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The Empty Stage: Foreign policy under Trump

The United States has been consumed over the past few months of the coronavirus pandemic by many questions that will no doubt influence the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election: race relations, the integrity of the rule of law, doubts about authoritarianism and the massive death toll and economic consequences that have resulted from the pandemic itself. All of these issues are being perceived as determining of the elections.

While the voter’s attention may be elsewhere, America’s outlook and behavior on the world stage have left much to be desired, and the White House’s foreign policy actions over the last four years have endangered the world order with no good substitute in sight, and no clear plan on the President’s side, despite isolated success.

Liberal Hegemony

The end of the Second World War evidently marks a moment of historical inflection, and among the many issues that were decided and permanently changed the world after the war was the way we conduct politics between nations on the global scale. The new world order was one based on liberal values: free markets, free trade and the respect of democratic institutions and ideas were key to any nation willing to thrive.

This is often called the post-war order of “liberal hegemony” as Barry Posen noted in a March, 2018 piece for Foreign Affairs. It was based around creating a geopolitical system that would be so beneficial for those within it, that stepping outside of it would be far too costly. In order to make it attractive and ensure nations wouldn’t resort to armed conflict, a series of treaties, trade deals and multilateral organizations were born. The United Nations, NATO, and the European Union are all the result of this system.

The post-war order can be conceived of as a game. Like any game, players compete to achieve individual objectives. But this game has been created in such a way that the players (countries) must cooperate with each other in order to achieve their goals. This game doesn’t seem to end, players keep playing, and they keep making progress in their individual arenas. Just as in any other game, if a player cheats then they reap the rewards of the game without having to abide by the rules. The integrity of the game must be saved by punishing the cheater, if they are not punished, then cheating seems like a wonderful thing for others to do. Why play by the rules when there are no consequences? If the integrity of the game is corrupted in such a way, then we’ve all lost. We can’t play if everyone cheats.

So who imposes the rules? Who punishes cheaters? Who upholds the order? That’s where the “hegemony” part comes in. It was the hegemony of the United States, achieved through the establishment of multilateral organizations, its leadership in them, its willingness to help allies, its economic stability and its military might that the system was kept functioning.

The US and the other nations in the system should’ve been harder on the cheaters. They weren’t, and now we are facing the consequences of not having acted in time.

Slow Collapse

The system had always smelled foul, after all, the United States and United Kingdom had supported coups in the past in order to install dictatorships that were loyal to them, notably in Chile and Iran. But regardless, the core idea hadn’t been entirely betrayed or abandoned. Countries still acted within the system, committing more and more to its principles by working together and forging even more alliances.

National governments have failed at maintaining the order. While America’s failings aren’t recent as noted above, the previous two administrations have seen some of the greatest tumbles.

Of the Obama administration’s failures in foreign policy, by far its most unforgivable mistake was standing by as Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. This is one of the greatest transgressions of recent memory and one that only happened because Russia knew that NATO would stand by. It left a few things clear: (i.) Russia was not going to play by our rules; (ii.) NATO was unable to stand up to the threat it had been created to stop, and; (iii.) it cracked belief in the system, why should countries play by the rules if no one would protect them from the cheaters?

Trump’s Grand Strategy

As Posen and others have observed, Trump didn’t abandon the “hegemony” part of the previous world order. He kept up defense spending, ran more military maneuvers around the Korean Peninsula, upped US participation in the fight against ISIL, took a clear stance against Iran and didn’t hesitate to suggest the United States would use military force in order to defend itself or its allies. However, America’s role in the world became much less active and much less liberal. Major issues were abandoned and Trump praised foreign dictators and took protectionist economic measures when he picked a fight with China.

With no clear strategy of his own he set about acting. The 2015 deal between the P5 nations plus Germany and Iran that was forged in order to effectively neuter the former’s nuclear program had been highly successful. Uranium stockpiles were reduced by 98%, centrifuges were cut down from over 20,000 to the 5,060 least efficient ones, and uranium enrichment levels were limited to 3.67%, a far cry from the 90% enrichment required for “weapons grade” material. Tehran had to open up its nuclear program to investigators from the International Atomic Energy Association who would verify that they were complying. Trump opined that these concessions over the course of 10 years weren’t good enough, so he decided to tear it up by imposing economic sanctions. Now Iran can freely get its program up and running.

In Syria, the war against Bashar Al-Assad has been effectively lost. Our biggest allies in the region, the Syrian Kurds, were left to be massacred by Turkey when US troops pulled out. It must be made clear that this is one of the greatest failures of American foreign policy, it proves to the world that the US most definitely cannot be trusted. The Kurds’ fate was obvious prior to Turkey crossing the border, it was obvious to policy strategists, it was obvious to the press and it was obvious to the military, so it can be safely assumed that Trump had been made aware of the possibility. He just didn’t care, or he didn’t believe anyone who tried to explain the consequences.

The pseudowarring with Iran has resulted in irresponsible moves within Iraqi territory. Most notably the January 3rd, 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani, near the Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and was responsible for numerous attacks on American servicemen and women abroad. His assassination within Iraqi territory was among the things that the Iraqi Parliament considered to be too much. They saw it as the US recklessly endangering the Iraqi people and thus voted to remove US troops from the country on January 5th. The only reason why this vote didn’t pass into law was because Iraq’s Prime Minister had resigned in December due to anti-government protests and the caretaker government had restricted powers.

People gather for Soleimani's funeral in Tehran, Iran. Maryam Kamyab/Mohammad Mohsenifar/Mehr News Agency

Furthermore, foreign policy in the Middle East in general has been contracted out to Israel and Saudi Arabia, nations with different goals and values who do not get along, and whose objectives don’t include benefitting America’s interests. While it is true that both nations are willing to accept each other when facing common foes like armed religious extremism, their commonalities stop there and the ways in which they differ far outnumber them. While Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t prone to working together, they seem to have a behind-the-scenes proxy relationship through Bahrain and the UAE, who have become closer to Israel in the past few years and who, undoubtedly, only act in this manner with the Saudis’ blessing.

In Europe, the United States has antagonized its allies, NATO nations have been called “free-riders” by the President and while defense commitments have been renewed in certain cases, Trump refrained from mentioning the importance of the mutual-defense provision in Article 5 of the NATO Charter during their first meeting.

But the real worry regarding Trump’s approach to Europe has been the strange closeness he has shown to Russia. Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 US Presidential Election has been well documented and investigated, Russian diplomats were expelled from the country over it. Just as these sanctions were being imposed by the Obama Administration, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was on the phone with the Russian ambassador asking him to convince the Kremlin to react in kind and not escalate the conflict. He asked a foreign government to act against the US.

Beyond that, Trump has acted in a way that benefits Russia. He was convinced by Rudy Giuliani that Russia wasn’t an issue, but instead the real threat was Ukraine. In that now famous incident on July 25th, 2019, Donald Trump attempted to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into providing damaging information on political rival Joe Biden in exchange for a $400 million congressionally-mandated military aid package. The President was willing to endanger a European ally over personal gain, a message that didn’t come across well with other nations.

Recently, Trump mentioned publicly that Russia should be let in the G7, arguing that the group was not representative of the world anymore, clearly missing the point of the G7 and also missing the irony of making such a statement and wanting to include Russia. Worryingly, the President has spoken of removing 9,500 troops from Germany. His claim that the troop removal was down to Germany missing payments is both inaccurate and proves that he looks at policy decisions as economic transactions, and doesn’t understand why the US has troops in Germany in the first place.

After all this antagonizing of allies, the US picked a fight with China, a nation that is as rich as America but far more organized in its political purpose. China is a dictatorship, willing to renounce its alleged communist principles if it helps it amass power. Beijing has grown incredibly powerful in the background and now challenges the sovereignty of other nations in the South China Sea. They have progressed their campaign of outright genocide against the Uighur Muslims unopposed, have moved to quash pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and now have engaged Indian troops along their border over disputed territory. China has been a dormant superpower over the last few decades, but it does feel like Beijing thinks its day in the sun is upon us.

The Positive

It would be unfair to disregard Trump’s foreign policy as a complete waste seeing as that simply isn’t reality. While the President clearly had no plan as a substitute for the previous order, measures have been taken that can cast some of the White House’s actions on the global stage in a positive light.

One of Trump’s most lauded policy decisions has been his reluctance to participate in foreign wars. While some commentators expected Trump to endanger the US and the world in general by getting involved in wars abroad as a result of his diplomatic inexperience and clear willingness to leave his mark on history, any close analysis of Trump’s personality revealed that such a perception was flawed. Donald Trump doesn’t like losing, and he’s smart enough to avoid most situations that would leave him looking like a loser. So something as complex as war seemed like a no-go for his term.

But what analysts, news anchors, writers and voters will point to as Trump’s biggest achievement in foreign policy (and perhaps his greatest achievement in general) will be the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15th, 2020.

The Accords are really the result of the long-hidden relationship that Israel had formed with its Arab neighbors. In part, Obama’s Administration contributed greatly to the deal, but maybe not in the way they would like to be remembered for. The Iran Deal tried to achieve two things: (i) neuter Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and; (ii) de-radicalize Iran by trying to integrate it into the liberal world order. While Iran’s nuclear capabilities where without a doubt successfully limited, Iran never de-radicalized. With sanctions removed, the regime continued its particular brand of state-sponsored terrorism in the region, ensuring that Israel and the other nations in the region finally had an enemy that could unite them.

The Abraham Accords are signed at the White House. Tom Brenner/Reuters

This culminated in a historic moment, one that will mark a turning point for the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain recognizing Israel as a state. The nations agreed to normalize relations, and flights going from Israel to these Gulf nations were even allowed to cross Saudi Arabian airspace. It should be noted that this deal could only happen with Saudi blessing, the UAE and Bahrain would never commit to such a monumental agreement without Riyadh’s approval. Both Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have said they expect Saudi Arabia to sign on to the Accords at a later date, as well as several other nations.

But in all the excitement over this genuinely significant moment, we must not forget the Palestinian people, who deserve better than what their failed leaders can give them. We would do well to keep close watch of their situation and ensure that they too get to enjoy newfound peace.

The Uncertain Future

Back in 2016 there were many doubts, doubts that polls were accurate and doubts over Trump’s unpredictability. We knew he didn’t really stand for any traditional political ideology, and so we knew his actions would reflect that. Four years later and that has certainly been proved right. There isn’t much rhyme or reason to many decisions, one day he’ll renew security commitments and the next he’ll endanger allies.

Nations have only trust between each other to govern actions. We believe a nation’s promises because they have kept their word in the past, because they have acted according to certain beliefs and values and because they are predictable. Unpredictability equals danger in international relations.

It is safe to believe that another four years of the current administration will lead to more of the same. More unpredictability, more doubts about what America stands for, more distrust of our allies and more of the US playing into the hands of hostile nations that care not for the values our society holds, we’d do well to remember the last four years as a whole, even when recent legitimate success could cloud our vision.

Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.


Original image used for cover: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images


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