Zack Blumberg: Trump’s assault on America’s geopolitical reputation

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 10:10am

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The United States often likes to tout the checks and balances in its governmental system, which exist for the purpose of constraining the power of various groups and individuals. Even under President Donald Trump, the checks and balances system has proved somewhat successful: Many of Trump’s most outrageous ideas have been stymied or watered down, preventing social and political catastrophes.

However, there is a fundamental problem with the idea of checks and balances: It only functionally exists on a domestic level. With regard to foreign affairs, the president has almost unilateral power to act as he chooses. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s foreign policy has deviated from norms in dangerous ways as a result. Trump’s legitimization of autocratic governments, inability to respect multilateral diplomacy and American allies, and bizarre indecisiveness in the Middle East has left America weaker abroad. It has also enabled human rights abuses and tarnished America’s reputation as a strategic partner. 

To begin, the most glaringly problematic aspect of Trump’s foreign policy is his eagerness to bond with autocratic regimes, legitimizing and empowering their oppressive policies. Since taking office, Trump has abandoned the American policy of publicly condemning international human rights violations, instead choosing to praise autocratic leaders. This is most noticeable through Trump’s ties with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, two leaders with whom he has cultivated relationships. Trump has met with Kim three times, beginning with the 2018 summit in Singapore. Since then, Trump has talked about receiving a “beautiful” letter from Kim and earlier this year visited the North Korean border, making him the first sitting American leader to ever cross over. In his negotiations with Kim, Trump has focused almost exclusively on creating personal connections for the end goal of nuclear disarmament, a dangerous maneuver. Through this approach, Trump is legitimizing Kim’s leadership style and normalizing North Korea’s heinous human rights abuses, which he has continually failed to call out, instead treating them as collateral in the disarmament negotiations. 

Trump’s relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has been quite similar. As with Kim, Trump has been more than willing to overlook Salman’s grotesque violations of human rights for personal benefit. For Trump, the value of Saudi Arabia’s friendship is largely financial. In 2017, the Saudi government signed a deal with the Trump administration to purchase $8 billion in arms. Even when confronted with the problematic nature of his relationship with Salman – via both a legislative bill blocking the most recent Saudi arms deal and a CIA report confirming Salman’s role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – Trump has remained unmoved. He vetoed the bill and ignored the CIA report. Through his friendship with Salman, Trump is not only implicitly supporting the oppression of Saudi people in Saudi Arabia, but also actively contributing to the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Just like with North Korea, Trump’s fixation on personal gain in Saudi Arabia has legitimized their abhorrent human rights violations and undemocratic practices and lent credence to leaders whom the United States should not be supporting.  

In addition to bonding with autocratic dictators, Trump has also chosen to forsake many of America’s longstanding allies, shunning them in favor of right-wing populist leaders. Since World War II, the one constant in America’s oft-changing foreign policy has been support for NATO. However, Trump has attacked this relationship, criticizing many NATO members (particularly Germany) over their low levels of military spending.

While disparaging America’s traditional allies, Trump has simultaneously built personal relationships with many right-wing strongmen with whom he sees himself as aligned. During his term, Trump has spoken about his “great relationship” with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, ignoring Duterte’s inhumane and problematic drug policies, which include carrying out violent, extrajudicial attacks on drug users. Similarly, Trump has developed an overwhelmingly positive rapport with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, despite Bolsonaro’s unwillingness to protect native Amazonians, or the rainforest itself. While these are just two examples, the list goes on: Trump has worked to build positive relationships with many other populist right-wing leaders, such as Viktor Orban of Hungary. 

Lastly, Trump’s incoherent and indecisive politics in the Middle East have emboldened opposition forces and contributed to increased violence in the region. One of Trump’s first priorities as president was to remove the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal, which he called “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” However, his strategy since then has been completely incomprehensible; he took a hardline stance and placed crippling sanctions on Iran, then appeared completely unwilling to respond once the Iranian government lashed out against these sanctions. This flip-flopping has emboldened Iran and lead to increasingly forceful attacks and risks inciting a larger conflict between the two nations. 

However, Trump’s approach toward negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan has perhaps been even more disastrous than his negotiations with Iran. Most notably, Trump impulsively ordered the removal of all troops from Afghanistan immediately at the end of 2018, a catastrophic idea which was vehemently opposed by former defense secretary Jim Mattis. Since then, Trump has been continually negotiating with the Taliban over the removal of U.S. troops and was unmoved by critics who said negotiating with the Taliban would empower the group and legitimize their violence as a form of opposition against the Afghan government. Since Trump publicly disclosed his extensive secret negotiations with the Taliban and their eventual falling through, Afghanistan has been rocked by two terrorist attacks from an empowered Taliban, which have killed more than 80 civilians.

Ultimately, these discrete issues with Trump’s foreign policy all coalesce around the weakening of America’s reputation as a geopolitical partner. Although the United States still has immense military might and maintains a level of global hegemony, Trump’s actions as president have damaged American foreign policy to a degree that may not be fully appreciated for decades. Throughout his term, Trump has legitimized autocratic rulers and their human rights violations, shunned long-standing American allies in favor of courting right-wing populists and enacting inconsistent and baffling policies in the Middle East. Together, these actions damage America’s reputation as a strong, consistent ally and weaken America’s position on the world stage. 

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.