“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else.” Donald Trump’s recent speech discussed his overall foreign policy theme. In the course of navigating through his speech, Donald Trump attempted to paint a new global direction for America that breaks away from the “rusting” trajectory of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
While sounding almost elementary, Trump vowed to return the US to a timeless principle of “America First,” which he argued has been absent from US foreign policy objectives for a while. As Trump read through his speech, there was a dialectical engagement of sorts with the audience on whether America has been protected by her foreign policy for the past 25 years. After discussing and critiquing the status quo, Donald Trump laid out his vision for a new America.
After glorifying the past and discussing the necessities of certain wars such as World War II and the Cold War, Trump turned his attention to the current state of foreign policy. He argued that America has lost her way since the end of the Cold War by engaging the world with a vision of “foolishness and arrogance.” Interestingly, this castigation of US foreign policy is bipartisan in the fact that he was critiquing Clinton, Bush, and Obama. More importantly, he gets to the root of failure in American foreign policy. He critiqued the premise that American intervention would lead to Jeffersonian democracies around the world. In such a manner, he condemns the humanitarian interventionist policy of Bill Clinton, nation building of George Bush and neo-democratic interventions of Barack Obama. Trump defies what the media, Republicans, and Democrats all neglect; by stating the large degree of culpability the US shares in decimating the infrastructures of the nations the US has intervened in and creating the environment for terror to thrive due to bad foreign policy principles.
Trump goes on to outline five (5) shortcomings plaguing the current state of American foreign policy:
1.Resources – Trump focuses on America’s solvency and economic state, which appears to be heading towards collapse. The US has become overextended in all aspects leading to a weakened nation that is unable to fix its aging infrastructure.
2.Fair Share – Trump continued his attack on the notion of unequal distribution of costs amongst America’s allies when it comes to defense. He brought up the fact that only a few of America’s NATO partners are adhering to the minimum requirements per the alliance’s charter while the US is carrying the preponderance of costs for defense. Trump plans to end this problem by either having these nations pay their fair share or exclude them from the American defense umbrella.
3.Reliability – Trump accused the Obama administration of not being a dependable partner to America’s historical allies such as Israel and Egypt. Trump believes the fickleness in American foreign policies has left both allies and enemies dumbfounded.
4.Respect – Due to the actions of the US or lack thereof in some cases, ally and foe alike do not respect the US anymore, according to Trump. In order to make his point, Trump alluded to the two recent trips President Obama took (Cuba and Saudi Arabia) and where there were no foreign leaders present to greet him.
5.Lack of Direction/Clarity – Finally, Trump points to the lack of vision for American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. This lack of clarity has led to quagmires in areas where America should not have been involved. While alluding to the fact that his administration will not be isolationist, he points out that this legacy of intervention has led to disarray and tragedy for everyone.
The Trump Doctrine
While “America First” appears to be the theme of Donald Trump’s entire campaign, he has managed to bring it into the foreign affairs realm as well. Trump is creating a foreign policy that is almost reminiscent of a distant past, where nationalism trumped (no pun intended) globalism. Trump claims he will reorient American foreign policy by focusing on imminent and long-term threats. Donald Trump plans to:
- Eliminate the most looming threat to US national security; ISIS and extremism. He plans to work with regional nations to help eliminate the scourge that threatens Europe, the Middle East, and America.
- Focus on rebuilding the military to be able to withstand the expanding capabilities of nations such as Russia and China.
- Concetrate on policies that are a function of American interests. Trump wants a foreign policy that is more centered on Realpolitik than the current Neoliberalism approach.
- Even though the US appears to be butting heads with Russia and China, Trump thinks the US can coexist with both nations. While being cognizant of their differences with the US, Trump believes rivalry is not the only option. He views cordial relations based on shared interests and fears are key. China will be Trump’s main focus; he believes the Chinese are the key to a prosperous future. While they have taken advantage of America, according to Trump, their behaviors can be rectified if dealt with from a position of strength.
- Upon becoming president, Trump will call a NATO summit and an Asian summit. The intention is to update the objectives of the alliances threatening today’s world as well as rebalance financial commitments with America’s allies in Europe and Asia.
How is it Different
Trump’s doctrine is looking to hearken back to an era where America’s foreign policy was more nationalistic in nature than globalist. Perhaps the largest difference that can be observed is that when the US gets involved abroad its intent and how it is pertinent to its interests will be well known, thus laying out a clear set of objectives for Americans. The current approach of American foreign policy always tends to have some sort of corporate interest cloaked beneath the justification of humanitarian intervention or nation building. Americans have grown weary of this and do not see any benefit in this approach. Instead the inveterate approach creates more enemies and results in tremendous costs for the American public. Trump promises to change this by focusing his foreign policy on American interests solely. This will be a deviation from the past. In a sense, he is altering the definition of superpower. The long held belief is that as a superpower, nations would have additional responsibility to the international community by being more involved. This type of archaic thinking, according to Trump, is what has gotten the US into quagmires, endless spending, and loss of prestige. In its place, Trump wants a strong US that watches out for its interests and does not intervene in anything that does not pertain to that.
As with any policy or objective, flaws and shortcomings exist. With the Trump Doctrine, there are few points that Trump appears to have omitted or will need to address.
- While Trump is echoing the frustration of most Americans with respect to the unequal distribution of costs for defense between the US and its allies, Trump appears to neglect the fact that these treaties were not dictated to the US by these nations but in most cases crafted by the US. While the US does pay for the majority of costs, these expenditures are the price the US pays in terms of securing allies, land bases, air space rights, etc. as well as opening foreign markets to American corporations. It doesn’t behoove any nation to just provide free defense or give away aid. The US benefits as well in such agreements. If not economically, it is imperative to the US geopolitical calculus to have such nations on their side.
- While Trump continues to contend that the US military has gotten weaker, this is not necessarily true. Yes, military spending is reducing but this comes at the heels of it exponentially exploding in the past decade. Simultaneously, technology has greatly improved, thus changing how America fights its wars. The US military is undergoing a philosophical shift to become autonomous by relying more on aerial, ground, and aquatic drones to fight and gather intelligence, hence its reduction in size. A 21st-century military will need to be lean, autonomous and technology adept.
- When Trump accuses China of taking advantage of its relation with the US through devaluation of currency, he is right but he also ignores similar methods employed by the US. Either Trump is neglecting or uninformed about the current global currency war ongoing between nations. China devalues its currency to boosts its exports because the US devalues its currency as well. The US devaluation takes place through quantitative easing (QE) and interest rate reduction. With the US retaining the major reserve currency status, China and other nations have invested heavily in the US dollar. Through QE, the US has devalued its currency by mass printing, which helps the US reduce its debt burden to China.
- A major omission from Trump’s speech was the Afghan war. Donald Trump did not discuss the longest war in American history. He has broached the subject before with the idea of maintaining the current contingent of 10,000 troops almost indefinitely until the situation is pacified but he never discusses how. The current situation in Afghanistan epitomizes the true definition of a quagmire. Despite employing an Iraqi-style surge to no avail, the US finds itself lost in Afghanistan with no clear objectives. The Taliban are gaining ground and popularity as each day goes by while the corrupt Afghan government continues to fight internally over money and power. If elected, the Afghan War will pose a major headache for Trump since no solution really exists aside from a full withdrawal.
In order to further promote his credential as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump gave a foreign policy speech outlining his objective and position. Demonstrating a break from the past, Trump plans to take a more nationalistic tone in his vision for America. Citing the failures of the past 25 years of American foreign policy, Trump emphasized how his approach will scrutinize everything before an action is taken and only proceed with actions for the protection of Americans, not other entities be they allies or corporations. While his policy demonstrates inconsistencies and flaws, overall it appears to be a reset in how America will do business abroad.
The liberal international order has not crumbled yet
Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.
The victory of Biden
Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.
In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.
More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.
The European Union is recovering
Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.
Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.
Non-Western world is struggling
The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.
Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.
More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.
It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.
Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.
Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?
With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.
Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.
Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.
In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.
Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?
In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.
This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.
President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.
What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.
If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.
Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit
Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.
A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.
I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.
The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.
But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.
Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.
Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.
Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.
For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.
This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.
Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.
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