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Until now, the U.S. foreign policy has been characterized by tension. But given the anxiety about President Donald Trump and what his administration might do – pull out of NATO, start a war with Iran or North Korea – it was something to be grateful for.

The president has proved himself to be what many critics have long accused him of being: belligerent, bullying, impatient, irresponsible, intellectually lazy, short-tempered, and self-obsessed. Fortunately, those shortcomings have not yet translated into reckless actions.

The president has outlined a deeply misguided foreign policy vision that is distrustful of U.S. allies, scornful of international institutions, and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order that the United States has sustained for nearly eight decades.

On North Korea’s side, President Donald Trump claimed his deal-making prowess and great relationship with Kim Jong Un had averted a devastating war and neutralized the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons. South Korean President Moon Jae In said he was building an “irreversible and lasting peace” on the Korean peninsula.

The spectacular summits between the North Korean leader and his American and South Korean counterparts, the lofty joint statements that emerged from them, the Trump-Kim love letters and demolitions of a nuclear-test site and guard posts along the border between the Koreas—all of it was resting on an exceedingly fragile foundation, a foundation that is starting to crumble. We have now descended to the point at which all that is keeping diplomacy with North Korea from collapsing is how many miles its missiles are flying.

Angered and humiliated by Trump’s decision to walk away from their second summit in Vietnam in February, Kim has gradually been dialing up the pressure on the United States and its allies. He’s reminding audiences at home and abroad that he’s quite capable of renewing his arms buildup in earnest if he doesn’t get his way in nuclear talks.

Ahead of the Vietnam summit came the rebuilding of a rocket-launch site that Kim had partially demolished. Then came the test of a mysterious conventional weapon in April, the firing last weekend of what the South Korean government euphemistically referred to as “projectiles” that traveled between 45 and 125 miles, and the launch this week of two short-range missiles that flew 260 and 170 miles, respectively—after more than 500 days of no testing. To make sure the message wasn’t lost on the Americans, the latest weapons demonstration came as Trump’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, was visiting South Korea and as the U.S. military tested a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, in California.

On Iran side, The Trump administration this month ordered the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Middle East, citing intelligence about possible Iranian preparations to attack U.S. forces or interests.

A senior European diplomat said it was vital for top U.S. and Iranian officials to be on “speaking terms” to prevent an incident from mushrooming into a crisis.

“I hope that there are some channels still existing so we don’t sleepwalk into a situation that nobody wants,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The rhetoric that we have is alarming.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus declined to address how the administration would communicate with Iran in a crisis similar to the 2016 incident, but said: “When the time to talk comes, we are confident we will have every means to do so.” The administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, she said, aims to force its leaders to the negotiating table. “If the Iranians are willing to engage on changing their ways to behave like a normal nation,” Ortagus said, “we are willing to talk to them.”

Tensions between Iran and the United States escalated in May 2019, with the U.S. deploying additional troops and military assets to the Persian Gulf region after recieving intelligence reports of an alleged “campaign” by Iran and its “proxies” to threaten U.S. forces and Strait of Hormuz oil shipping. American officials pointed to threats against commercial shipping and potential attacks by militias with Iranian ties on American troops in Iraq while also citing intelligence reports that included photographs of missiles on dhows and other small boats in the Persian Gulf, put there by Iranian paramilitary forces. The United States feared they could be fired at its Navy.

U.S. relations with some allies, especially those in Europe, have at times been strained, but those with others have continued unimpaired. The United States has grown closer to India and strengthened relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not be happier with the Trump administration, which moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, cut funding to Palestinian charities, and looked the other way as Israel denied entry to young Americans affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. And Japan, whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has developed a friendly personal relationship with Trump, has managed, for now, to avoid the president’s wrath.

Some experts argued to explain there is an idea behind Trump’s foreign policy (“America first”) but not a concept of geopolitics, a plan or set of priorities based on calculation and reflection. Under Trump’s leadership, the United States has picked fights not only with China and Russia but also with allies such as Canada, Mexico, and the EU. His hopes of denuclearizing North Korea and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict strike most observers as quixotic. His policy seems driven by sporadic fits of belligerence or enthusiasm, unrelated to any coherent set of objectives or methods for achieving them.

On trade side, Trump’s administration blew up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), only to replace it with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which includes somewhat better terms for American dairy farmers but mostly mirrors the original deal. What is more serious, Trump began a steadily mounting trade war with China while intensifying U.S. complaints about intellectual property theft, all in the context of increasingly aggressive interactions between Chinese forces and U.S. warships in the South China Sea. Such moves are risky, but they have not yet come back to bite him.

It turns out trade wars are not short and not so easy to win, as President Donald Trump once tweeted. As the US-China trade war drags on, economists are sharpening their pencils, forecasting what a protracted trade war would cost. “If talks stall, no deal is agreed upon and the US imposes 25% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of imports from China, we see the global economy heading towards recession,” Morgan Stanley’s analysts wrote. Under that scenario, the US Federal Reserve would have to cut interest rates, ultimately back to zero and China would need huge new stimulus, they said.

At Bank of America, analysts report the trade war has already hurt confidence on Main Street, noting a protracted trade war “could have a meaningful impact on consumer spending.”

The US-China trade war has escalated in recent weeks with tariff hikes and threats of more action. Washington has also targeted Huawei by putting the firm on a trade blacklist. The US argues Huawei poses a national security risk, while Beijing accuses the US of “bullying” the company. Mr Trump’s latest comments on Huawei came on the heels of an announcement of a $16bn ($12.6bn) aid programme to help US farmers hurt by the trade conflict with China. Earlier this month the US increased tariffs on $200bn worth of Chinese imports from 10% to 25% after the two sides failed to reach a deal on trade. China hit back by announcing plans to raise levies on $60bn of US imports from 1 June. The Trump administration has threatened to impose duties on another $300bn worth of Chinese goods, prompting industry to urge and end to the trade war as it warned of a “catastrophic” effect on consumers.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns an escalation would hurt the US economy and damage the rest of the world, shaving 0.7% from global growth by the year 2021. That’s roughly $600 billion. The OECD sees the potential for new trade barriers between the United States and the European Union and Brexit-related uncertainties, as well.

In an analyst note, Morgan Stanley finds the window for resolving the trade dispute is narrowing. Without resolution in the next month, the trade war will bite into global growth.

The more disturbing sign for the future, however, is that although Trump has made nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy worse, he is not the sole cause of the United States’ increasingly erratic, shortsighted, and selfish behavior. He has merely accelerated a trend—that of Washington’s retreat from its global responsibilities—that was already developing by the time he took office and that will outlast him. Indeed, this trend is only likely to continue, since its roots lie not in passing political events but in the extinction of the living memory of World War II, a world-historical event that revolutionized U.S. foreign policy and shaped its course for most of the twentieth century.

The generation of American statesmen that shaped the postwar order had learned some hard lessons from the war. They learned from their experience with imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and, later, the Soviet Union that it was incumbent on free nations to stand up to ideologies and governments hostile to individual freedom. They learned from the Great Depression and the economic nationalism of the 1930s that beggar-thy-neighbor policies and a focus on state advantage, rather than systemic rules, could create the conditions for totalitarian ideologies to flourish. And they learned from the geopolitical chaos of the interwar years that in order to secure peace, the United States would have to step up and guarantee it through a U.S.-led set of permanent alliances and international institutions. These might not always favor U.S. policies, but American leaders recognized that they would, in the long run, favor U.S. interests.

Inertia is a powerful force, especially when it comes to institutions. And for the moment, it continues to constrain Trump’s efforts to remake the international system along more nationalist, self-interested lines. But once he is gone, there will be no snapping back to the consensus of the 1990s or the early years of this century, which was sustained by men and women with personal memories of what the world looked like without U.S. leadership. Indeed, the erratic “America first” of today’s populist right may well be replaced in 2020 or 2024 by a no less erratic “America first” of the populist left. This tendency is already visible in figures such as Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a populist Democrat who met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in January 2017 and who later cast doubt on Assad’s responsibility for his regime’s chemical attacks against Syrian civilians—all under the guise of anti-interventionism.

Eventually, both may be replaced by an “America first” of the exhausted middle. This version might be marked by more moderation and a greater amount of handwringing than its left- and right-wing cousins, but its chief characteristic would be a return to the mindset of the late 1930s. The United States would engage economically with the world but react with indifference to massacres or even genocide; withdraw psychologically, if not formally, from international institutions; and convince itself that other countries could not affect its liberties or interests as long as its military remained strong.

This suggests that Trump’s emphasis on putting “America first” is not simply the mistake of a foreign policy rookie but an expression of something deeper and more consequential: a permanent shift, among American leaders, away from the dominant postwar conception of U.S. foreign policy. In other hands, and with a more intelligent articulation, Trump’s foreign policy vision would amount to a doctrine—one in which the United States is merely one great power among others. In this view, Washington should pursue its own interests, stand for freedom chiefly at home and only intermittently abroad, and reject as a matter of principle the international organizations that previous generations of U.S. leaders so carefully built.

The next few months will be crucial for the U.S. foreign policy. President Donald Trump will must demonstrate a strategy on trade and foreign affairs in order to keep the United States of America at the center of the world.

By: Domenico Greco

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