President Donald Trump’s last minute declaration that “I believe in NATO” will do little to reassure a world that for eighteen months has watched in bewilderment as he has trashed the alliances and multilateral institutions the United States itself did the most to create. Trump’s refusal to sign the joint communiqué from the recent G-7 meeting despite the efforts of America’s chief allies to accommodate Trump’s blustering demands offers a recent example. Others include his misleading complaints about burden-sharing at the recent NATO summit, his false claim that Germany is “captive to Russia” and his baffling attack on British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump’s ditching of 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 international trade order. He has withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has proposed drastic cuts in U.S. funding to the United Nations and withdrew 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.
Of course, Trump is not the first American president to balk at multilateral commitments, or bicker with U.S. allies or offer support for autocrats. But no previous president has mounted such an across-the-board assault on the basic principles and institutions of the post-World War II liberal international order.
Trump’s illiberalism goes beyond an amoral transactionalism. The quarrels with America’s allies over trade and defense burden-sharing are not really about bargaining for a better deal. Rather, Trump uses deal-making as a cover for weakening democratic 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 around the globe.
Trump has gone out of his way to embrace authoritarian leaders abroad who tear down democratic institutions and violate human rights. 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.” Trump’s bizarrely obsequious behavior toward Putin at their recent summit meeting in Helsinki offers another example.
Trump praised Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte despite the latter’s notorious use of extrajudicial killings in that nation’s drug war. He congratulated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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.
Trump serves as a lodestar for protectionist, nationalist and anti-liberal political parties and movements across Europe. Trump praised the British vote to leave the E.U. and campaigned alongside British anti-E.U. politician Nigel Farage. 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.”
More stunning have been Trump’s constant stream of quarrels with America’s closest allies. 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 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 rejects the liberal idea that markets should determine flows of commerce among nations. Instead, Trump seeks to use the size of the American market as leverage to impose one-sided deals on smaller trade partners. In Trump’s view: “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”
How far can Trump take this radical reorientation of American foreign policy? One possible check might be push-back from within the Republican party. Yet 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. The weak, non-binding resolutions passed by the Senate in recent days declaring support for NATO and asserting a Congressional role in trade policy are hardly sufficient to give Trump pause.
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 prove beyond repair and America’s image as a rogue state will be difficult to reverse.