Analysis & Opinions - Internationale Politik

The Trump Legacy and Its Consequences

| Mar. 01, 2020

Even if his administration ends on January 20, 2021 Donald Trump will have created a destructive legacy in foreign and domestic policy the depth of which is unrivalled in modern American history. In three short years, the president has done profound damage to the country’s international credibility and its capacity for moral suasion – key ingredients of the soft power that made it the anchor of liberal western world order of which it was the chief architect 70 years ago. The trauma of the Trump administration’s assault on postwar order will resonate beyond the (first) four years of any Democratic administration and will deepen dramatically, should he be re-elected in November.

The Trump administration has worked deliberately (under the guise of ridding the country of the “deep state”) to hollow out U.S. institutions, both in national security and in domestic policy. With the extended “Muslim ban,” the systematic and inhumane separation of migrant families at the Southern border, and the casting of long-standing European allies as “foes,” the President has further managed to alienate large swathes of the international community, with a purpose, because as he told the UN General Assembly “globalists are not the future.”

After more than 70 years, the transatlantic relationship is at its nadir, because of the President’s geo-economic hedging and decoupling, his undercutting of the cornerstone EU diplomatic initiative in the JCPOA and his consistent questioning of NATO’s purpose. The list of infractions against the global multilateral order is even longer: From obstructing Congressional funding to UN programs to withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords and the UN Human Rights Council (and a number of other UN entities in violation of treaty obligations) to crippling the WTO appellate court, to leaving the international arms control system to languish and playing empty chair politics at the G-7.  Then there is the consistent threat of the use of force – against Venezuela, North Korea, at one point against Russia in the Middle East – and the actual use of force against Iran in the drone strike against Gen. Soleimani, of which European allies were not informed. Or the previously floated unilateral plans (now in limbo) to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Or his embrace of the world’s authoritarian ‘strongmen,’ and the public disdain for democratic leaders and partners in upholding the multilateral order. The list goes on.

Why should the world trust Trump’s America? Surveys bear out that the world no longer does: In a January 2020 poll, Pew Research finds that across 32 countries, 64% of citizens polled don’t have confidence in the U.S. President to “do the right thing” in world affairs – Western European allies are particularly skeptical of this President – only 13% of the Germans and 18% of the Swedes think he can be trusted. In the 2019 “Soft Power 30 Index”, the United States has continued its freefall, from first place in 2016 losing a spot or two every year since to settle at fifth position, behind four of its largest Western European allies. But, as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, international order depends not only on the balance of hard power – the only power the President seems to understand – but also on perceptions of legitimacy.

At the beginning of 2020, the balance sheet shows no real tangible progress in foreign policy – but plenty of destruction of supporting institutions and relationships at home and abroad that will haunt the United States for decades, even if a Democrat is President next year. In the Middle East, the President “lurches from doubling down on risky bets to quitting the field altogether,” according to Brett McGurk, former Presidential Adviser for the Global Council to Counter ISIL. Post-Soleimani killing the region is more volatile, not less with Iran returning to uranium enrichment apace, withstanding the “maximum pressure campaign” with Trump-anticipated regime change not all that likely in the near-term future. The Kushner Middle East Peace plan unveiled in the middle of the President’s impeachment trial all but locks out the Palestinians from real political power and is thus hardly a tenable strategy. The administration’s continuous courting of Saudi Arabia as the balancing force lends a chilling kind of legitimacy to the killing of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Russia, meanwhile, has become the region’s kingmaker.

Unfettered, North Korea is testing missiles and likely improving its nuclear capacities. A wider international arms control deal, as envisaged by John Bolton, seems dead in the water – in part, because there is barely anyone at the State Department or on the NSC who might structure such a plan. The first round trade deal with China that had the President effusing his love for Xi Jinping in Davos, is just as the title describes – a first phase – that ultimately just restores the relationship to the status quo ante, makes few concrete promises and has cost billions of dollars in the meantime – but it does seem like a generous gift by the Chinese to Trump’s re-election bid. They feel empowered in this way, because they have learned their tariff pain threshold is higher than that of the American Midwest, and Trump would be easier to manipulate than a Democratic counterpart. Belt and Road ‘capture’ of future debtor nations continues, while China recrafts the language of multilateralism to build new international institutions that fit its global purpose and intent.

European countries have rightly felt either excluded from key decisions on the Middle East, Iran or even on counter-ISIS measures, or targeted, with the next front in Trump’s trade war campaign already rising. Ukraine is clinging to the hopes of making progress solely on the basis of the revised Normandy format, spearheaded by European allies, while the impeachment hearings made clear the degree to which the country and its leadership were badly instrumentalized for Trump’s political purposes. Meanwhile, Russian election meddling in the US is up – not down – in comparison to the same time frame in 2016, actively supported by uncurtailed or regulated American IT giants. In summary, as McGurk puts it, the current White House “Washington’s policy today is defined by incoherence: maximalist ends, minimalist means, false assumptions, few allies, all pressure, no diplomacy.”

Skeptics might argue that these developments, including the unpopularity of these foreign policy maneuvers, are part of the cyclical nature of American Presidential politics. After all, opinion polls reflected the global unpopularity of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Vietnam War was protested around the globe. With a new administration will come a more international foreign policy vision, and tides will shift once more. Self-interest and America’s size, scope and remaining power in the international system, the sanguine say, imply that allies will come flocking back when a Democrat assumes control of the Oval Office. To read the foreign policy programs of Trump’s challengers, is to see that they believe this, too.

But this view ignores critical, changed realities. Certain views articulated vociferously by the Trump administration won’t be easy to erase from American public perception, as they have become accepted reality: China is now a Cold War-level strategic economic and political rival. NATO allies need to pay more for collective defense. Are all multilateral organizations still fit for purpose in the 21st century? These issues all find resonance across the foreign policy programs of the Democratic candidates, underlining that elements of a Trump legacy will remain.

Others are less obvious, but no less impactful. Individual European countries and the US do have different, nuanced relationships with Russia and China – in part because of geographic location and energy and technology dependencies, or because of structural, economic differences that still plague the EU post Eurozone crisis. Differences in values between the Europeans and Americans now express themselves in different standards on all manners of tech related matters, from IP protection to privacy to taxation. In the delusion a Democratic President might wipe the slate clean, Europeans are setting themselves up for a mismatch of expectations that might cause serious, continued frictions in the transatlantic relationship. For instance, a President Biden is unlikely to back down on Huawei, while European countries are actively inviting the Chinese tech giant in.

Further, a new Democratic administration will be hemmed in by the foreign policy realities it finds on the ground, by shifted American perceptions and by the depth and degree of allied disillusionment or actual political or military abandonment at the time of takeover, whether it is a year, or four years away. As Harvard Professor Joe Nye points out, “cooperation is a matter of degree, and the degree is affected by attraction or repulsion.” Among Western allies, repulsion is deepening. It will take much more than an Obama-like ‘apology tour’ to repair the damage done. For major joint transatlantic projects – a renewed trade deal, an improved, comprehensive ‘Iran deal,’ new rules to govern the international trading system – Europeans “will want Democrats to carry water,” says former Biden foreign policy chief, Jake Sullivan. “They will set a higher bar because the American word will be less valuable.”

Aside from policy, there’s the depth of the psychological effects of Trump’s erratic and combative approach to European and Asian allies, which cannot be underestimated. As Robert Blackwill, former U.S. diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “rhetoric (..) matters – it affects U.S. credibility among alliance members; it affects the allied sense of U.S. steadfastness; and it affects the strength and credibility of deterrence.” How to come back from the brink? For a Democrat in power, “the struggle to re-establish trust will be tough, painful and necessary,” Sullivan says.

Europeans in particular feel that crude “America First” attitude displayed by the President, members of his administration and Trump supporters have revealed a deeper truth about the American character. To many, America’s mask has slipped. For the first few years, for instance, the German public treated the Trump election like a death in the family, for the obvious historical and personal ties that bound the two nations post-WWII. Now Europeans have begun to openly question whether Obama or Bush 41 were the aberrations, whereas late-stage capitalism and a decline in relative US power has now revealed the real, the ugly, face of America. This growing tide of anti-Americanism, particularly among certain European allied populations must be of major concern to any Democratic candidate vying for the White House. These impressions frame the domestic policy consensus in these countries, which forms the backdrop which will enable – or impede – the degree to which European citizens and their leaders will be (able) to “come around,” and accept and reaffirm American leadership by offering the type of allied cooperation that demand economic and political sacrifices. Or, at minimum, respect.

In practice, the Trump years have forced Europe to forge a more self-interested foreign policy – nascent as that may still be. Threatened and executed retaliatory tariffs against American trade policy whims, a suggested carbon tariff to force at least some climate change equity, are part of this as much as a fuller realization on what joined-up policy can do to push back against Chinese overreach in the EU. The upcoming EU-China Summit is a hallmark of a changed attitude. The EU-created ad-hoc appeal body in the WTO speaks to greater, self-interested multilateral creativity. The “Alliance for Multilateralism” is designed to hold both China and the US at bay in a quest to protect international cooperation from unilateral action. The shoring up of the JCPOA, the creation of INSTEX but also the triggering of the dispute mechanism against Tehran are further examples, as are the catalytic forces to implement PESCO, the greater speed on EU-NATO initiatives and new suggestions on defensive “sovereignty.” This relatively rapid, though arguably still incomplete, consolidation finds its resonance in Commission President von der Leyen’s view of a geopolitical commission. Greater avowed willingness to take action in Libya, in Africa, the Middle East and even Asia Pacific are sea-changes in the decades-long, slow plodding EU foreign policy context. US leadership remains vital in arms control, cyber, technology development an regulation and traditional forces deterrence, NATO defense architecture and procurement and a smooth functioning of the international trading system – and yet, there is a new sense of urgency and self-confidence among Western allies that will change how representatives engage a second Trump administration or a new Democratic leadership. Greater self-confidence on the European side will allow for more better arguments to be made to either type of administration on why the transatlantic relationship remains so vital.

Domestic Legacy

The most lasting impact of a Trump Presidency – at one or two terms – will be in U.S. domestic policy. And these changes will resonate into U.S. soft power and the ability to implement a progressive foreign policy agenda.  The speed at which the Trump Administration moved to not only overturn Obama era Executive Orders, as discussed above, but to systematically wipe out federal regulations and change the shape of the U.S. legal system was nothing short of historic. Only weeks after inauguration, Trump aides set in motion the widest usage of the Congressional Review Act in the rule’s two-decade history. It allowed the government to sign 13 bills to erase federal bills enacted by federal agencies during the Obama administration. Tone deaf to global developments, facts or science the Trump team managed a clean sweep of rules on the environment, labor, financial protection, abortion, education, gun rights and internet privacy. The Act had been used only once before: To kill a Clinton-era rule on workplace ergonomics.

More dramatic still is the Trump administration’s impact on the U.S. legal system. It is historic and underreported internationally. By appointing a record number of 48 judges in just three years (compared to 55 for Obama over eight years) with often decades or even life-long seats to critical courts, such as the courts of appeal, this administration has ensured that today’s culture wars will ossify. Even if Democrats swept the 2020 election – the Presidency and both Houses of Congress – Trump’s judges will still have broad authority to sabotage the new president’s agenda, including in portfolios relevant to international policy on trade, environmental and commercial diplomacy. Transformative, dangerous, permanent.

Where legislative progress has been expectedly slow in a divided Congress, judges have become the most impactful policy framers in the nation, empowering corporations while rolling back minority rights governed by the Voting Rights Act, and reversing the expansive path on equal rights by upholding religious rights to deny services, access and employment across the country. This curtailing of individual rights, too, damages the perception of the United States as the “shining city upon the Hill.”

The President and his supporters have set their sights on decelerating tide of changing demographics, which would change their power base. Foreign policy vis-à-vis the Latin America is closely linked to drastic changes to the US immigration system. Here, the Trump Administration seems a coolly calculating machine, without resemblance to the dangerous chaos that reins in national security. Supported by federal agencies, political operative Steven Miller has created so much dysfunction in the U.S. immigration system, for example, to all but erase key elements of the America’s idealized creed of open arms to the world. 

The State Department, the country’s face to the world, has been one of the President’s favorite internal targets. While the treatment of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and her diplomatic colleagues at all levels can be described as nothing short of persecution by one’s own government, these moves follow a planned financial decapitation (a budget cut of a third in 2017 and nearly a quarter in 2018, stopped by bi-partisan coalition in Congress), and an ill-fated and unsupported personnel reform launched by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which saw a further exodus of mid-level and senior personnel from the department. The Trump administration has launched investigations into 130 current or retired State Department officials during the time of Hillary Clinton’s leadership. With bold disregard for its expertise, Trump has openly broken with the formula that most Ambassadorships should be held by career diplomats. Only a third of critical roles at the Department are even filled, and across the national security infrastructure there are hundreds more are empty or filled with temporary personnel, including in the Pentagon. Turning these staff shortages around at the middle and senior level to restore basic functionality will take a Democratic President the better part of two years.

New Realities

Any successor to Trump will face difficult new facts on the ground. A rapid lever switch to the status quo ante won’t be possible. Trump would leave chaos abroad and institutional rigidity at home. Europe will have to gird itself for an exacerbation of both of these fundamental developments should he be reelected. Internationally it will create an emboldened China, a more self-interested, sometimes retaliatory European Union and a Russia increasingly moving from international sidelines as ‘just’ a spoiler into open, offensive posture. The US’s soft power will atrophy further while creating billions of dollars in economic losses through ill-strategized trade wars and pursuing short-term tactics at the cost of the kind of strategic thinking that once made the American foreign policy apparatus – State Department, NSC, Intelligence and the Pentagon – the envy of the Western allies.

But while there is no immediate end in sight to Trump travail, there is hope. The U.S. Congress has yet to give up on allied relationships and is willing to more forcefully wield its foreign policy authority from sanctions, to the War Powers Act to protection financial support to the Foreign Service and USAID – possibly as far as re-authorizing the 1980 Foreign Service Act. Democrats look likely to reclaim the House and on foreign policy matters, even the Republican-controlled Senate is watching surveys closely that want to see this administration pull back from unilateral action and reinvest in multilateral institutions. Alliances, say 74% of Americans polled by the Chicago Council in the fall of 2019, are the most efficient and effective way of keeping America safe. With nine months – and possibly four more years – to go, Congress is where European and Asian allies need to make their cases effectively. The Munich Security Conference, the largest annual gathering of members of Congress in Europe, should remain a touchpoint for this continued investment.  With China and Russia unlikely to do anything to support it, real realignment between Western allied powers will not be easy. But with all that is at stake, it will be necessary.

  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Clüver Ashbrook, Cathryn.“The Trump Legacy and Its Consequences.” Internationale Politik, March 1, 2020.

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