Donald Trump styles himself a dealmaker, but so far in his presidency he hasn’t struck many deals on the international stage, besides a multibillion-dollar arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that might not be quite as massive as advertised.
Instead, the U.S. leader has consistently assumed the role of dealbreaker—withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate-change accord, exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, and reversing aspects of the U.S. opening toward Cuba. Just this week, the Trump administration ended American membership in UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, over the organization’s alleged anti-Israel bias; indicated that the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico might conclude with the pact’s collapse; and signaled that it will decline to certify that the Iran nuclear agreement is in the interest of the United States, which will prompt a debate in Congress that could ultimately lead to the demise of the accord.
It’s not unheard of for American presidents to withdraw from international agreements or organizations; Ronald Reagan also quit UNESCO, citing its alleged anti-American bias. Nor is it unprecedented for American presidents to try to adjust the terms of U.S. involvement in those agreements and organizations, especially when they take the White House from the opposing party; Barack Obama renegotiated George W. Bush’s trade agreement with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.
But there may be no previous instance in modern American history when dealbreaking has been so central to an administration’s posture in the world. And the approach can’t entirely be attributed to Trump’s disdain for his predecessor’s policies; Obama brokered the TPP trade deal, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement, and the Cuban thaw, but it was George W. Bush who rejoined UNESCO and Bill Clinton, building on the work of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who orchestrated NAFTA.
As Richard Haass, the president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Thursday, “Trump foreign policy has found its theme: The Withdrawal Doctrine.”
Trump might point out that these are still the early days of his presidency—that he’s engaging in the kind of creative destruction that’s necessary to radically remake U.S. foreign policy, as he promised to do during his presidential campaign, and that he hasn’t had the chance yet to create something new in its place. In fact, that’s exactly what the president argued in an interview with Forbes published this week, in which he made comments that marked a dramatic departure from the broad strategy that American presidents have pursued since World War II to safeguard U.S. interests in the world, even as they’ve differed on specific tactics:
Doesn’t he feel a responsibility to honor agreements from previous administrations?
President Trump has a quick response: “No.”
It’s a dangerous precedent: an America where each administration, rather than building on the agreements of its predecessors, undoes each other’s deals—effectively undermining the authority of any American head of state. Again, Trump shrugs.
“I happen to think that NAFTA will have to be terminated if we’re going to make it good. Otherwise, I believe you can’t negotiate a good deal.. . [The Trans-Pacific Partnership] would have been a large-scale version of NAFTA. It would have been a disaster. It’s a great honor to have—I consider that a great accomplishment, stopping that. And there are many people that agree with me. I like bilateral deals.”
Of course he does. Trump has been doing bilateral deals his whole life. But bilateral deals are just that—one-on-one bargains carrying the implicit prospect of a negotiation that will create a winner and a loser. Doesn’t this fly in the face of our multilateral world?
“You can have it this way and do much more business. And if it doesn’t work out with a country, you give them a 30-day notice, and you either renegotiate or not.”
Trump’s bilateral world, of course, explains why foreign aid gets cut. It comes with a huge downside. Deals score points, but deals don’t create long-term investments. It’s impossible to think of something like the Marshall Plan, which teed up more than six decades of peace and prosperity, coming out of the Trump White House. To that, he shrugs again.
“For me, it’s America first. We’ve been doing that so long that we owe $20 trillion, okay?”
“I tend to look at Trump as a real-estate mogul,” Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who now serves on Trump’s National Security Council, once told me. “You look at a building and say, ‘I’m just going to tear that down and build up something new.’ He’s not exactly Mr. Preservationist.”
The thing about creative destruction, though, is that it necessarily involves destruction. For example, there are widespread concerns—among Democrats, among America’s European allies, even among Trump’s own national-security advisers—that if Trump refuses to certify the Iran nuclear deal before Congress, even though the other world powers who are party to the agreement all concur that Iran is meeting its obligations under the accord, America’s credibility as a good-faith actor in international affairs will be gutted. Whether you’re Justin Trudeau renegotiating NAFTA or Kim Jong Un considering a diplomatic resolution to the crisis over your nuclear weapons, you’ll wonder whether you can trust the United States as a negotiating partner. You’ll also wonder whether you can trust any American president to honor the word of his predecessor.
“It makes sense to me that our holding up agreements that we have signed, unless there’s a material breach, would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements,” Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Trump administration, recently told Congress, in reference to the impact that Trump’s actions on the Iran deal could have on a peaceful solution to the standoff with North Korea.
A foreign-policy doctrine of withdrawal also casts profound doubt on America’s commitment to the intricate international system that the United States helped create and nurture after World War II so that countries could collaborate on issues that transcend any one nation. If, for instance, the Trump administration decides to abandon a nuclear arms-control agreement that’s verifiably working—and that countries as diverse as America, Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, and Russia all managed to agree to—what does that say about whether the U.S. still subscribes to the view that the world can jointly and diplomatically resolve challenges as knotty as nuclear proliferation? Trump’s threats to the Iran deal suggest that “the Americans have left the multilateral liberal order,” one European diplomat recently told the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman.
Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United States, said something similar to me this summer, in mourning Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, which was signed by nearly all the countries in the world. Trump, “in this instance, gave [priority] to his domestic agenda over the ambition to display American leadership on the international stage,” Wittig said. In Europe, he added, “there’s a fear out there that America is wittingly or willingly embarking on a tectonic shift in our configuration in the world by leaving a vacuum, by tolerating a vacuum.”