With each successive foreign policy announcement, President Trump panders to a narrow domestic political constituency. His decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was no different. But while many have analyzed the potential geopolitical damage this move could do in the Middle East, there has been less focus on the larger costs of conducting international affairs in such a venal way, including a collapse of confidence in America’s capacity to honor agreements, uphold norms, and function rationally as a superpower.
Trump has termed his foreign policy “America first,” but his administration’s most consequential moves have more to do with his brand of domestic politics than with advancing American interests. He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to keep his promise to voters who bought his argument that trade agreements are to blame for lost jobs and lower wages. He promulgated a Muslim ban on behalf of his white nationalist base. He pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord for coal workers and climate deniers. He rolled back aspects of our normalization of relations with Cuba to appease hardline Cuban-Americans in parts of Miami. And he failed to certify the Iran deal and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to deliver for a slice of right-wing evangelical Christian and Jewish constituents.
At every turn, Trump has been undeterred by the lack of tangible benefits to American interests or the near-total opposition to his decisions abroad. Pulling out of TPP sacrificed America’s capacity to shape the rules that will govern trade in the Asia Pacific, and will lead to lower standards for labor rights and environmental protection, and less market access for U.S. businesses. The Muslim ban, far from making us any safer, has badly undermined America’s image overseas while handing a potent propaganda tool to terrorists who want to recruit foot soldiers in a war between Islam and the United States. Literally every other country in the world is still in the Paris Accord, with other major economies pursuing the transition to producing cleaner forms of energy. The partial Cuba rollback sacrifices all the symbolic benefits of resolving the U.S.-Cuba conflict in the Americas—which helped us support a peace deal to end Colombia’s civil war, and would be helpful in addressing the crisis in Venezuela—while strengthening hardline elements in Havana with no interest in reform.
By decertifying the Iran deal, Trump punted the issue to Congress, which thus far has chosen to do nothing. However, his announcement did succeed in uniting Iran’s hardline and more moderate factions, while also aligning the world’s major powers in opposition to Trump’s approach. The Jerusalem announcement upended decades of bipartisan U.S. policy, prompted Palestinian protests, motivated American allies to call an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, generated travel advisories from U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad, and darkened the already dim prospects of a peace agreement.
To Trump and his supporters, none of that matters. Reaganites and Bush-era neo-conservatives rooted their foreign policies in the capacity of the United States to claim the mantle of moral leadership, and thus had to pay partial heed to international opinion. Trump, by contrast, seems to view foreign policy as an extension of domestic factional and identity politics. If global elites and foreigners reject our actions, then those actions must be right; Trump thus fashions policies precisely to elicit those reactions. If other countries retreat from a liberal international order in favor of a zero-sum view of global power—something Russia had already done under Putin—that’s fine too. Moreover, Trump seems to believe that the success of an announcement can be measured in the headlines and chyrons it generates within a brief news cycle. Pro-Trump media like Fox and Breitbart create an information ecosystem in which Trump is getting tough and delivering, which in turn increases Trump’s appetite for making more erratic missteps. This dynamic is exacerbated by a slice of the political press corps that often equates news-making actions with wins, relegating the long-term, real-world consequences of Trump’s actions to afterthoughts.
Opponents of Trump’s actions can similarly underestimate their cumulative costs. It is tempting to imagine a scenario in which Trump’s presidency appears in retrospect to be a temporary departure for the United States. We’ve left Paris, for example, but we can come back. We’re insulting wide swaths of the global population, but that’s largely a function of the personality of the man tweeting in the Oval Office. As long as something catastrophic doesn’t happen—like, for instance, a war with Iran or North Korea—then perhaps the U.S. military and a Deep State of dedicated civil servants can keep the country moored until someone else is elected. Then America can return to the global-leadership role it played for decades years until 2017: forging international agreements instead of abandoning them; investing in allies instead of offending them; promoting liberal values instead of trampling them.
But there’s something more profound at play, and it’s why I believe the tempting scenario is too rosy. Other countries are tiring of the United States failing to fulfill its commitments because of the bizarre nature of our domestic politics. It took years of negotiations to achieve the Paris Accord. In the course of the negotiations, we asked countries like India to sacrifice short-term development plans by appealing to a shared sense of global commitment; that we all had to be in it together—including the United States. It took years of painstaking sanctions and diplomacy by the world’s major powers to achieve the Iran Deal. It took nearly a decade of work—dating back to the George W. Bush administration—to negotiate TPP. In each case, other countries had to make political and economic sacrifices, and they made them on the basis of diplomatic pressure, incentives, and assurances from the United States, the world’s sole superpower.
That’s why it’s striking to watch the world react to Trump’s recent decisions. Other countries aren’t just criticizing us; in many cases, they’re moving on without us. The other eleven nations in TPP have announced that they’ll pursue the agreement despite the U.S. leaving, while weakening some of the provisions that we had pushed for. China has filled the vacuum left by our absence through its aggressive promotion of the One Belt One Road initiative, which essentially makes other countries stakeholders in a China-driven model for development across Asia. Other countries—including U.S. allies—are going to invest in Cuba, no matter what we do. In stark contrast to when the Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, every other country on Earth is going to push forward with the Paris Accord without us. Meanwhile, as Trump has disparaged NATO and picked fights with his counterparts, the leaders of some of our closest allies have said publicly that they can no longer depend on the United States.
More alarmingly, there is a risk that the absence of our leadership in parts of the world where we have long been the most influential power will lead to profoundly different, more destabilizing arrangements. Palestinians might consider pursuing their rights within a one-state framework. Japan and South Korea could consider developing their own nuclear arsenals, or drawing closer to China. Eastern European countries, which are losing confidence in America’s commitment to their security, could embrace far-right politics, warmer relations with Russia, or both. Autocrats from Southeast Asia to Africa are already benefiting from the normalization of the anti-democratic politics, emanating from the White House, that demeans independent media, and dehumanizes ethnic or religious minorities.
It’s always difficult for democratic countries to maintain perfectly consistent foreign policies—elections have consequences, after all—but the United States has generally offered enough stability that other countries felt they could depend upon and buy into an international system that we led.
And that capacity for an enlightened sense of American self-interest—the ability to see that we benefit when the interests of other nations are advanced by our actions—helped underwrite 70 years in which there were no wars among the major powers, America’s allies made unprecedented progress, democracy made strides around the world, and there was a steady increase in global standards of living. Because we could be relied upon to honor agreements, and adhere to core principles, we earned our status as the world’s sole superpower. That credibility is essential to achieving the goal, which Trump claims to prize, of convincing other countries to play a greater role in solving international problems.
There have always been alternatives.
China, for instance, is a more predictable actor than the United States, but China only acts in its own self-interest, whether or not it strengthens global order. In 2017, however, the United States is unpredictable and increasingly unwilling to act on behalf of a global order that we created, or to uphold norms that we established, or even to honor agreements that we negotiated. America seems to offer little hope for a more responsible brand of leadership when its governing party won’t acknowledge the reality of climate change or reckon with the fact that Russia interfered in an American election. That’s why we should expect other countries to more regularly opt out of our leadership—by betting on China, or by making new alliances, or by pursuing deals only with countries that will predictably honor them.
Yes, Trump’s strange litany of foreign policy announcements may make sense within the context of our strange domestic politics. But those watching this from abroad aren’t likely to give America a pass. What we’ve seen, and can anticipate, is that the rest of the world isn’t just concerned about Trump per se: they’re concerned about the fact that someone like him could become President in the first place.