From his early days on the 2016 campaign trail, Donald Trump made clear in just two words the aims his foreign policy would pursue: “America first.”
Now, after nearly four years of a Trump presidency, those words have been fleshed out with facts and events. Unilateralism and confrontation have marked Trump’s foreign policy, as have personnel turnover, surprise and confusion.
Regardless of the outcome of the US election on November 3, the changes under Trump in both policy substance and delivery have shaped the arena in which other global actors conduct diplomacy, as well as their own approaches.
Here are some major shifts:
Since entering office, Trump has undermined international cooperation. A mere three days into his term, he removed the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with Asian nations. He subsequently took the US out of numerous international accords and bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the 2015 Paris climate accord.
In addition, US formative action has often been unilateral and disregarded international consensus, such as the decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to relocate the US Embassy there.
Margaret MacMillan, a history professor at the universities of Toronto and Oxford and visiting historian to the Council on Foreign Relations, said the US has “really damaged what was a useful network of alliances and international institutions for it. I think it has made the position of the United States in the world much weaker.”
In fact, a September survey from the Pew Research Center showed that approval of the US among many nations has dropped to its lowest-ever level in decades.
Trans-Atlantic relationship damaged
“Trump’s antagonism toward multilateralism represents a philosophical difference between Washington and European capitals,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a February 2020 assessment of the trans-Atlantic relationship, the European-American partnership that emerged out of World War II and represented shared values, goals and global approaches.
But the EU-US rift under Trump is more than just an ideological divide; Trump has actively upbraided and upended the trans-Atlantic relationship. He has repeatedly questioned the value of alliances like NATO, announced a punitive withdrawal of US troops from Germany, enacted trade tariffs against the EU and threatened sanctions over the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.
In a unilateral move that sparked outrage among Palestinians and others, Trump moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem
MacMillan believes these strains could lead to lasting changes. “It’s like a friendship. You tend to trust your friends, and once that trust is broken, it’s hard to reestablish,” she said. “Europe had got into the habit of relying on Big Brother over there in Washington. And maybe now Europeans are saying we clearly can’t do that and we’re going to have to develop — as we’ve always we’ve talked about for decades — develop our own independent foreign policy more.”
China forced into critical spotlight
From a trade war sparked by tit-for-tat tariffs to US pressure on other nations to block Chinese company Huawei from 5G network construction, Trump’s confrontational course on China has forced the Asian country into the international spotlight.
His sharp criticism has been welcomed by many who believe that China has unfairly benefited from global trade arrangements criteria for too long, while simultaneously engaging in human rights’ abuses.
“The president has been right to challenge China on its actions in the trade realm,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the foreword to a midterm evaluation of Trump’s foreign policy.
MacMillan has a similar view. “I don’t want to give Trump credit for much, but I think he was probably right to call out — or his administration was right to call out the Chinese on intellectual property,” she said. While US-Chinese tensions preceded Trump, they “have become much sharper and more articulated,” she added.
Trump’s rhetoric toward China during the pandemic has also been accusatory — despite graffiti to the contrary
Dangers of Twitter diplomacy
With respect to foreign policy communication, Trump and his administration have delivered mixed messages at different times and via different communication channels — not least among them Trump’s personal Twitter account, which often features bellicose rhetoric.
Alexi Drew, who researches social media and conflict escalation at the Center for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, points to US-Iran relations as a prime example of how difficult and potentially dangerous Trump’s Twitter diplomacy has made international confrontations.
“It’s very hard, if you put yourself in the shoes of [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Mohammed] Zarif and the Iranians, to ascertain what exactly is the US position when you’re having repeated contradictions coming from the State Department and the varying accounts of Donald Trump,” Drew said. “You’ve got the Department of Defense, you’ve got all of these accounts. They don’t align on their messaging and their content.”
Drew doesn’t believe Twitter alone can start a conflict. However, “Twitter usage within an existing escalatory framework or scenario or a historic crisis setting between state actors or otherwise could certainly lead to unintended or escalation beyond what would occur if Twitter weren’t being used.”
Trump regularly uses his personal Twitter account in a confrontational manner — at times contradicting his own State Department
A further consequence of four years of Donald Trump is that autocratic rulers have been emboldened on the global stage. While many were in power prior to Trump, his dealings with them, ranging from the non-critical to the admiring, underscore a latent approval of governing style and reveal an unwillingness to address alleged violations.
One such example is Trump’s stance toward Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Amidst growing evidence that the highest members of the Saudi royal family were allegedly involved in the journalist’s death, Trump expressed support for the Saudi government.
Under Trump, “they’re [authoritarian leaders] not going to get any pushback from the United States at the moment,” MacMillan said.