Donald Trump is testing the limits of American power and the US Presidency with his foreign policy. More specifically, the Trump Administration’s aggressive use of tariffs as a high-pressure tactic in trade negotiations and economic sanctions offers the world a glimpse into what the US can and cannot do without the support of allies. By many measures, the United States is a powerful nation on its own, but America’s allies and its ability to rally them to tackle worthy causes is what makes the United States the world’s only superpower. It is a lesson President Trump insists on learning the hard way. Not only has Trump’s unilateral reversal of the Iranian Nuclear Deal and unilateral adoption of new sanctions against Iran united US allies and adversaries against the Trump Administration, the US government has failed to frame US foreign policy in a way that makes it appealing to America’s allies.
Nothing demonstrates the world’s true sentiments on the US President than world leaders laughing at Donald Trump as he transformed a foreign policy address into a self-aggrandizing political speech. The reality is that much of the world does not view Donald Trump as a serious world leader. Those who understand the circumstances of Trump’s election victory see the US President as nothing more than the byproduct of an increasingly radicalized, dysfunctional, bipolar US political system and the alternative to Hillary Clinton. Given the President’s reaction to his humiliation at the UN and the rare press conference he held the day after where he attempted to dispute the negative interpretation of the incident, Mr. Trump was clearly bothered by the ordeal. The litany of psychological defense mechanisms he deployed reveals the President’s struggle to grasp the reality of how the world views his policies and his actions. Only when the President overcomes his inability to confront the reality of how others see him will he be able to overcome obstacles to his policy agenda.
US President Barack Obama was beloved by much of the world. Where the George W. Bush Administration had angered the world, which had a great deal to do with actions like its poorly rationalized preemptive strike against Iraq, President Obama was able to garner the support of world leaders. To varying degrees of success, Obama was able to rally European and Middle Eastern allies against the rise of the Islamic State while engaging in drone strikes and supporting military campaigns that resulted in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of civilians. He united America’s Asian allies against China in Asia. Obama also united US allies against Russia over the Ukraine Crisis and managed to secure sanctions against Russia, even though those sanctions hurt domestic consumers. President Obama was able to do a great many confrontational, and sometimes controversial, things on the international stage, yet maintain the respect and support of the world’s population.
Today, President Trump has adopted some of the same kind of policies as Obama, but he has managed to rally the world against him. Although their policies are very different when it comes to the details, the most pivotal difference between Obama and Trump’s policies is the messaging. World leaders are so against Donald Trump’s Iranian sanctions that European officials are willing to work with the likes of Russia and China to circumvent them by creating a so-called special purpose vehicle. There is valid criticism of the Iranian Nuclear Deal. It probably would not have helped actually prevent Iran from eventually pursuing nuclear weapons. Trump’s actions are, however, due to the fact Donald Trump did not like the Iranian Nuclear Deal and does not like Iran. The problem is that European leaders view the Iranian Nuclear Deal as the best option available and an symbol of progress. Trump could win over EU leaders, but he has a habit of catering to like-minded individuals instead of building solid arguments for his positions, thus he fails to recruit the supporters he needs to progress. It is the same reason why Republicans lost the message battle on Trump’s tax cuts.
Looking at Trump’s “American First” platform and trade war, the same issue can be seen. Not only did Trump fail to see the negative impact of his policies positions from the perspective of those hurt by them, he failed to formulate a response to win their support. Instead of denying criticism, he needs to create a “Nation First” platform for the global theatre. Although analysts can point to Trump’s foreign policy impotence as a troubling sign of America’s decline, it is actually a sign of the world’s lack of support for US leadership. Today, it is Donald Trump who lacks respect on the international stage, but the world, much like the US population, has become increasingly disenchanted with US political leadership. To reverse the decline of US influence, America must simply elect better leaders. That said, the most troubling aspect of the world’s reaction to Trump’s sanctions is that there are times when world leaders should support sanctions, regardless of who is the US President.
The Trump Administration’s targeting of individuals involved in the sale of Russian military hardware, for example, has angered Chinese leadership who derided the US government for undermining the defenses of other nations. While the abuse of targeted sanctions against individuals has been a very real and growing concern since the Obama Administration adopted their practice, there is also a compelling argument for such sanctions. Dozens of countries may rely on Russian military components to ensure their national security, but that alone cannot be the reason to ignore misdeeds by Moscow. Not only did Russia steal a piece of a country, i.e. Crimea, and sustain a destabilizing insurgency against that same country, i.e. Ukraine, for rejecting Russian political influence, its intervention in the Syrian Civil War against the will of the International Community and against the will of the Syrian People multiplied the death toll and destruction by magnitudes. Certainly, the US and its European counterparts have done their share of misdeeds, but the cycle of abuse and violence must be stopped. Targeted sanctions against warmongers are needed to do that and there must international support for sanctions in order for them to effective.
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