For America’s allies, the now constant barrage of bafflement by President Trump began on day one when, in his inauguration speech, he declared twice — without qualification — that from that day forward it would be “America first.”
Notwithstanding whether it was a direct reference to the rhetoric of the 1940s America First Committee, which advocated for the U.S. to stand down from entering World War II, or, as the president said to The New York Times, it simply expresses his personal sentiments that the U.S. must focus its energies on rebuilding the home front, the isolationist tone is in stark contrast to the last 70 years of America’s leading role in alliance-building.
“Allies are now unsure of where and to what the U.S. is committed and which allies it might defend. Even within the administration itself there is uncertainty, so it’s not only a matter of whether to take the U.S. seriously, but even more basically how to assess U.S. commitments altogether,” professor Monica Duffy Toft, director of the newly established Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told The Washington Diplomat.
Toft, a Fulbright scholar, has taught at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she directed the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. We spoke with Toft, an author who also spent four years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist, for an international perspective on the reasons for the growing erraticism in U.S. foreign affairs, where it might lead and whether the Constitution ultimately will protect the country from stumbling into chaos.
The growing divide between the U.S. and its allies was laid bare in May during a high-profile trip that Trump made to Brussels, where he berated NATO allies for not paying their “fair share” and refused to commit to Article 5, whereby an attack on one member is an attack on all. The public snub came despite months of reassurance by his surrogates that America remained committed to the mutual defense pledge. Shortly afterward, Trump formally withdrew from the Paris climate accord, disappointing leaders in Europe and beyond. The transatlantic rift widened when the normally constrained German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that Europe can’t rely on “others” for its security and prosperity.
But perhaps the most compelling metaphor for Trump’s “America first” paradigm was his shoulder snatch and shove of Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković — the leader of NATO’s newest member — during the Brussels summit. Marković dismissed the incident, which went viral on internet memes, although Toft counts it among the many missteps the president has made in assuaging our allies’ fears that he is for and not against them.
“The Trump administration has changed U.S. standing in the world, there is no doubt about that,” said Toft, a recent World Politics Fellow at Princeton University whose books include “Securing the Peace,” “Political Demography” and “God’s Century.”
Toft counts it among the many “diplomatic blunders, slights and policy about-faces that have not only taken aback allies, but those within the administration who are trying to maintain, much less advance, vital U.S. interests.”
The White House says the president has kept his campaign pledge to put America first through a series of actions that includes: withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, vowing to renegotiate other trade deals such as NAFTA, ditching the Paris climate agreement, cracking down on immigration and signaling to allies that they must share the financial burden for their defense.
In general, however, Trump’s America first agenda has yet to be fleshed out or result in any concrete legislative victories. Instead, the White House has been consumed by the ongoing investigations into the Trump team’s ties with Russia and has struggled to fill key positions. It has also struggled to keep up with a president who relishes unpredictability and disdains detail.
To his supporters, however, Trump is pursuing a long-overdue rethink of America’s place in the world and upending conventional Beltway wisdom. To his detractors, he is pushing incoherent polices marred by improvisation and inexperience. That wide spectrum of opinion can be seen both at home and around the world.
For example, Trump’s tough talk on the Islamic State, Iran and military might has pleased nations such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Russia, where leaders often criticized President Obama as weak and indecisive. But Trump’s foreign policy flip-flops and vague pronouncements have angered, alienated or bewildered allies such as Canada, France, South Korea and Qatar. The latter was confused by conflicting signals from Washington amid a recent row with its Gulf neighbors. After Saudi Arabia, the UAE and several other nations severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar, home to an important American military base, U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged calm and mediation. Their pleas were quickly undercut by their boss, who took credit for the Saudi-led move and labeled Qatar a “funder of terror.”
Toft cited other instances where the president has driven a wedge with critical allies. In addition to his running tirade against Mexico, a key trading partner, Toft referred to how Trump insulted Australia’s prime minister for his nation’s policies on refugees and for “scaring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about U.S. commitments in Asia, to the point that Abe felt compelled to visit Trump.”
Another blow to foreign relations has been the president’s attempts to push through a controversial travel ban on six Muslim-majority nations, an order that remains mired in legal challenges and that Toft said belies either a willful ignorance or a disregard for the limits of executive power. “I think it’s a combination of ignorance and that he doesn’t care. What is unnerving is that now that he is in office and he is getting so much pushback, he doesn’t seem to care about redressing that ignorance,” Toft charged.
Trump’s general lack of understanding about foreign policy, his widely reported short attention span and off-the-cuff style have also disconcerted allies. For instance, he has repeatedly insisted that NATO members owe the U.S. money, even though the concept of “back payments” doesn’t exist in the alliance. His argument that he was pulling out of the Paris accord to “renegotiate” its terms made little sense to experts because countries can adjust their climate commitments by remaining inside the agreement — not to mention that no one is about to return to the drawing board on a deal signed by nearly 200 governments. Whether on North Korea or Turkey, Trump often says one thing while his aides say another, leaving diplomats in Washington with the Sisyphean task of deciphering the ambiguous and contradictory statements coming out of the White House.
Trusting Trump with sensitive information has also become problematic for allies. In May, shortly after the furor over Trump firing FBI Director James Comey, who had been investigating the administration’s links to Russia, the president appeared to leak classified intelligence to top Russian officials when he boasted about the details of an alleged Islamic State plot, reportedly infuriating the source of that information, Israel.
Likewise, after the Manchester terrorist bombing, British officials warned that they would stop sharing intelligence with the U.S. if the administration could not put a lid on leaks to the media about the attack.
More recently, following a terrorist rampage in London that killed eight people, Trump criticized the city’s mayor for saying that there was “no reason to be alarmed.” But the president distorted those remarks (the mayor was referring to the increased police presence, not the attack). Trump’s false tweets about Mayor Sadiq Khan drew fierce condemnation throughout Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May, an early Trump supporter, lost a commanding lead ahead of snap parliamentary elections in June, leaving her political prospects in jeopardy.
If Trump’s inner circle is attempting to correct his misperceptions about the complexities of world affairs, it is not apparent, Toft said. “They seem more concerned about controlling the message than taking him aside and saying you need some tutoring here.”
Allies initially appeared hopeful that experienced hands such as Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster would temper the president’s impulses. But with every incendiary tweet, their influence seems to be waning.
Meanwhile, Toft suggested the diplomatic community is keen to figure out who is actually charge in the White House, and how the competing agendas of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner are driving the president’s foreign policy agenda. (Some diplomats have been reportedly trying to cultivate ties with Kushner, who’s been tasked with everything from Middle East peace to streamlining the government; some have also reportedly tried to work with his wife Ivanka instead of Tillerson and a diminished State Department.)
From Toft’s perspective, Priebus is the voice of mainstream conservative thought, Bannon is the voice of those who desire to deconstruct an establishment that they say doesn’t speak for them, and Kushner is simply protecting his father-in-law and the family fortune. Just who has the most power, and when and how that shifts, is unknown.
“I think there are dueling conceptions of where the U.S. needs to be. It could be why it’s so chaotic,” Toft speculated. “That’s why I think this is such a mess, and why we’re having a hard time seeing who is really in charge. Supposedly, during the NATO summit, Trump was to have said we are committed to Article 5. It was in his speech, and then Trump himself changed it. Did he do that on his own? We don’t know. We may never know,” she said. (Two weeks later, Trump affirmed America’s commitment to Article 5 during a press conference.)
The lasting effects of Trump’s policies depend largely on Congress, said Toft. She pointed to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) among those who have “tried to counter some of President Trump’s most egregious policies, but with seemingly little impact. The GOP seems more concerned about advancing its domestic policy agenda [such as] repealing and replacing Obamacare [and] tax ‘reform’ than in ensuring that the U.S. government under a Trump administration follows a sound foreign policy.” She added that although McCain has been vocal in his criticism of the administration’s foreign policy, “he hasn’t created a cohort of people to have a stronger voice in all of this.”
The potential legacy of this looms as a dark unknown, according to Toft. “It’s too soon to tell, but keep in mind that the impact of Trump’s decisions and policy choices, both domestic and foreign, have considerable inertia. Both the good and bad effects will continue to ripple outward, even if the subsequent chief executive or Congress attempts a rollback.”
When asked by The Washington Diplomat in an interview what message McCain would give our allies, particularly since the Trump administration has proposed a nearly 30 percent cut to the State Department’s budget, the senator laughed and said, “There isn’t going to be cuts to the State Department.”
Meanwhile, Toft said the current investigations into the administration’s ties to Russia could help restore faith in America as a trusted ally and friend.
“If such ties are exposed, expect the Republicans to act and to act decisively, as they are historically more hawkish toward Russia — and especially Russia under President Vladimir Putin. This would reinvigorate NATO’s strategic importance and compel the U.S. to reevaluate which states truly share its traditional values and interests,” Toft said. “The Senate appears to be ready to take on the president, and the diplomatic community is one among many hopeful that this will slow the destruction of the U.S. position as a global supporter of peace and free trade.”
“I think our allies are going to wait and see what happens. I am sure they watch with interest,” McCain told us of the Russia investigations, which he described as a “centipede with 100 shoes yet to drop.”
In the meantime, Trump faces the challenge of getting actual work done despite the cloud of suspicion hanging over him. Toft says there are some foreign policy achievements he could rack up, but she isn’t overly hopeful.
“There’s an old saying that even a busted clock is right twice a day. So we should not forget that a Trump administration is likely to have a few great ideas and advance at least a few innovative policies,” Toft said. But she added that, “Trump himself has made it clear his rationale for hiring surrogates is personal loyalty to him, not professional competence. So even if renegotiating NAFTA, the Paris accords and the NATO Charter or putting North Korea on notice might be of benefit to the U.S., it has become increasingly doubtful that a Trump administration has sufficient experience or connections to implement any positive initiatives.”
German Chancellor Merkel and other allies have voiced fears that for now at least, the U.S. cannot be counted on the way it once was. Toft said that the degree to which such doubts persist depends on how well we are able to defend what makes us unique in the world.
“America stands for basic rights for individuals and the protection of those rights. We have one of the most beautifully written documents in the world — the Constitution — and it does seem to be under threat now. We have a president who does not seem to understand constitutional authority. I do think people believe in the defense of the Constitution and what it stands for, but it boils down to the interpretation. I think we’re at a liminal point,” she said.
Whether Trump’s inward-looking administration will be a “one-off” event or set the tone for future relations is still unknown, she said. “One of the reasons we are all holding our breath is that we don’t know where this is going to go.”
Regardless of what happens during this administration, Toft is concerned that while the specter of a civil war may not be imminent, violence among different Americans could erupt in such a deeply polarized environment. She said that her daily reading habits include the alt-right’s leading media sites, Breitbart and Infowars, where dehumanizing language reminiscent of Nazi Germany is prolific. “I read an article where Eric Trump [son of the president] said that Democrats aren’t even people. That’s hateful language. [On] Breitbart, Democrats are ‘demrats’ or ‘librats.’ The dehumanization here is very un-American,” she said.
“Are our institutions resilient enough, will the system correct [itself] and we will go back to protecting the most vulnerable in our population and honoring our treaties?” Toft mused. “Those questions are still up in the air at this point. But if Congress and the Cabinet fold, then I think [our allies] will say, ‘Wow, we can’t rely on the U.S.’ That’s where we are right now. Let’s hope that we can re-establish our stature.”
About the Author
Whitney McKnight (www.whitneymcknight.com) is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.