodestar for anti-globalist, protectionist, nationalist and anti-liberal political parties and movements not only in the U.S. but across Europe and elsewhere. Former Trump campaign manager and strategic adviser Steven Bannon openly attacked the European Union and embraced far-right movements in Europe. Trump himself praised the Brexit vote and campaigned alongside British anti-EU politician Nigel Farage and his administration has sought stronger ties with the extreme nationalist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has a history of anti-Semitic speech and who has cracked down on the media and civil society.

Trump’s newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, stated in an interview with Breitbart that he wants “to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold…” Grenell singled out far-right Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as “a rockstar. I am a big fan.”

In short, Trump has in his first eighteen months in office already moved U.S. foreign policy in both unilateralist and illiberal directions. While the unilateralism has precedent, the wholesale attacks on liberal norms, principles and alliances are a radical departure.

Trump’s illiberalism goes beyond an amoral transactionalism. The quarrels with America’s allies over trade and defense burden-sharing are less about bargaining for a better deal than using deal-making as a cover for weakening socially progressive, culturally tolerant, and internationally open governments, parties and movements across the Western world while simultaneously strengthening authoritarian, nationalist and protectionist governments, parties and movements across the globe.

How far can even a president go in such a reorientation of the foreign policy of a great power? Two factors seem important. First is whether Trump can engineer lasting changes in the Republican Party on issues such as trade, immigration and alliance relationships. So far, Trump appears to have pulled the rank-and-file of the party along with him, making it difficult for Republican office-holders to buck Trump even on issues where there are clear differences, such as trade.

Second, much may depend upon whether Trump wins reelection. The strains in U.S. relations with its allies and with international institutions are so great that an extension of such tensions into a second Trump term without a change in course might compel other countries to reorient their foreign policies in adaptation to new realities that include the U.S. as a rogue state.

If, indeed, the Republican Party unifies around a highly nationalist, illiberal foreign policy and Trump retains power for a full eight years, then the ruptures to a liberal and multilateral international order may be beyond repair.



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