Opinion article

Speaking loudly and carrying a bullhorn: America and global governance in the age of Trump

Dr Matthew Laing examines the first 250 days of the Trump Presidency as he challenges the prevailing media narrative of this new radical President, contending that, while the new President may have "ruffled many feathers," substantive action has yet to be taken.

Internationalism is seemingly on the nose in the age of Trump. Each week brings new headlines decrying the decline of international cooperation in the face of a populist nationalist who is putting American interests before the global good. Predictions of an end to US leadership in global affairs have been dire, and much of the blame has predicably fallen on Trump, whose supposed buffoonery in the courts of international diplomacy has elicited outrage and despair in equal measure.

Yet behind the headlines and media coverage, we need to look at what all this substantively amounts to. Is Trump truly out to become an international pariah in the name of America First? Are his actions much different from any other, run-of-the-mill Republican president? And is the emerging philosophy behind Trump’s foreign policy really all that radical?

It is too soon to answer any of these questions definitively, but sober consideration of some of his most prominent actions should cast at least some doubt on the prevailing media narratives.

The example of NATO is instructive. Trump’s rhetoric during his campaign was headline-grabbing as he criticised America’s “enormous” and “wasteful” financial investment in what he frequently described an “obsolete” institution. The prospect that the US might even withdraw from NATO was raised, though Trump was characteristically vague on this point. Despite significant uproar from media commentators, Trump’s questioning of NATO struck a chord with many voters, to whom such questioning seems common sense. After all, NATO’s original purpose – containment of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies – is obviously now moot. And American spending on its armed forces (and hence much of the potency of the NATO alliance) dwarfs that of all other members. NATO partners benefit enormously from this disparity, securing access to world-leading technology and security created by US investment. Yet as NATO’s original mission fades into history, America’s benefit is less clear. Its greatest threats come from other quarters, quarters in which America cannot necessarily rely on NATO to support its operations or interests.

Trump is hardly the first president to question NATO’s role since the fall of the USSR or criticise the disparity of military investment into the alliance. Trump’s rhetoric is simply far more inflammatory, dramatic and attention-grabbing than America’s partners are used to. It has jilted allies and undermined confidence in a pillar of the post-war global order. But Trump’s bark has been far worse than his bite, and thus far he’s avoided serious action. The immediate effect may simply be to worry member states sufficiently to compel the desired result. For instance, Trump raised significant alarm during the 2016 campaign after being asked about a US-NATO response to hypothetical Russian incursions into the Baltic region, he stated such a response would be reviewed in light of whether those nations had met their NATO military spending obligations. Howls of condemnation followed, but so too the ratcheting up of military spending by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and they are on track to soon meet their obligations.

In a similar vein, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord is probably the most stirring blow to confidence in international cooperation this year. It is important, and it will have consequences, but broader context is important. Firstly, Trump is hardly unique among American politicians in resisting a global agreement on emissions. Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 but did not submit it to a hostile Senate for ratification. George W. Bush then dropped the matter entirely, effectively nixing US participation. Secondly, despite a high-profile statement on the withdrawal in June, the administration’s rhetoric has softened considerably in the aftermath, and has emphasised ‘renegotiation’ and ‘suitable terms’. The Trump administration has continued to engage on the matter with global partners, and options for re-joining the accord have appeared in official statements. Despite very publicly slamming the door, Trump seems to have left many windows open.

There is ambiguity too in the company Trump keeps. In the battle for the heart and soul of the Trump administration, the populist nationalists have not clearly gained the upper hand – indeed their influence appears to have rapidly waned. Steven Bannon, the most senior voice of the anti-global choir, is gone, as are many of his allies. Many of the key positions on international affairs are occupied by figures supportive of continued strong American leadership in global governance, like Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), Gary Cohn (Director of the National Economic Council), H.R. McMaster (National Security Advisor) and Dina Powell (Deputy National Security Advisor).

It may be giving too much credit to Trump to call his foreign policy approach a grand strategy, and any positive outcomes may be incidental side-effects of a rhetoric designed for a domestic, rather than international, audience. Yet ironically this makes his rhetoric all the more believable. American presidents have complained about global institutions and agreements in recent decades, citing that the necessary American investment and support for such does not pay back sufficient dividends. This is perhaps to be expected – much of the institutional framework of modern global governance was created in the immediate aftermath of World War II and was reliant on the United States, as the sole superpower, to serve as the lynchpin. Yet despite a now increasingly multi-polar world, America is still relied upon for much of the heavy lifting to uphold the international order. Previous presidents have questioned this, some louder than others, but there’s been little reason to expect America to pull-back. Trump’s seeming unpredictability, inexperience, and domestic political base means the international community cannot be so confident this time around.

Yet we might ask whether Trump truly is rejecting international cooperation or simply stating what has become obvious in recent years. In his address to the United Nations on September 19 Donald Trump outlined a vision of ‘principled realism’ to define his foreign policy approach – acknowledging that he would put American interests first on the global stage and that international cooperation would be pragmatic rather than idealistic. This, and many other bracing passages in that address, were certainly a bombastic departure from the norm. Yet his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley arguably captured it best as simply ‘blunt and honest’. In recent years, the European Union has faced unprecedented challenges in the face of resurgent nationalist politics – from Brexit in the UK, to the handling of the refugee crisis in border countries, and now fresh crises in Poland and Spain. Russian interests in Syria and Chinese interests in North Korea have significantly undermined the chances for effective cooperative solutions in these regions. Though Trump’s seeming embrace of nationalism over internationalism may come as a disappointment, it may be little more than acknowledgement of prevailing global realities.

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Trump has made many stirring contentions and has ruffled many feathers internationally, but as we pass the 250-day mark the weapon of choice has been the bullhorn rather than the big stick. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into a fundamental change of course in American policy or is simply rhetorical posturing. For global cooperation, it is an unwelcome uncertainty in a shaky period, but one it will just have to wait out.

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About the authors

Matthew Laing

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Dr Matthew Laing is a lecturer and research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, specialising in political leadership, policy-making and United States politics. His interest in comparative political and leadership studies has led to his involvement in a number of ongoing research projects studying leadership and policy across political boundaries. Dr Laing has worked on these issues both within Australia and overseas, particularly in the United States where he has worked for the United States Congress and for the Global Leadership Project at Boston University. He is currently authoring two new books on political leadership and policy decision-making.

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