Trump foreign policy may be a return to isolationism

Maggie Curry

President Trump’s foreign policy is starting to take shape this summer as he turns from tweets to action. It seems to be U.S. first, world second – something isolationists in the 1930s would have favored.

Both word and action have an impact on the American relationship with the rest of the world, particularly because the executive branch is in charge of diplomacy and policy. Every provocative, insulting or contradictory tweet about other countries leaves a scattered, untrustworthy and unpredictable image on allies and enemies alike.

Even domestic affairs change the image of the U.S. to other countries, and recent investigations into Russian interference in the election process can bring scrutiny on the administration and the intelligence community.

Now, Congress is considering a way to remove Trump’s power to set or remove sanctions against Russia. An article discussing the topic from the New York Times, “World Leaders Wary of Trump May Have an Ally: Congress,” was printed out and on the desk of Richard Mansbach, a professor in political science who focuses on foreign policy.

“Basically almost everybody in Washington who knows anything about foreign policy, whether in the executive branch or in the congress, has been trying to minimize the damage that [Trump] can do,” Mansbach said.

That “damage” would be from Trump’s slowly shaping policy, which moves away from American policy since World War II, Mansbach said, and could wittingly or unwittingly undermine the global order that was created following the war.

When Trump’s words and actions on major world agreements are added up, Mansbach said Trump’s policy is beginning to resemble that of isolationism, a policy used before World War II.

“Even the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ was used by isolationists in the 1930s,” Mansbach said.

Isolationists at the time advocated staying out of European and Asian conflicts and international politics in general. Following the first World War and with the economic troubles of the Great Depression, it’s easy to understand why the ideology would appeal. During the 1930s statements were released giving the U.S.’s stance on foreign affairs, but action was never taken. It wasn’t until World War II moved to American land with the attack on Pearl Harbor that the nation moved into influencing the war.

It sounds simple: take care of home first. But when people ask why Hitler wasn’t stopped early in his aggression, before a full war, part of the answer is isolationism on America’s part.

The Trump Administration is about halfway through the first year, a period for establishing the administration’s goals and values. A glimpse at Trump’s “America First” values came in the U.S. commitment to NATO, an organization that is supposed to help secure American safety. Trump’s reaction to other members not consistently keeping their annual financial promises was to try to set an ultimatum to force participation. Mansbach said it wasn’t those promises Trump was focusing on that were the most important part of keeping the agreement.

Re-establishing support for Article Five, which says if any members in the organization are the victims of aggression, all the other members will come to their aid, would let those allies know how the U.S. would proceed under Trump’s administration. To not comment on the agreement would leave it unclear if Trump included NATO commitments as a part of his policy. At the first NATO meeting he attended, what Trump was expected to do and what he did were very different.

“Everybody said, ‘don’t worry, [Trump is] going to say Article Five is still the core of our policy,'” Mansbach said. “Then he refuses to invoke Article Five, refuses to do what was expected of him even by his closest assistants.”

Mansbach said in a previous interview that rhetoric leads to distrust from allies.

“They hedge their bets. If you’re not sure what the policy is, and if you’re no longer certain that America’s longterm commitments will be honored, you hedge your bets,” Mansbach said previously.

Mansbach added Article Five has only been invoked once, and that was for the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when allies prepared to come to the defense of the United States.

Previous foreign policy was why the United States was known as a superpower both militarily and economically. The U.S. had strong stances on human rights, world trade and international relations. Those stances are in question.

The Paris Climate Accord is perhaps the best example. The U.S. left the accord because Trump said it was not in American best interest and was unfair to America. But it was also a verbal commitment with most of the world. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel said the U.S. was no longer a reliable ally following the announcement.

At the same time China stepped forward on its commitments to Europe, and has been pushing to lead trade around the world, effectively taking the spot the U.S. would leave.

“Basically, it’s a withdrawal of American leadership,” Mansbach said. “[The U.S.] has always been a major source of what we call soft power. Hard power is military and money. Soft power is reputation.”

The President’s dialogue and policy decisions are boiling down to an isolationist foreign policy, including economically.

“American policy has fairly consistently, with some exceptions, always been fairly free-trade oriented,” Mansbach said. “[America] used that power to promote free trade.”

But Trump has started dismissing trade agreements that don’t offer a “win” for America, or appear to be unfair. 

“His approach is much more that of a businessman,” Mansbach said. “You know, ‘I want to make money, so when I run a deal, I want to see profit.'”

Mansbach said that may sound good, but foreign policy “is not like building a golf course.”

“He seems to think that trade deficits are somehow evil, and that it reflects unfair trade practices by others. That’s not fair at all. It reflects globalized manufacturing strategies on the part of major companies,” Mansbach said. “Apple imports its own products back from China. The conventional notions of trade deficits really don’t make any sense anymore.”

Previously, we talked with Mansbach about Trump’s foreign relations in regard to intelligence sharing and his twitter use. Although not action, his tweets are interpreted as his formal stance on issues and on policy because word usually precedes action.

Mansbach also said Trump has been handing off his right and responsibility to make policy to other parts of the government, like the defense department.

“It’s politicians who have to make those decisions, because they make decisions about what policy ought to be,” Mansbach said. “Generals can make suggestion about how they would carry out policy, but those are purely instrumental. They’re the means. The policy objective is the end. It would be absurd that the means would determine the ends.”