Analysis: Are Trump’s foreign policy moves setting the stage for global chaos?

Analysis: Are Trump’s foreign policy moves setting the stage for global chaos?

Evidence of what's being seen as a growing chasm between the US and the rest of the world surfaced again in New York on Tuesday, at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

SINGAPORE: From dusting off the French leader's dandruff to holding hands with his British counterpart, US President Donald Trump's acts of hospitality and chivalry towards his allies during summits have painted a picture of unity and harmony. 

But his statements, tweets and even actions on key issues have left observers as perplexed as those long-standing allies about relations with Washington.

Defiance and dissonance seem to be the prevailing sentiment as witnessed at a tumultuous G7 Summit in Canada back in June, when Mr Trump refused to budge on trade negotiations. 

Evidence of what's being seen as a growing chasm between the US and the rest of the world surfaced again in New York on Tuesday (Sep 25), at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

UN chief Antonio Guterres described the world order as becoming “increasingly chaotic” with universal values and democratic principles being threatened. Trump, however, proclaimed the "extraordinary progress" that's been made since he outlined his vision for a brighter future for humanity a year ago at the same place. 

Mirth followed, with laughter greeting Trump’s speech (although he insisted diplomats were laughing “with” him, not “at” him), when he also boasted of his administration's unprecedented achievement.

But underneath the unexpected amusement, there lies an increasing global concern.

In attempting to "Make America Great Again", Trump's foreign policy moves have been seen by many as eroding and undermining the triumvirate pillars of global peace – institutions, trade and international norms - that the US and its democratic allies championed after World War II .

Some observers have pointed out that Trump's words are merely meant to appease his domestic support base and that essentially, US foreign policy under Trump hasn't changed much. 

"There have been studies that show that substantially when it comes to Asia, not much has really actually changed. In terms of the number of US forces in Asia, its foreign policy makers coming for visits, a lot of the messages have not changed," said Dr Hoo Tiang Boon, an expert on US-China relations from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

"Even though they are pushing the America First policy, they still maintain their alliance and relationship. But in terms of the way of communicating, that is certainly very different. And I think a lot of it is about domestic politics."

But Dr Hoo also acknowledged, as many analysts have done, the confusion and consternation that arise as a consequence of Trump's bellicose tweets and flip flopping policy statements. 

However, it hasn't been all words.

Trump has walked the talk on some key issues since entering office, and it's these decisions that have been seen as undermining American credibility: Pulling out of multilateral agreements, trade wars and making unilateral decisions on key security issues.


In less than two years since taking office, Trump has pulled the US out of an international trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), a global climate agreement (the Paris Agreement) and the UN Human Rights Council. 

“I was elected to represent the residents of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the leader of the world’s only superpower said in the early months of his term.

More than a year on, he reiterated his unapologetic stance at the UN.

Not only has Trump abandoned major multilateral agreements, but he has been critical of alliances such as the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and global institutions - the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and most recently the World Trade Organization - saying the US was disadvantaged.

READ: An imperfect United Nations still the world's best hope for international cooperation, a commentary

“The US will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” Trump told the world on Tuesday.

German Chancellor Merkel speaks to U.S. President Trump during the second day of the G7 meeting in
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to US President Donald Trump during the second day of the G7 meeting in Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, Jun 9, 2018. (Photo: Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel/Reuters)

Ironically, his statement grouped global governance with control and domination. 

Global institutions, despite their shortcomings, were meant to serve as checks and balances on countries that threaten global peace and stability, and provide some form of a safety net for the international system from slipping into anarchy.

Back in July, the New York Times published a statement by 42 scholars in the US, defending the global bodies and condemning Trump's attacks on them.

"As scholars of international relations, we are alarmed by these attacks," the statement read. 

"We should reform, but not destroy, the system that has served the United States and its allies well for more than seven decades. 

"The global order is certainly in need of major changes, but absolutely not the reckless ones President Trump is pursuing. Institutions are much harder to build up than they are to destroy." 

The scholars argued that, while the US helped to establish the system and has borne a significant share of the cost, "it has greatly benefitted from its rewards".

Hundreds of scholars have signed on this statement since it was published.

Trump's criticisms of these institutions undermine that established - albeit imperfect - framework of global oversight and send dangerous signals to the rest of the world. And it’s not just been broad, general hostility towards institutions.

His Twitter tirades against key allies including the UK’s Theresa May, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel have also seen tensions rise between the countries.  

While criticism is warranted where it’s due, Trump's potshots at friends within NATO, while shaking hands with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, have raised questions over trust and the future of the alliance.

"The United States has lost influence with allies and is squandering much of its “soft power” in ways that will make it difficult to regain," wrote Daniel L Byman, a security expert from Brookings Institute.

According to a Pew survey last year, confidence in the US on international affairs declined in the first months of the Trump administration from the previous year – especially among its allies. 

A Gallup poll published at the beginning of this year showed a significant drop in terms of foreign approval of US leadership, with Germany coming in as the “top-rated” global power in the world.

Meanwhile, questions over US credibility have also extended to trade - another key mechanism in the international system that helps mitigate conflict. 

TRADING BLOWS WITH CHINA AND OTHERS                                                    

What began as a tariff tit-for-tat between China and the US is now on the brink of a full on trade war between the world’s two largest economies. And based on the latest word from Trump, the worst isn’t over yet.

Having pulled out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and midst of gridlocked negotiations with Canada, Trump has found his biggest battle on the economic front to be China.

As the two giants collide, futile calls for restraint reverberate from everyone else as they observe with a caution that’s accompanied by a “what can we do” shrug of the shoulders.

READ: Trump admits friendship with China's Xi could be over

READ: China is running out of American products to target in a trade war, a commentary 

“Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump said at the onset of this tariff turmoil.

From an initial US$50 billion imposed on Chinese products, the US president has now imposed tariffs on another US$200 billion. That’s how far it has come – not good, not easy and not yet won.

Some have suggested that Trump’s tariffs are aimed at containing China’s rise, which to a large extent is a result of the global economic system that the US helped establish and championed.

Despite differences in political ideology, economic interdependence and integration in this global system have been fundamental to keeping the peace between a communist China and the capitalist West. There was too much at stake, it was believed, with both economies intertwined in trade, manufacturing and finance.

READ: Economists split on upcoming MAS policy decision amid trade risks

But now, that relationship seems to be in an economic quagmire. 

China sees itself as the target of the superpower that has long safeguarded the system, according to some observers like Dr Hoo.

“They are starting to think that basically what the Trump administration wants is to revise industrial policy," he said. 

"Which is why right now you look at the trade talks, it has produced nothing at all. According to (China’s) interpretation, I think to some extent it’s true, they think that America wants to change the entire Chinese economic policy which the Chinese are never going to do."

Dr Hoo added: "(China) thinks that behind a lot of these demands and requests the Americans are asking is a structural issue which means that, the Americans do not want China to rise. So they think of it right now that anything behind the trade demand is to keep China down.”

Managing China’s rise has been an ongoing part of US battle for power in the international system.

But Trump’s trade war with China is not just about China because of the extent to which the interests of countries have become intertwined by decades of economic integration. 

China-US trade balance
Chart showing the US-China trade balance, 2006-2017. AFP/Gal ROMA

A knee-jerk re-calibration of the balance of trade has the potential to threaten global growth. The World Bank warned in June that the trade tensions could result in a similar situation to the 2008 financial crisis. 

When trade wars and protectionism become tools for the world’s superpower while it rejects multilateralism, it sets a dangerous precedent. And that pattern of rejecting a multilateral approach has also been evident in how Trump has handled the nuclear issue with Iran and North Korea.


The communication between Trump and Kim Jong Un is perhaps the epitome of extremes. From outright insults to veneration, the two have traversed the entire spectrum of speech.

The historic Singapore summit back in June, according to many observers produced acknowledgement more than agreement of what’s already been established.

“The Trump administration will probably tout this as a Nobel-worthy effort by President Trump, but the Singapore summit produced little more than frothy statements without substance, with little accountability for Kim Jong Un to cease and dismantle his nuclear weapons program,” wrote Jung H Pak, Senior Fellow in the Centre for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings Institution, in her post-summit assessment. 

Since the summit between Trump and Kim, diplomatic negotiations between North Korea and the US have
Since the summit between Trump and Kim, diplomatic negotiations between North Korea and the US have seemed to stall AFP/SAUL LOEB

Following the summit, North Korea’s predictable unpredictability became apparent.

Pyongyang returned to pugnacious rhetoric against Washington and there were reports of continued nuclear activity to the point where negotiations were stalled.

But Trump remained uncharacteristically subdued. His administration insisted that Pyongyang was taking steps towards denuclearisation.

Professor Alan Chong from RSIS questioned the trust.

“They’re now asking the US to grease the process further by giving another concession - they want a treaty drawn up to formally end the Korean War. And is Trump prepared to go along with that?" he said.

"Why should anyone trust North Korea and its word? And there was of course Trump’s controversial summit with Putin in Helsinki. What does this say about him being someone who is rational and wise in foreign policy?”

The critics – both domestic and abroad - have been quick to raise questions about standards again.

Trump has gone to great lengths to appease Kim and endure his unpredictability. It’s a level of patience that has not been accorded to anyone else – not even the closest allies – and a stark contrast to the treatment of Iran.

Washington swiftly withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, calling it “insane” and “ridiculous”, while at the same time threatening Iran if it got back on the nuclear bandwagon. And of course, Trump signed on sanctions too.

According to UN inspectors, Tehran had kept to its commitments to the deal.

But the US president’s language was firm and fierce from the onset … no pleasantries exchanged here. And despite their pleas, there was no real get-together or consultation with allies who helped implement the deal.

The policy inconsistency has been apparent for analysts like Professor Chong.

“People are asking on another front that if you treat North Korea with kid gloves, i.e. the summit and the vague agreements they cobbled together in that one day," he said.

"You know what does it mean for dealing with Iran in a hard-line fashion? Why is Iran more intractable in Trump’s perspective or more unlikeable than North Korea?”

Trump’s address at UN General Assembly on Tuesday highlighted, once again, the obverse approaches. While calling for isolation of Iran, he praised “Chairman Kim for his courage”.

The Iran deal wasn’t perfect. But perfection is an unrealistic requirement of an agreement such as this. 

Let’s not forget the widely discussed inadequacies of the Trump-Kim agreement that spawned from the June summit.

Is this the new norm in international relations that the US champions? Where years of belligerence is rewarded and compliance punished? Where multilateral agreements are supplanted by unilateral decisions?

“You cannot assume that you can wing it based on your own judgement. You have to consider other people’s advice," said Prof Chong. 

"And sometimes the best foreign policy decisions are those recommended to you and you are persuaded by someone else’s view. And this is apparently not happening with Donald Trump. So that’s a worrying thing. This sense of unilateralism - with a small 'u' - that is, Trump mainly doing things his way more than through cooperation with countries,  this is the frightening part."

Protectionism, tariffs, reneging on multilateral agreements, disregarding global institutions and allies - all purposeful transgressions from international norms by the one who's looked up to as the global standard-bearer.

The international system is a long way from collapsing, but Trump’s foreign policy and his attitude towards global cooperation and consensus have left the rest of the world rather anxious as they wait for his next impulsive act.

And along with fractured economic relations, undermined international institutions and transgressed norms, the world becomes a volatile place.

“We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism,” Trump told the world on Tuesday.

The two need not be mutually exclusive. 

Source: CNA/mn