Since the election of Donald Trump, America’s role in the world as leader has been questioned, not just by its traditional adversaries or allies, but most forcefully by the President himself. Upending a long and bipartisan consensus since the end of World War II, Trump has given voice to those Americans who believe that globalism has failed them and the resources spent to maintain America’s network of alliance has not paid the dividends they believe necessary to continue America’s role as leader.
From the North American Free Trade Agreement, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organization, no institution seems safe from Trump’s consistent refrain that America has gotten a raw deal and has been paying too much for its own good. Partly a genuine reflection of this populist moment in time, today, Americans find themselves with an unorthodox President whose supreme confidence in his own deal-making ability predisposes him to try anything that has not been done before.
When seen through this prism, President Trump’s foreign policy gambles with North Korea in Singapore and with Russia in Helsinki bear a greater resemblance to his namesake casinos and hotels than to the Truman Doctrine protecting Southeast Europe or Nixon’s opening to China. The challenge of course is that the international system itself is at an inflection point. American superiority in economic and military power is waning, particularly in relation to Eurasia, where China’s rise is felt most significantly. Therefore, even if the President enjoyed the full support of all Americans and institutions that have undergirded the international system since the end of World War II, he would still have to deal with reluctant allies and aggressive adversaries that would seek to use these very institutions to constrain American power, leading to the precise complaints being brought up by Trump and his supporters about the lack of “fairness” in America’s international relations.
For the first two years of the administration, Trump’s “America First” proclamations have been seen by most observers as more domestic rhetoric than a clear foreign policy doctrine. As a result, America’s allies have attempted to play nicely with the President in their interactions and avoided his ire. However, Trump’s most recent Transatlantic trip may prove to be a turning point, not just for Europe, but also for Asia and beyond, for the United States in advance of the American mid-terms that have traditionally signaled the beginning of the next presidential election and have broader implications than even the arrival of Trump to the international scene.
The sequencing of President Trump’s most recent trips may have been logistically convenient, but the shadow that was cast on each visit by the subsequent stop seemed to play right into the narrative of a world and America in disarray. Instinctually, the President appears to focus on the optics of summitry and a free-wheeling style of diplomacy, leader-to-leader. This pattern directly contradicts many of the strengths of the traditional democracies versus strong man authoritarians. Trump’s interactions often occur without his foreign policy and national security advisors. This habit leaves him largely unprotected against the likes of Vladimir Putin, a former Russian intelligence operative.
Putin has been on the international scene ruling with absolute authority in his country and exploiting the post Cold War power vacuum in Eastern Europe and Syria to distract from the weakness in his own country. The juxtaposition of the Trump-NATO summit and the Helsinki summit were stark and clear to international observers. The optics of an American President peacefully standing next to his chief geo-political adversary, were powerful and will reverberate far beyond anything Trump could have imagined.
The real question is whether this type of disruption can somehow be harnessed in favor of America’s national interest for a new grand strategy. Thus far, Helsinki has been a major domestic headache and distraction for an administration that had hoped to discredit and distract from the Mueller investigation back home. Beyond Washington, European allies seem to be adopting a new strategy in dealing with America. On the same day that Trump met Putin, European leaders were in Beijing discussing a new strategic framework of engagement with China and the next day they signed a free trade zone with Japan in Tokyo. These concrete manifestations of global leadership under President Trump have presaged new cooperation between Europe and Asia that would have been unthinkable under previous American presidencies. Yet, in the face of looming trade wars and Trump’s behavior at the previously American-friendly G7 and NATO Summits, America’s allies are beginning to move beyond their previous disbelief and assume that America no longer seems willing to lead.
There was a simplistic beauty in the grand strategy of containment implemented by America during the Cold War to provide a check on Soviet power. US engagement through the Marshall Plan, NATO, and Bretton Woods created a system in which it didn’t dominate by force, but was invited to balance Europe and Asia’s traditional rivalries. This so-called American “empire by invitation” triumphed over the Soviet’s “empire by force” because it channeled and coordinated the costs of mutual interests and values between the allies against their adversaries. While subsequent attempts at democracy promotion and national building has caused a re-evaluation of the limits of American power, America’s strength still rests on an ability to overcome zero-sum conflicts with institutions that provide win-win frameworks.
Neither Helsinki nor Singapore may turn out to be consequential turning points in world history by themselves, but they are symptomatic of Trump’s departure from America’s traditional role as the hub and leader in international affairs. There is an irony in America’s allies having to protect the “Washington consensus” from Trump as he abandons traditional American diplomacy and statecraft. His actions will have long-term consequences not just in Washington but also on allies in Berlin, London, Jerusalem, Paris, Tokyo, and beyond, as they think about their engagement with Beijing and Moscow in this new world order.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a recent contributor to Providence and serves as the Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan in the Office of the President at Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk consultancy.
Photo Credit: President Trump in Helsinki, 2018, via Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia.