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Foreign Policy

President Clueless

Mar 02 , 2018
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies


Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump has given several speeches touting his achievements in the past year. In his State of the Union address, he spent nearly a third of time bragging about his “historic” feats, which were almost entirely domestic. In diplomacy, except for the relative stable China-US relations, there is little to brag about. His first-year diplomacy was in fact the worst of all post-Cold War US presidents. US foreign relations worsened like never before, its international credibility and influence declined, and the country is almost isolated in the international community.

As a president of thick populist colors, Trump has inherited the “America First” hegemonic diplomacy of the traditional establishment, and made it more forceful and irrational.

First, he has indulged in national egoism under the banner of “America First”. He openly claims the world should give way to “America First”, meaning other countries must serve US interests, even sacrifice for US interests. In specific diplomatic actions, from withdrawal from international conventions to restricting immigration and international trade, from enhancing alliances to re-designating strategic rivals, from expanding military forces to punishing other countries, he has demonstrated an obvious inclination to pursue US interests at the cost of others.

Second, he has ignored justice and bullied the weak. He broke away from the relatively moderate strategy of past administrations that favors a general balance between Israel and Palestine by recognizing Jerusalem as the former’s capital and deciding to move the US embassy there. In so doing, he broke the international moral bottom line and invited broad, strong opposition not only from Palestine, but also the League of Arab States, Islamic nations, as well as US allies.

Third, withdrawing from multilateral treaties. In disregard of international opposition, Trump withdrew from a number of international conventions, scrapping the TTP, refusing the Iran nuclear agreement, withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, UNESCO, UN immigration conventions, even threatening to withdraw from the WTO and the UN. He also decided to renegotiate bilateral free trade agreements with other countries, which is in fact a kind of breach. His massive backpedaling has been a heavy blow to global governance, economic globalization, and world peace, security, and development.

Fourth, he has insulted weak and small countries. Trump despises under-developed nations, for instance, he even called some African and Caribbean nations “shithole countries”, inviting public indignation.

Trump’s obsession with “America First” has actually weakened US international credibility and soft power, accelerating the decline of US hegemony. Yet he feels good, even calling himself the most productive president since Abraham Lincoln. Ironically he has had his way and been pressing ahead. This has something to do with the improving US economy, but it has more to do with the changes in US social biosphere.

First, the financial crisis acerbated the wealth gap in the US, and by 2016, 1% of the US population possessed 40 percent of its wealth; in 1970, the same percentage owned 9 percent of the country’s wealth. Second, major changes have taken place in demographic structure. With immigrants increasing, the proportion of white people, who used to be the absolute majority, has been dwindling, and many white Americans worry it may not be long before they become a minority. Third, the hollowing out of US manufacturing has resulted in a dramatic rise in unemployment, inspiring dissatisfaction with the political elite. In addition, the continuous decline of US might and status has prompted worries in Americans as well as discontent with the ruling elite, providing soil for populism. The mostly white public at the middle and lower levels of society shares anti-immigration, anti-globalization inclinations, dislikes the political correctness of the establishment, and embraces the anti-establishment Trump camp, which promises to “Make America Great Again”. Though the Trump administration has achieved little at home and abroad, they remain his loyal fans. The right-leaning Republicans, out of partisan considerations, have also embraced populism and offered support for Trump. Which is why Trump can have had his way.

Trends are irresistible. Diplomatic setbacks should wake Trump up. The relatively modest tone he displayed at Davos and State of the Union address were positive signs that he has more or less been aware of his problems. It would be a blessing both to the US and the rest of the world if President Trump can mend his ways and embrace sensible diplomacy.

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