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Rebel With a Cause
Donald Trump's "Withdrawal Doctrine" undermines U.S. credibility and power
By Shen Yamei | NO. 27 JULY 5, 2018

Demonstrators protest the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that upholds President Donald Trump's travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries in Washington D.C. on June 26 (XINHUA)

U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council in June should not have come as a surprise because it arrived on the heels of a series of pullouts by the Trump presidency, including withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate accord, UNESCO, the UN Global Compact on Migration, as well as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iran nuclear issue. Trump also inflicted substantial damage to the principles of multilateralism when he reneged on the Group of Seven's long-standing solidarity over free trade, broke the 25-year Oslo Accords consensus on Israel and Palestine, launched an obstacle-replete renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and announced to indefinitely postpone major joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

As he enters his second year in office, Trump becomes all the more bold and resolute in his foreign policy. Counseled extensively by economic nationalists in the White House, geopolitical elites in the establishment and globalists and populists within the Republican Party, the president has been open to different opinions and ultimately confident enough to follow his own course.

The intensity and scale of Trump's effort to discard the multilateralism that the U.S. had been associated with since the end of World War II are so striking that a New York Times editorial lamented it as "America in retreat," and Dr. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations has astutely dubbed Trump's foreign policy "Withdrawal Doctrine."

Unconventional worldview

To learn the worldview informing Trump's withdrawals, his word needs to be taken as it is. He has been very vocal about an aversion to the post-World War II order and his dedication to dismantling it. In Trump's view, previous U.S. presidents and globalist elites were wrong to be wishful in equating U.S. interests with those of the world. Via the "America First" principle, Trump unveiled the "fact" that the world is at variance with the U.S. According to him, the global economy is taking advantage of the country, allies are sucking U.S. resources, and multilateral agreements are restricting the U.S. with the heavy burden of global affairs.

Trump became the first U.S. president to dismiss the value of the liberal international order, explicitly complaining "this is just what I don't want to have" at a cabinet meeting on the subject. His unconventional and combative agenda includes rearranging the multilateral trade system by initiating trade wars, belittling his country's alliance system by only half-heartedly reiterating the collective defense clause of NATO, and devaluing democracy and its values as a tool of foreign policy. All these send the message that the U.S. is no longer willing to make sacrifices to play the global leadership role and that it is going to change its rules of engagement with the world.

Motivations beneath

Trump's worldview reflects the rise of far-right thinking in U.S. foreign policy. His instinct and impulse to "withdraw into the fortification" draw strength from nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment on the far-right end of the political spectrum. He repudiates the scientific basis of climate change and lashes out at elite-politics as Washington's swamp out of the conspiracist fantasy of the populist movements that are prevalent in both Republican and Democratic parties.

Being a pragmatist, Trump is also trying to make his own mark by doing anything other than what Obama did, stamping all over the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, the two most significant legacies of Obama's tenure.

Trump also cares a great deal about defending Israel due to domestic constituency and election concerns. As top U.S. diplomats, namely UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, explained, the U.S. has always objected to the "political bias" and "human rights hypocrisy" of the UN Human Rights Council for the simple reason that it has produced 70 anti-Israel resolutions over its 12-year history, more than the next five targeted countries combined. By tearing up the JCPOA, Trump is said to be catering to the country's white evangelical Christians who are pro-Israel and constitute around 80 percent of the support base of the GOP.

So far, Trump has only withdrawn the U.S. selectively from a small number of nascent multilateral arrangements such as the TPP and the Paris accord, and from a few UN organs that deal with low-level political subjects such as education, science, culture and human rights. As for those essential economic and trade institutions that make up the core of the existing international order, including the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Group of 20, the U.S. has been consistent in its participation and in seeking to affect change from within. The U.S. has raised its demands on these established institutions to abandon commitment to free trade, cut loans to middle-income countries and remove financial support for adapting to climate change.

Measuring cost and benefit, the U.S. may have withdrawn from some aspects of global leadership and stepped back carefully, so as to shirk the excessive responsibilities of nation building, promoting democracy and fighting wars in remote corners of the globe. However, Trump does not intend to vacate his country's hegemonic position in the world, without which the U.S. would lose its sense of identity. In the past year and half, Trump has recoiled from breaking the alliance system, initiated two sets of air strikes on Syria and inherited a geopolitical architecture covering the Middle East, Europe and the Asia Pacific, all testifying to a return to a relatively traditional and moderate approach toward foreign policy.

Far-reaching implications

Serious and constructive foreign policy debate is scant with the Trump administration. Worse still, foreign policy institutions face reduced budgets, an exodus of talent and plummeting moral standards as well as poisonous factional disputes. Without national consensus on a well-contemplated grand strategy, the once highly lauded principle of "America First" has drifted farther and farther away from the lofty goal of "Making America Great Again." The "Withdrawal Doctrine" has far-reaching implications for the U.S.

First, the U.S. failure to honor its multilateral commitment has dealt a heavy blow to its reputation and soft power. One peril of political polarization is that legislation and treaties that rely on bipartisan support from Congress will be extremely difficult to reach. Therefore, executive agreements take precedence. However, polarization gives rise to another peril in that executive agreements will be vulnerable when a White House occupant of the opposite party decides to change course. Trump was able to undo the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal because the two documents were both executive agreements. Inconsistency between successive administrations will undermine the country's ability to make long-term commitments to allies, or produce a convincing deterrent to adversaries.

Second, forces are growing to the extent of questioning the durability of trans-Atlantic relations. U.S. decisions on bilateral trade, climate change, immigration and the Iran nuclear issue were all rejected by its closest allies in Europe, including Britain, France and Germany. The two sides across the Atlantic seem on a collision course with regard to their interests, security and values. Now that the Europeans are caught between the equally undesirable options of whether to retaliate or outflank their American peers, many of them have begun to consider their Plan B for a "post-America" world—an insurance policy for declining U.S. leadership and global standing.

Third, geopolitical instability is on the rise. U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has essentially pitted the U.S. and its regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia, both emboldened, will be prone to more recklessness in regional geopolitical issues. It is hard to see how an America so at odds with itself can lead as fractious a world as the one in which we now live.

The author is deputy director of the Department for American Studies at the China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com


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