Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, has made it clear that the Trump administration wants to see the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” While this alarming philosophy has obvious consequences domestically, it is less clear what it means for U.S. foreign policy.
Based on what we’ve seen so far though, we have to begin to consider the possibility that an “America First” foreign policy is the natural extension of the deconstructive approach that Bannon outlined. There is growing evidence that Trump is gearing up for a proactive, all-out assault on the very structures of global influence and power that the US built in the 20th Century.
Rather than beginning with speeches outlining a foreign policy vision or setting its sights on big foreign policy victories that could be achieved, the Trump administration appears to be looking inward – inside federal agencies, institutions, and international commitments – at ways to tear down the fabric that upholds American leadership, security and prosperity.
One of the scariest aspects of this approach is that we may not know the extent of the undertaking until it’s too late. American leadership abroad is in some ways the invisible hand of global order: preventing the outbreak of great power wars through the upkeep of alliances, institutions, and constant diplomacy. But a hostile attitude toward multilateral institutions and a foreign policy that undermines the confidence of allies, and slashes budgets to the point where diplomats are withdrawn from around the world and foreign assistance dries up, can happen rapidly and out of the spotlight. The American people rarely see the daily work of U.S. diplomacy. This means the world will only notice the absence of U.S. leadership when it is gone and catastrophe strikes.
It is hard to overstate the disastrous consequences of this approach. If successful, it would unilaterally disarm America abroad by giving up our most cost-efficient and effective assets for advancing U.S. interests: diplomatic reach and development support. It would sap U.S. leverage in the security and economic realms at exactly the time that American interests are under threat from Asia to Europe to the Middle East. Deconstructing the pillars of American leadership would help spark a return to a Hobbesian world where no country feels safe and each one fends completely for itself. This may very well be Trump administration’s goal.
Still, we don’t know yet whether this is Trump’s true intention. But if the goal were to destroy America’s role as a global leader, it would likely be done by dismantling these five pillars of American leadership: the reach of American diplomacy and foreign assistance, the strength of U.S. alliances, U.S. leadership in international institutions, the international trading system, and U.S. support for human rights.
Let’s review what we know so far.
Diplomacy takes a backseat
The State Department has gone dark in the first couple months of the Trump administration, and it seems possible that the Trump team wants to keep the lights off permanently.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has become the “phantom of Foggy Bottom,” hardly ever seen or heard from. What used to be daily State Department press briefings – now resumed after six weeks of silence – have become a sporadic opportunity for reporters to have their questions go unanswered because it’s not clear whether policy guidance has been developed yet for a wide range of issues. Tillerson didn’t take the usual pool of reporters on his trip to Asia, as has long been the norm. This meant the American public had to rely on Korean media reports, who cite anonymous officials in Seoul, to find out the trip had been cut short due to Tillerson’s “fatigue.” Meanwhile senior positions remain unfilled, with questions about whether certain ones will be eliminated altogether. And the White House is looking to more or less undo vast parts of the State Department and USAID with budget cuts that reach 28 percent and mostly target core functions.
The two-pronged Trump approach to diplomacy so far – keeping a low-profile combined with massive budget reductions – will likely cripple U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future. Along with the U.S. military, diplomats and development professionals are America’s face to the world, ensuring the United States can advance its interests where it needs to. State Department and USAID resources are force multipliers for the US, preventing crises before they begin through programs to stop health pandemics and the proliferation of WMD, for example.
But a State Department that is not proactive in shaping policy or the public narrative will leave a gaping hole in many countries as U.S. diplomats flounder without guidance from Washington. The budget cuts the White House has proposed would not only mean a hit to global health and WMD prevention programs, but also literally forcing the US. to withdraw from parts of the world.
If there’s any question about the intentions behind these moves, the proposed budget cuts speak volumes. As former Vice President Joe Biden says, “show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”
Treat allies like everyone else
During the campaign Trump’s rhetoric was openly hostile toward America’s best friends — like Japan and Mexico. As foreign policy analyst Tom Wright put it, “Trump’s starting point and defining emotion of foreign policy is anger – not at America’s enemies, but at its friends.”
Since taking office, Trump’s tone has moderated, but questions loom large over how Trump is going to treat U.S. allies. While Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Tillerson have traveled to meet with key allies and provide much needed reassurance, Trump’s early actions have confirmed suspicions that he might plan to treat U.S. allies no differently than any other country.
In his first days in office, Trump exploded at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the phone. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that President Barack Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump, prompting a rare public statement of rebuke from GCHQ and an apology from the White House. Meanwhile, Bannon made clear to the German ambassador that he is not a fan of the European Union. Trump’s favorite European partner appears to be Nigel Farage, who was an architect of Brexit and recently visited the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange lives. Finally, there’s Trump’s constant praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While it would be difficult for Trump to formally walk away from the treaty commitments between the US and its allies, it does not take much to significantly degrade the value of those alliances. In fact, U.S. history is littered with alliance commitments that have long been dormant (ever heard of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance – the Rio Treaty – that commits the nations of North and South America to defend one another? No? Well it does, even though it has not been invoked since the Falklands conflict.)
All it takes for an alliance to fall into disrepair is a few moments of anger, one side not coming to aid the other in a time of need, and a steady stream of neglect (before the age of NATO, formal alliances in Europe used to frequently shift based on expediency; a more modern example can be seen in the U.S.-Thailand alliance, which despite ongoing cooperation has for years suffered from divergent views of interests).
Hostility to international institutions
It has long been a staple of conservative national security circles that international institutions encroach on U.S. sovereignty, and therefore news that the Trump team is looking to downgrade U.S. involvement in international bodies like the UN should come as no surprise. And yet, the depth of team Trump’s contempt for the global body seems extreme even in this context.
In the first week of the new administration, there were reports that Trump was considering signing executive orders aimed at drastically reducing U.S. involvement in and funding for the UN, along with reviewing current multilateral treaties for possible U.S. withdrawal. While that executive order has not yet been signed, news of other possible steps to withdraw from various international treaties and institutions has continued.
For example, Trump is looking to cut billions from U.S. contributions to the UN. A massive, indiscriminate cut will have terrible real world consequences. These include less money for battling health pandemics like Ebola to helping refugees and other vulnerable populations during the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. It also means fewer dollars for the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the Iran nuclear deal and UN peacekeeping operations working to prevent conflict in numerous countries. The administration is reportedly considering taking the US out of the UN Human Rights Council, signaling that the Trump administration would rather let the body wither than do the work to improve how it functions. Trump spent lots of time on the campaign trail criticizing the UN treaty on climate change, and the most recent reports are that there is an ongoing debate within the administration about whether or not to withdraw from it completely.
For Trump, the worst international agreements are trade deals. And so Trump’s move to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade deal in Asia came as no surprise. But the extent to which Trump is apparently looking to revise and renegotiate U.S. trade policies could undermine the global trading system and spark trade wars.
The Trump White House has already made clear that it is willing to ignore the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to pursue its trade agenda, signaling that the very country that helped create the WTO and its system of rules and norms to regulate international trade no longer feels bound by those rules.
At the same time, the withdrawal from TPP and the determination to renegotiate NAFTA sends a concerning signal to partners around the world that America cannot be counted on to keep its word and that the US will revisit previous agreements at will.
The amount of hard work the Trump administration appears poised to undo is staggering. The US spent decades trying to establish the basic rules and institutions that would help prevent global economic catastrophes, and did so once again in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Trump’s policy inclinations could actively promote an unraveling of this system.
No longer a shining city on a hill
None of these steps are quite as detrimental l as the shift Trump seems ready to make towards an America that not only doesn’t champion human rights abroad, but which no longer resembles the America that Ronald Reagan once called a “shining city on a hill.”
There are already serious questions about whether the US will still stand up for human rights abroad. Trump has made clear his preference for strongmen leaders like Putin, while criticizing fellow democratic leaders (and U.S. allies) like Angela Merkel of Germany. Tillerson broke with precedent by skipping out on the release of the annual State Department human rights report. And Trump had nice words for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and his violent campaign against supposed drug offenders, which has killed more than 7,000 people.
But much more disturbing are the changes that Trump appears to be looking to enact at home. The white nationalist-oriented future that Trump and his team outlined throughout his campaign and since taking office is not a vision of America that Reagan – let alone any other American leader – would recognize.
Trump is looking for ways to stop legal immigration. After the courts struck down his first immigration executive order, Trump is now on round two of his attempt to restrict refugee admissions to the United States, as well as immigration from a handful of countries that are embroiled in conflict. In addition, Trump has indicated that he wants to restrict legal immigration in other ways, including by advantaging the rich – an idea in fundamental opposition to the notion of the American dream.
Though it was intended as dystopian fiction, David Frum’s article on “How to Build an Autocracy” made a strong case that Trump’s tendencies could undermine the very fabric of American democracy.
All of this intentional destruction, if true, would beg a fundamental question: Why? Why would Trump and his team want to dismantle U.S. power and influence?
There are a few overriding rationales.
First, the deconstruction of America’s global leadership is the marriage of two impulses in conservative circles: the long-held belief that U.S. involvement in multilateral institutions violates U.S. sovereignty, combined with the view supposedly held by Bannon, White House advisor Stephen Miller, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions of “reshaping the United States by tethering it to its European and Christian origins.” This is how you end up not only removing the United States from international agreements and organizations, but also making America a less welcoming place – a strategy of not only building walls, but placing barbed-wire on top of the wall so that it looks especially uninviting.
Second, Trump’s coterie sees the “international system” and U.S. involvement in the world as part of the problem. Just like Trump’s constant bashing of Washington is part of his attempt to remake the U.S. government, it makes sense that Trump and his team would similarly seek to upend America’s role in the world, trying to restructure trade and other international agreements that Trump has used as a scapegoat for the loss of American manufacturing jobs and prestige.
Third, they naively believe that the United States is powerful enough to achieve what it needs in the world completely alone. That view infuses aggressive economic policies – including prioritizing bilateral trade deals where the United States can supposedly twist arms more effectively – with a dangerous superiority complex that could start trade wars. And it’s that view that looks to pump money into the Defense Department while sucking it out of the State Department.
And fourth, the president and his advisors fundamentally believe that America has become weak. One of Trump’s main campaign themes was the weakness of America – supposedly crumbling infrastructure, violence in cities, inability to win wars, etc. – and this deconstructionist approach is a natural extension of that perspective. As the thinking goes, the United States should stop spending resources abroad when there is so much need — even “carnage” — at home.
Dark times ahead
Maybe this theory is wrong. Trump has followed his predecessors by sending an envoy to meet with Israelis and Palestinians in pursuit of solving one of America’s oldest diplomatic challenges. He said the right things about the importance of the US-Japan alliance while hosting Japanese Prime Minister Abe.
But Trump’s talk is cheap. His actions so far are speaking volumes about his real intentions.
If the Trump team were in fact pursuing the above effort to deconstruct American global leadership, the consequences would be too vast to examine here. The immediate effects of the individual policies themselves would be devastating: America would be less tolerant at home; international institutions would be crippled in helping the victims of conflict or preventing weapons proliferation; economies could sputter as the result of a return to trade wars; and conflict would be more likely as alliances faltered.
Once these outcomes have come to pass, Americans will be aware of them in real and horrifying ways: an Ebola epidemic that can’t be stopped before spreading in the US, or a series of terrorist attacks that couldn’t be prevented by strong partnerships abroad forged through good old-fashioned diplomacy.
Until then, the unwinding of America’s global leadership and the benefits it provides for all Americans will mostly be attempted quietly through the shifting of budget allocations, diplomatic slights in closed door meetings and the empty U.S. seat at key international tables.
America’s democratic institutions – Congress, the judiciary, the press, civil servants and civil society – must keep watch:“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”