Opinion

Trump is planting the seeds of long-term foreign policy damage

Trump has indicated he is willing to ignore a variety of issues that prior Democratic and Republican presidents have made hallmarks of their foreign policy; issues such as endemic corruption and the repression of human rights.

We haven't truly seen a revolution in U.S. foreign policy — not yet, anyway

The most radical change seems to be Trump's apparent abandoning of foremost American values — baseline human rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, to name a few. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A few days after Donald Trump arrived home from his first sojourn abroad as president of the United States, his trip is already being described as a disaster: catastrophic for U.S. interests and the West.

Trump's refusal to personally endorse NATO's founding principle of collective defence was perceived as an affront and a threat to traditional U.S. allies. And adding fuel to the fire was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's suggestion that Germany could no longer rely on the U.S. as a credible partner. To many, a full-blown transatlantic crisis appears to be in the works.

To be sure, Trump's meetings in the Middle East and Europe were full of gaffes and awkward moments. But we haven't truly seen a revolution in U.S. foreign policy — not yet, anyway. Indeed, Trump's foreign policy has been thus far more bluster than bite, though there are signs that the seeds of long-term damage are being planted.  

Staying the course

When Trump was elected president, there were immediate concerns around the globe over whether he would act on his campaign rhetoric of challenging China, his apparent affinity towards Russia, his hostility to NATO and promises to essentially "blow up every inch" of ISIS territory.

Yet on a strict policy level, U.S. foreign policy has not really changed that much. Back in December, it looked like Trump might break with China over Taiwan after taking a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, but since then, he has largely maintained U.S. policy in the Pacific. Further, Trump's strategy to counter ISIS is only a slightly more muscular version of Barack Obama's. And Trump's Syria strike back in April was consistent with previous uses of military force to "send a message" from U.S. presidents.

In this sense, it's possible to argue that Trump's "disruption" has been more rhetoric than reality. And although Trump has now begun the process of renegotiating NAFTA, it's probably prudent to wait to see just how much that trade agreement will actually change before making conclusions about his policies in that area.

Our weekend business panel discusses Canada-U.S. trade relations in light of Donald Trump's rhetoric about renegotiating NAFTA 3:48

At the same time, there are certainly signs suggesting this continuity will be short-lived.

For example, there are the pending deep cuts to the U.S. foreign policy establishment — especially the U.S. State Department — that will diminish its capacity to make informed geopolitical decisions. Without knowledgeable staff in embassies around the world, it will be difficult for the U.S. to coordinate decisions about how to act. Nor will it have the capacity on the ground to carry out any decisions that are made, particularly if Trump follows through on his proposal to decimate funding for the United States Agency for International Development.

While these measures will be celebrated by deficit hawks, for anyone who believes that "soft-power" and diplomacy are essential to getting things done in the world, these are extremely problematic signs.

But the most radical change seems to be Trump's apparent abandoning of American values — baseline human rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, to name a few — in the world. This is seen most obviously in his praise of authoritarian leaders including the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, North Korea's Kim Jung Un and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and of course, Russia's Vladimir Putin. Indeed, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Trump maintains his belief that the authoritarian leader of Russia is a reliable counter-terrorism partner.

There are also more subtle — but equally as dangerous — signs, including Trump's tendency to view all relationships as transactional: simply a matter of what the U.S. gets out of its alliances in crude, material terms. In viewing foreign diplomacy through this lens, Trump has indicated he is willing to ignore a variety of issues that prior Democratic and Republican presidents have made hallmarks of their foreign policy; issues such as endemic corruption and the repression of human rights. 

The very values that Trump is willing to ignore are the ideas and norms that are core to the West's identity and security. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

All of this is not just bad for America — it's also bad for the West, including Canada. An America that is less willing or structurally able to act as a long-term guarantor of international stability also means that there will be less Canadian capacity to act. After all, Canada (as well as many U.S. middle-power allies) depends on America's global presence and military might for global stability.

The very values that Trump is willing to ignore are the ideas and norms that are core to the West's identity and security. In the long term, this erosion might mean that our shared values will be harder to defend from pressures such as emerging nationalist movements and increasing authoritarianism around the globe.

Between a contracted foreign service, diminished soft power and weakened ideals, America — the traditional guarantor of security — will struggle to accomplish its foreign policy goals. And sadly, we will all be worse off.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Stephanie Carvin

Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and a former national security analyst with the government of Canada.

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