Decoding Donald Trump’s foreign policy

US president’s engagement with the rest of the world a mix of ‘America First’, domestic pandering and ego.

Donald Trump
President Trump has ruffled feathers on the international stage in recent weeks [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

Washington, DC – In the opening foreign policy acts of Donald Trump’s presidency, he is defining American interests much more narrowly than past US leaders and is championing economic nationalism over international cooperation, drawing sharp and mocking criticisms both at home and abroad.

Following a blundering first trip overseas trip, Trump announced a unilateral decision to withdraw from the US-sponsored Paris climate accord. He criticised the mayor of London on Twitter following the attack over the weekend, and in the US renewed his call for a controversial ban on travel to the United States from six Muslim countries.

“We have never really seen from a Republican leader in the modern era anybody as completely isolationist and anti-cooperation as Donald Trump,” said David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.

“There is no question that the Trump presidency is going to accelerate the American exit from its international leadership, institution-building role. That is a more dangerous world where it’s harder for any individual country to muster the incentives to go off and build effective international institutions. It’s a world that is going to be a whole lot less cooperative,” Victor told Al Jazeera. 

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Analysts see a president who is deeply unpopular in the US. To remain in power, Trump needs to secure his right-wing political base. That means delivering on campaign promises. Trump’s chief political strategist in the White House, his campaign adviser Steve Bannon, is an ardent advocate for Trump’s “America First” approach. It’s a winning message among disenfranchised workers in the rural US who provided Trump with his margin of victory in 2016.

Add to that, Trump appears to have a highly narcissistic personality that drives him to invite constant ratification of the legitimacy of the election, credit and respect from the people around him. That makes it difficult for cabinet secretaries to tell him he’s wrong.

“It’s troublesome. You can’t talk about it in any quantifiable, definitive sort of way, but we have to be honest with ourselves, this is an unusual leader. He does have authoritarian instincts. This level of narcissism colours his behaviour and his choices,” said Jeffrey Gemin, a senior fellow The Atlantic Council and an expert on the Trans-Atlantic relationship.

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The pressure on Trump to deliver for his voters is amplified because in many respects he has failed so far to produce real results in a number of key political initiatives. His push to repeal and replace Obamacare, the US’ health insurance exchange markets established under former President Barack Obama, failed early tests in Congress. Tax reform legislation is delayed. His executive orders, particularly the Muslim travel ban, are tied up in litigation.

Worse for the White House, the FBI and Congress are investigating his campaign ties to Russia. This week, former FBI Director James Comey will testify before a Senate committee for the first time since Trump fired him in an ill-advised move to ease pressure from the Russia investigation. Democrats in Congress will use the scandal to stymie Trump’s policy agenda.

“None of Trump’s foreign policy moves seem to hook up much together other than he seems to be checking off some of his campaign promises,” said Richard Longworth, a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an expert on the Cold War, NATO and globalisation.

Trump’s speech at the new NATO headquarters in Brussels was not well received. It was an opportunity for the new American president to thank NATO members for their support following the September 11 attacks and speak to NATO’s loftier goals of peace and stability. Instead, Trump chose that moment to pressure allies to increase their defence budgets.

“That was really a problematic speech. It just displayed bad manners. The entire speech was inappropriate,” said Cecile Shea, a former US Department of State Foreign Service officer in the Asia Pacific who specialises in international communications.

“You could see it, watching the other leaders standing around, how uncomfortable and embarrassed they were that he was saying those things in this setting,” Shea told Al Jazeera.

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Trump was unprepared to engage in substantive discussions at the G-7 summit in Taormina. Behind closed doors, he signalled an unwillingness to commit to a declaration on climate action and said he was still undecided. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her distress afterwards.

“We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans,” Merkel said in remarks describing the G-7 talks with Trump as “difficult and unsatisfactory”.

Upon his return to Washington, Trump and his White House team organised a grandiose Rose Garden event to announce his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord.

“The rest of the world is actually looking at this and wondering, you know, what’s leaked in the water supply at the White House,” Victor said.

Source: Al Jazeera