Childish Behavior, Adult Consequences: Trump’s War on US Foreign Policy - by John Hodges
Since taking office in January, President Trump has been busy. This business hasn’t exactly correlated with success. He tried, and luckily failed, to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He tried to put the most noxious of his campaign promises, the Muslim ban, into action, and faced huge public protests and obstruction from federal courts around the country. He is close to achieving his biggest success to date, a massive overhaul of the federal tax code, though he still faces challenges in Congress. However, of all of the actions he has taken and norms he has broken since taking office, the damage President Trump has done to American foreign policy has been among the most distressing, and almost certainly has the most serious potential consequences. Trump’s rambling speeches, provocative tweets, and utter disregard for the norms and standards that have governed foreign policy since the end of the Second World War have already had serious consequences, and have the potential to trigger a variety of global crises in the future. In less than a year in office, President Trump has hurt our relationships with some of our oldest and most important allies, helped inflame tensions in the already volatile Middle East, and brought the world to the precipice of a calamity in North Korea.
President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and sympathetic position towards nationalist groups in the United States and across Europe have alienated some of our most important allies, most notably the United Kingdom. From the very beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015, the Trump found particularly strong support among groups that some describe as nationalist, alt-right, or even neo-fascist. Considering the fact that Trump has no true ideology other than winning, it should not be surprising that he made no real effort to shun or condemn these groups. The campaign’s links to nationalist groups did not hurt its electoral prospects, as evident by the results of the election on November 8, 2016. However, they have damaged the reputation of Trump, and the United States as a whole, around the world. This is especially true in Europe, which has seen the horror that extreme nationalism can unleash firsthand. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has held firm against the rise of nationalism across the continent and in her home country. After eight years in which Merkel had a close working relationship with President Obama, the lack of cooperation between the two leaders and nations in the Trump era is striking. Germany is the largest economy in Europe and, with the imminent departure of the United Kingdom, the unquestioned center of power in the European Union, representing an important partner in all international issues. Recently, in perhaps the most public and provocative incident with a major ally yet, Trump retweeted vile anti-Muslim videos from the Twitter account of Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, an ultra-nationalist group in the UK (Baker & Sullivan). The tweets were quickly condemned by British Prime Minister Theresa May but, in typical Trump fashion, the President only exacerbated the situation by tweeting at May, saying “don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom” (Twitter). This kind of childish provocation shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and has the potential to seriously undermine our relationships with some of our oldest and most critical allies.
In the Middle East, while President Trump has developed a closer relationship with some of our regional allies, he has done so at the expense of American interests and regional stability. Say what you will about President Obama’s foreign policy, but he certainly did not have a flawlessly cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two most powerful and prominent American allies in the Middle East. However, the flash points in these relationships were over principled positions by his administration. Saudi Arabia has been an important strategic ally since the end of the Second World War, and its huge oil reserves and large military have ensured that that every president since Franklin Roosevelt has maintained this alliance. However, Saudi Arabia’s archaic laws and egregious human rights record were often too much for President Obama, and outspokenness did not always please Saudi officials. A similar strained relationship developed with Israel, as Obama frequently urged Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to slow down settlements and work towards developing a two-state solution. Since President Trump has taken office, he has reverted from these principles with little resistance. Trump has increased military aid to Saudi Arabia, even as that country continues its troubling campaign in Yemen, which has triggered a humanitarian crisis. Instead of working to defuse conflicts in the region, Trump has looked the other way as these conflicts have ballooned into proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival, Iran, only further destabilizing the region. In dealing with Israel, Trump has gone even further, announcing this week that he has decided to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (Landler), something American presidents have refused to do for decades because of the Palestinians’ insistence that Jerusalem, with its plethora of holy sites, does not belong solely to the Israelis. While the move may seem trivial, it could have serious consequences for future peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and could serve as a flashpoint in a region with far too many already. It also serves as another reminder, as if we needed one, that Trump has no respect for, or even knowledge of, the diplomatic norms that have governed American foreign policy for decades.
Without a doubt, Trump’s needless and repeated provocations towards North Korea are the most potentially dangerous of all of his foreign policy actions. Since the armistice brought the Korean War to an end, the communist North has been a problem for American presidents. This problem as only grown as North Korea has developed and advanced both its nuclear and missile programs, threatening its neighbors with nuclear destruction. For decades, American presidents have used sanctions to weaken the North Korean economy, in an effort to bring them to the negotiating table and to weaken the regime’s ability to continue its weapons development. As evidenced by the continued advancement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, these efforts have not been entirely successful. However, even as the North has made serious advancements, presidents have refused to use military action and have refrained from being openly provocative. While clearly a serious regional threat, the costs of another war on the Korean peninsula have always outweighed the advantages of provocation. According to analysts, a Second Korean War would result in “tens of thousands of deaths just in Seoul, and possibly a million casualties in the South alone” (Wright), which does not even begin to address the cost of life to American troops. “North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces embedded deep” (Wright) along the border with the South, and well within striking range of Seoul, which is home to millions. Furthermore, the North’s stockpile of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons could turn a Second World War from a regional disaster into a global catastrophe. Yet, despite the horrible potential, Trump has recklessly taken to repeatedly taunting the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump called Kim “Rocket Man” (Trump), a nickname he has used repeatedly on Twitter, reflecting his childish habit of name-calling. Beyond the absurdity of an American president, the most powerful man in the world, taunting another head of state from the floor of the United Nations, this kind of provocation could unintentionally lead to a series of events that triggers military conflict in Korea. Neither the United States nor North Korea has a strong desire for war: Americans are war-weary after sixteen years of the War on Terror, and war would almost surely amount to suicide for Kim and his regime. However, needless, repeated, and unproductive taunting and provocation by President Trump seriously risks inflaming the conflict with North Korea, which could trigger a catastrophe of huge proportions.
There is no shortage of things to get frustrated about during the Trump presidency. Trump and his Republican colleagues tried, repeatedly, to repeal the increasingly popular Affordable Care Act, stripping healthcare from millions. Trump has refused to condemn white nationalists, and he has defended and endorsed an alleged child predator. At times, the Trump administration has been a never-ending tidal wave of news, tweets, outrages, and scandals of both small and enormous proportions. It is easy to be both overwhelmed and exhausted by the president and his actions. But it is absolutely critical that Americans recognize the damage he has done to our foreign policy interests in less than a year, most especially in the case of North Korea. American leadership should be taking every step and doing everything in its power to prevent a war with North Korea but Trump, as he always does, cannot be anything other than a bully and a provocateur. His actions on the global stage are a threat to the security of both the United States and, most ominously, perhaps the entire world. No matter how crazy his White House becomes, we should never let this become an under-the-radar story.
Baker, Peter, and Eileen Sullivan. "Trump Shares Inflammatory Anti-Muslim Videos, and Britain’s Leader Condemns Them." The New York Times, 29 Nov. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/11/29/us/politics/trump-anti-muslim-videos-jayda-fransen.html.
Landler, Mark. "Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital and Orders U.S. Embassy to Move." The New York Times, 6 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/world/middleeast/trump-jerusalem-israel-capital.html.
Trump, Donald J. "Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly." 19 Sept. 2017. The White House, USA.gov, 19 Sept. 2017, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/09/19/remarks-president-trump-72nd-session-united-nations-general-assembly. Speech.
Wright, Robin. "What Would War with North Korea Look Like?" The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 6 Sept. 2017, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-would-war-with-north-korea-look-like.