The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.In less than two weeks, Americans will go to the polls in one of the most turbulent elections in history...
The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.
In less than two weeks, Americans will go to the polls in one of the most turbulent elections in history that will not only shape the direction of the United States but also impact the future of the world. All bets are out whether Trump will continue to retain the White House or be a one-term president in a break from a recent trend.
Four years in office and irrespective of the outcome of the elections on Nov 3, President Trump will be remembered for jolting the Washington establishment and his combative and unconventional style of leadership that marked a major departure from the way the holders of the highest office in the land conducted themselves.
Whether the rise of President Trump was caused by the circumstances or his leadership shaped the post-2016 reality of American politics and society will remain the subject of academic and political conversation for some time. However, one area in which his leadership has been most consequential, nay disruptive, is the United States’ foreign policy and its relations with the outside world.
While America can survive Trump’s four years in office in many ways, it will need a combination of a powerful foreign policy vision grounded in moral clarity and understanding of a complex world and expert hands on deck to repair the damage done to the United States’ global prestige, and standing.
A consequence of Trump’s presidency has been the deepening polarisation which is reflected in almost all walks of life, not just in how the foreign policy pundits pass a verdict on his administration’s successes and failures in this vital area.
Trump brought his ‘America first’ slogan to inform his approach to the foreign policy issues. Emphasising in his augural address in 2017 that “it is right of all nations to put their own interests first,” he promised to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.”
Foreign policy experts have struggled to understand Trump’s way of thinking on global issues that concern the US as the sole superpower. In the absence of any pattern of the coherent thought process, the term ‘Trumpism’ has been employed to articulate the ambiguity and uncertainty that marks his administration’s handling of foreign policy.
With no prior experience of public life or politics, Trump’s understanding of the world is rooted principally in his business background that privileges deal-making over engaging with a complex policy question. While in office, he has demonstrated a clear lack of sophistication in his worldview, which looks at the world in black and white, overlooking the complexity of the international order.
With almost 32 million followers, Trump has used Twitter to articulate his administration’s foreign policy positions during the last four years. His tweets on everything under the sun including on China, Iran, and North Korea have provided a peep into his thinking.
The problem with Twiplomacy is that it is often knee-jerk, and prompt, leaving little space and time for a measured and carefully deliberated response that has the multiagency buy-in. Without filters and reviews, the Twitter messages, coming as they do from the most powerful person in the world, can expose the world to unintended consequences.
Trump’s conduct of the American foreign policy has four distinct features. First, the US under President Trump has increasingly rejected multilateralism and globalism. In his view, the deep American involvement with the international order has been detrimental to his country’s interests. The application of his ‘America first’ slogan in the US foreign policy has been to disengage it from ‘failing’ post-Cold War system, agreements, and institutions.
Trump has been a harsh critic of the humanitarian interventions under Presidents Clinton and Obama as well as efforts to establish liberal hegemony under Republican George Bush.
Starting with withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12- member trade grouping to re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) to scrapping Paris climate accord to dismantling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), famously known as the Iran nuclear deal, the foreign policy choices of the Trump administration have been described as unilateralist.
In the same way, at the height of the corona pandemic when the world needed cooperation, Trump announced a drastic cut for the World Health Organization that was busy spearheading the international effort.
The American relationship with its European allies has also been on the decline during the Trump presidency. From treating the EU as a ‘trading foe’ during the election campaign to supporting Brexit, his administration even considered exiting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).
The support for EU and Nato has enjoyed a bipartisan consensus between Republican and Democratic presidents. Trump even went to the extent of asking Japan and South Korea, longtime US allies, to increase their contribution to keep American forces stationed there against the threats from North Korea.
The trust between the US and its European allies could not be weaker than it is at the moment. The US renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal further increased the trust deficit.
Second, nowhere has the Trump foreign policy been more pronounced than in its bilateral relations with China. He shifted the focus of American national security policy from the Middle East to China and made it part of mainstream political conversation.
There is, today, a great power tussle playing out between Washington and Beijing at every international forum. This rivalry is shaping up to be the beginning of what experts fear as a new cold war.
The 2017 National Security Strategy document mentioned that Trump described China along with Russia as posing grave threats to US interests. He stated: “We also face rival powers, Russia and China that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.”
From the ongoing intense trade war with China to calling it out on its human rights record to enhancing coordination with the Indo-Pacific group, the Trump administration has used global forums such as the UN for increased sabre-rattling with Beijing.
The American policy on China enjoys a kind of bipartisan consensus across the party divide with minor differences in details. Rebeccah L Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute put it succinctly when she stated “Getting the United States on sounder footing to confront and compete with the [Chinese Communist Party] is the most significant achievement of this administration.”
Third, the peace deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain brokered by the White House in the twilight of Trump’s presidency could be branded as ‘achievements’ aimed at ending the decades-old impasse in the Middle East. The “dawn of a new Middle East” as described by the White House has long-term implications. These ‘Abraham Accords’, as they are known, have come on the heels of Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a controversial decision that attracted severe international flaks. This move enjoys bipartisan support as Biden has also declared to keep the embassy there if elected.
Fourth, on the question of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, President Trump has expressed his desire to bring them back by Christmas, an announcement that flew in the face of the Doha peace deal with implications for the ongoing intra-Afghan dialogue process. In addition to sending shivers down the spine of the Pentagon, it also failed to seek an endorsement from General Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The last four years have seen an erosion in the global prestige of the US. Trump’s stint in office is leaving an unsure world with an equally uncertain future as clouds of a new great game hover.