Commentary: He did it his way, one year into Donald Trump’s presidency

Commentary: He did it his way, one year into Donald Trump’s presidency

Something new is happening under the Trump Administration, with the rules of global engagement and norms that govern relations between countries being rewritten, says Yale-NUS College's Nancy Webster Gleason.

SINGAPORE: Diplomacy has always been a complex geopolitical game of engagement. It is an essential part of international affairs in preventing war and violence.

Furthermore, history has taught us that cooperation among countries to collectively manage global challenges and regional conflicts prove more effective strategies in the longer term than going at it alone.

Political Scientists Jozef Bátora and Helen Hardacre have explained that the institution of diplomacy provides an important framework of norms and rules that regularise interactions among countries.

Yet, Donald Trump’s first year as President of the United States has bewildered international foreign policy experts and diplomacy actors as those norms were eroded.


At home, Trump’s US political base is content for now. The America First rhetoric is strong in the US, and Trump rides the populism wave with aplomb.

Trump has delivered on some campaign promises that carry important symbolism to his Republican base, including successfully placing numerous conservative judges on the bench.

Most recently, the Republicans scored a first legislative win when the Congress passed the new tax law. The law lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 20 per cent, fulfilling a major campaign promise.

With the US economy picking up at 3 per cent growth, and unemployment and inflation lower than this time last year, the Trump Administration will no doubt claim victory on this front as well.

Meanwhile, Trump is also ramping up military spending in popular areas such as troop salaries and missile defence. 

Overseas, the US military’s role in militarily defeating the Islamic State in Iraq is popular. The US air strikes against Syria as Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time in April 2017, also underscored a muscular foreign policy stance.

Some might even say that on North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where very little progress had been made for decades, what Trump has delivered in his first year is needed change. Calling out Kim Jong Un for his acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital provide new areas for discussion in these two cases of deep political impasse.

Under Trump’s Administration, there is something new happening, and a change to the status quo has occurred in the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. Whether or not that translates into a foreign policy victory for the Trump administration remains to be seen.

The hope is that it results in a constructive redrawing of the terms of negotiation between parties. 

But at what cost?

Tensions have soared over the status of Jerusalem since US President Donald Trump recognised the city as Israel's capital. (AFP/THOMAS COEX)


The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the US on its embassy move to Jerusalem, signaling the significant loss of goodwill the US incurred in the aftermath. 

Many are also concerned Trump is risking nuclear war with North Korea.

The rules of engagement and the likely outcomes in both instances are now unknown, leaving some chance that his approach could work out for the better and help shake up longstanding foreign policy crisis. 

However, the approach is risky at best.

The polite refrain many hear is that Trump is not acting “presidential”.  His answer has been that he is doing this his way, and that it works. 

But this does nothing to address concern that “his way” has eroded the framework of norms and rules that regularise interactions among countries, setting a dangerous precedence for what construes acceptable state behaviour.

To Trump’s detractors, his approach to foreign policy is political brinkmanship that should be avoided. He has threatened nuclear war via Twitter, withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, threatened to cancel the Iran nuclear deal, and rattled the trust of many close US allies with various personal and political attacks.  

A Tweet from the Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump
A Tweet from the Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump

Trump’s recent comments disparaging other nations during domestic immigration law reform discussions have made it difficult for his allies to defend him. The African Union has demanded an official apology, calling his comments racist and xenophobic. Trump’s February 2018 visit to the UK, arguably America’s closest ally, has been cancelled in the wake.

Consider that in contrast, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, stated in July 2017 that Singapore seeks foreign relations in which other nations "find our success in their own interest". This is the sort of tact Trump’s critics and global diplomats seek in a partner, which has helped to ensure peaceful relations for decades.

The challenge is that Trump’s brinkmanship has made it more difficult to manage important foreign relations because his reliability and integrity fall outside acceptable norms for traditional diplomacy.

This strains diplomacy and threatens effective global governance.

US-Russia tensions have continued despite Donald Trump's bid to impove relations with Vladimir
US-Russia tensions have continued despite Donald Trump's bid to impove relations with Vladimir Putin. (Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb)


Even when dealing with allies, Trump has made diplomacy unnecessarily strenuous. Trump’s approach to seeking increased financial contributions from NATO allies was delivered in a threatening and abrupt manner.

Publically demanding increased spending, rather than seeking further support in closed-door discussions, harmed relations and left little wiggle room for world leaders not wanting to appear to bow to Trump.

Reuters quoted one diplomat who attended Trump’s Brussels NATO speech in May 2017 as saying: 

This was not the right place or time. We are left with nothing else but trying to put a brave face on it.

Indeed, NATO members share a concern of growing Russian aggression and have thus increased their defence spending since 2015. That change was already underway when Trump made his May 2017 speech at NATO headquarters.

Increasing defence spending by its allies is certainly something the US has a right to seek but bullying your allies with public shaming is not an ideal approach.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters i
US President Donald Trump attends a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters during a NATO summit of heads of state and government in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Matt Dunham)

There is a diplomatic protocol for conducting such negotiations, and it exists because it makes it easier to get things done. And it remains to be seen if his speech will spark increased defence spending by allies.

Similarly on trade, the US about-face was sudden following Trump’s inauguration on Jan 21, 2017. While expected, Trump’s executive order to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership could have been handled with more deference for US partners in the Pacific region who had negotiated in good faith.

Another area where the America First rhetoric took allies by surprise was Trump’s attempt to renegotiate NAFTA. That this deal needs upgrading after more than 20 years is true, but the lack of good ideas coupled with souring relations between the US and Mexico make a new deal especially difficult to reach.

What we do know is that all nations are linked by the global economy. Governments  have a shared interest in spurring growth, enterprise and innovation.

These interests cannot be met solely through isolationist domestic policy.

Canada's Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland (L), Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso
Canada's Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer at the conclusion of the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations in October 2017. (Photo: AFP)

The larger point is that Trump’s unilateral actions are damaging to the US’s long-held reputation as a steady and reliable partner, even if countries understand that they have little choice but to work with the Trump Administration.


There are negative ramifications for the United States and possibly the world in the medium term.

The “America First” policy applied to climate change is a good example. The global community has expressed deep disappointment in the Trump Administration’s decision to withdrawal from the voluntary Paris Climate Agreement commitments.

This negotiation was 20 years in the making and many world leaders and their diplomats – not to mention US citizens who felt the same – expressed the sense that the US went back on its word.

In reality, this means that the US has withdrawn its US$2 billion commitment to the Green Climate Fund. The result is that the US has lost its seat at the table and is being bypassed in future discussions.

In mid-December 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron held the One Planet Summit and Trump and members of the US government were not invited.

50 major world leaders were in attendance. The talks focused on how to finance both the global transition away from fossil fuels and measures needed to adapt to changes already underway caused by the climate crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Special envoy to the United Nations for climate
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Special envoy to the United Nations for climate change Michael Bloomberg before a dinner hosted at the Grand Palais, on the eve of the One Planet Summit held in Paris on Dec 11, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Ian Langsdon)

The US has lost influence in this important transition away from fossil fuels.


While the Trump Administration settles into its second year, global diplomats are adjusting to Trump, and his tendency to offend, for the better of the global community.

States have always disagreed about who should share the brunt of the burden for collective challenges. But as traditional diplomacy has shown us, we can have “America First” without denying the opportunity for allies to also advance their interests.

It is likely in his second year as President, Trump will focus on domestic issues with mid-term elections in November 2018. 

Let’s hope the US State Department is able to increase its role in US diplomacy going forward.

Nancy Webster Gleason is director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and senior lecturer of global affairs in the Social Sciences Division at Yale-NUS College. 

Source: CNA/sl