By spurning multilateral organizations and damaging economic ties with its allies, the U.S. under President Donald Trump is growing more isolated in the international system it has created, an expert said Tuesday.
Starting his tenure at the White House with the slogan “make America great again,” Trump has severely alienated his country from the international system. As the U.S.’ leadership in the international arena has been questioned since the Cold War ended, Trump has been acting like a bull in a china shop, damaging his country’s bilateral ties one after another.
- Not recognizing international institutions, treaties
Trump has come under fire for refusing to abide by international institutions and agreements ever since he took office by unilaterally withdrawing from various agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Paris climate change agreement, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and, finally, the Iran nuclear deal.
"Trump's 'America First' policy disregards and attacks international institutions and the U.S.' allies," Kadir Ustun, executive director of Washington-based think-tank the SETA Foundation, told Anadolu Agency.
Ustun said Trump's stance could clearly be seen in his decisions on Jerusalem and Iran.
He prefers to deal with countries bilaterally. He did that to China and Russia, the U.S.' main competitors, in addition to Canada, Mexico and Turkey, which are American allies."
After beginning renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico last year, which is still not concluded, Trump started a trade war with China and U.S. ally the European Union this year by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum.
One of his first steps after taking office in January 2017 was to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and then from the historic Paris agreement on climate change that June. Trump announced in May that he was pulling the U.S. out of the historic Iran nuclear deal as well.
"All those agreements have been criticized by Trump because he was not part of them," Ustun said.
"However, the U.S. is becoming more isolated in the current international system by drawing itself away from it. This system was founded and led by the U.S. for years," he added.
Ustun argued that the Trump administration does not care about working with America’s allies anymore. He said instead that Trump claims he is trying to protect U.S. interests through bilateral negotiations with both its allies and rivals.
"The reason the U.S. has been the most important country of the current world system is the international alliance it has created. While Trump does not try to lead this system, he also takes economic and political steps that would drain the system," he said.
- Alone on Jerusalem decision
After disregarding all negotiations for Middle East peace and Palestinians, nearly the whole world -- apart from Israel and a few small countries -- came together to challenge Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Following Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement of the change in U.S. policy on Jerusalem and despite his threats, on Dec. 21 the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a Turkish-sponsored resolution rejecting his move by a vote of 128-9, with 35 abstentions.
While nearly all EU countries supported the motion, the U.S. was left alone with Israel, as well as Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo.
Trump therefore had not only the Islamic world, but nearly the whole world side against him. Trump's move took the U.S. role in Middle East peace out of the equation.
During this process, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the Middle East twice without meeting with any Palestinian official. This was a critical step for the diplomatic legitimacy of the U.S. in the region, as its role of a mediator in the Middle East peace process has gradually been lost.
- Differences with EU over Iran
When withdrawing from the historic Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. led by Trump was unable to find a strong ally except for Israel.
When Trump announced his unilateral withdrawal from the international agreement on May 8, the other signatory countries -- major powers China, Russia, France, the U.K., and Germany -- balked strongly.
The Trump administration, which particularly ignored the calls of EU countries to renegotiate the treaty, took the first step in a unilateral sanction regime with renewed Iran sanctions set to go into effect in two rounds in August and November.
But the EU commission putting an updated "blocking statute" into effect showed clearly that the EU was disturbed by the unilateral U.S. sanctions. The statute aims to preserve the nuclear deal by preventing EU companies from complying with U.S. sanctions in order to annul foreign court rulings against them and permit them to recover damages from any potential penalties.
- Tariffs as foreign policy tool
Trump's latest attack was against Turkey, a longtime NATO ally. Trump said Friday he gave the order to double the tariffs on the steel and aluminum the U.S. imports from Turkey -- a move that added to the political dispute between the two countries, who have been allies for more than 60 years.
"There's no doubt that he poured fuel on the fire," Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Anadolu Agency.
"You would probably have at least paid lip service, or sent a signal, that you were not completely uninterested in what happens to the Turkish economy," he added.
While the U.S. dollar has been gaining against the Turkish lira in recent weeks, this could have been beneficial for American manufacturers that were importing steel and aluminum from Turkey if Trump had not decided to double the tariffs.
The decision “shows that Trump is clearly willing to use trade policy and tariffs as a general tool of foreign policy. And this is a foreign policy that is 'America First' or Trump's foreign policy. It is not a foreign policy that is devoted to the promotion of free trade or liberal democracy or anything like that. It is a foreign policy that is devoted to whatever Trump wants to do on any given day. That, of course, is a very discouraging signal to send to financial markets in general," Kirkegaard said.
- Criticizing NATO and the UN
After the vote condemning his Jerusalem decision, Trump further slashed U.S. funding for the UN by $285 million and also removed the U.S. from two major UN bodies -- the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the population fund.
This method of Trump had in fact been proven useless in the past when sanctions were imposed on both Saddam’s Iraq and to UN bodies. Using the economy to punish countries only draws a rebuff from the international community.
Just like with the UN, Trump was criticized for acting like a company CEO looking out for the U.S.' interests rather than a spirit of international alliance.
A look at Trump’s scandalous behavior at the latest G7 summit in Canada, his visit to the U.K., the security conference in Munich, and many others would be enough to see how little the world cares for his approach. He paints a picture of a leader fighting and belittling his allies, and one having issues with diplomatic courtesy.
Trump slammed NATO and its members in Brussels last month. Since last year, he has been critical of the organization, demanding that other NATO members pay their “fair share” of the defense budget instead of letting the U.S. shoulder most of the organization’s financial burden.
While this has proved not to be the case, Turkey has been a strong member of NATO since its foundation and supportive of the U.S. after the September 2001 terrorist attacks by sending troops to Afghanistan.
"Gathering all the European countries for a common goal is no easy task, but if you manage to do this, that would have a more permanent and global result compared to establishing bilateral ties with each of them," Ustun said.
"For example, NATO is not only a military organization but also an ideological institution that supports democratic values and human rights. Trump has reduced the meaning of NATO to issues with its budget. He diminished NATO's value and decreased its level of deterrence. In Russia's view, the cracks within NATO have become more visible due to Trump."
Kirkegaard said Trump's criticism of NATO is an indication of the fact that he does not attach a lot of value to the organization.
"The message he's sending is that the U.S. is not willing to go the extra mile, or be constructive, or be engaging in order to salvage NATO," he said.
"It once again signals that the countries that thought the U.S. was their ally should probably have less faith in that relationship with the U.S. because it doesn't matter very much to this president. That's very clear," he added.
- US credibility slumping
Kirkegaard argued that the credibility of the U.S. as a global leader is also in decline with the Trump administration.
"I don't think that any other country should take Trump's word having any value, or even his commitment to international agreements. I for one would caution anybody to enter into agreements bilaterally with this administration because Trump may wake up tomorrow and simply renounce it," he said.
"The credibility of the U.S. government with a president as erratic and devoid of firm convictions as Trump is greatly diminished," he concluded.
- Trade wars
Trump's policy of "America First," as an "America Alone" approach, has quickly reflected itself in the U.S.' international trade. Trump, who dislikes previously negotiated international agreements, wants to act as a playmaker on a new ground that accepts no conditions other than the U.S.’.
The Trump administration not only alienated itself from China with its March 23 tariffs on aluminum and steel, but from EU countries exporting these to the U.S., its neighbors Canada and Mexico, and NATO allies including Turkey.
American manufacturers who depend on steel and aluminum raw materials as well as several countries have inevitably been negatively affected by the situation.
In fact, Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has warned for months that “alienating our allies in a tit-for-tat trade war would harm the U.S. economy and undermine American global leadership, and evidence of that harm to U.S. workers, farmers, and businesses is mounting”.
The Trump administration managed to unite his rivals and allies in opposing the steel and aluminum decision that has cost U.S, manufacturers in the short and medium-term.
Turkey and the EU, which decided to challenge the U.S. at the World Trade Organization (WTO), argue that the U.S. has severely damaged international norms and acts unilaterally.
Many U.S. economists argue that Trump's approach will cause significant damage to American companies and consumers in the medium term, and stress that it will not be easy to reestablish the international trade balances harmed by this process.
For instance, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on May 31 branded Trump’s tariffs “What a Stupid Trade War.” Krugman laid out reasons why the trade war “will actually be a job-killer” for the U.S.
- Trade war with China
As a result of the U.S.’ 25 percent tariffs, China said it would impose $3 billion worth of tariffs, between 15-25 percent, on 128 American goods.
After the U.S. announced its plan to impose 25 percent tariffs on 1,300 Chinese goods worth $50 billion in April, Beijing immediately said it would place 25 percent tariffs on 106 American goods worth $50 billion.
On June 18, Trump ordered a list of an additional $200 billion in Chinese goods for 10 percent tariffs. They officially begun implementing tariffs worth $34 billion on the imports on July 6, while Beijing immediately imposed retaliatory tariffs.
Trade talks between the U.S. and China will resume on Aug. 23. Setting a second tranche of China tariffs, the U.S. made a list of $16 billion worth of Chinese goods that will be hit with a 25 percent tariff.
In a recent analysis posted on China International Radio, Li Fuyi from the China Makro Economy Research Institute argued that China is different from the U.S.’ previous rivals.
Fiyu claimed that the U.S. could limit both Moscow and Tokyo, but the current international financial regime says Beijing is a stronger actor.
- Alternatives to US
With all these developments, it became clear that the U.S. is not the only choice in the world system but that in fact many medium-sized and large powers have more than one option.
As Trump's trade wars with China and the EU grow, Russia and China announced that they would use more Chinese yuan instead of dollars in trade among themselves. Similarly, the U.S. suspending $255 million in military aid to Pakistan made it seek closer ties with China and India.
Finally, imposing additional tariffs on steel and aluminum on Turkey, using the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson as an excuse, the Trump administration actually contributed to Ankara and Moscow getting closer -- ties which they highly criticized.
All these examples show that the U.S.' economic power and its approach to using money as a foreign policy tool will not work as well as it used to in the current multipolar world order.
Brian Klaas, professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), last year wrote an analysis titled "'America first' is becoming America alone’," saying the U.S. is slowly turning into a less dependable and more isolated ally.
As the Trump administration closes diplomatic doors with Turkey, Ankara’s improved relations with EU countries such as Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as Russia, and its effort to develop financial new relationships with various parts of the world signals the new U.S. approach is backfiring.
- ‘Trump can't apply unilateral measures, pressure, sanctions against key NATO ally’
“It's a quite unfortunate decision that increases tensions in the region, which doesn't need this kind of escalation. And if there are trade problems, which are sometimes legitimate, then they could be settled in a multilateral context within a world trade organization, but not by unilateral measures, pressure and sanctions against a very key, important ally,” Marc Finaud, a senior program advisor at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday.
As a result, Trump, who has already become one of the most controversial presidents in American history, continues to push away not only the U.S.' opponents, but also its traditional allies, leaving the U.S. all alone.
By Ovunc Kutlu in New York and Hakan Copur in Washington D.C.