Donald Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, while erratic, is consistent with a trend started by Ronald Reagan to replace binding and non -binding alliance norms with a position of sovereign autonomy and nationalism.
It would seem obvious that individuals and nation states should trust one another. After all, commitments bind human interaction. The relationship between husband and wife; contracts between buyer and seller; covenants between a deity and the people; pledges of allegiance between citizens and state; and alliances treaties between nations exemplified this point. The degree of obligations one feels and the commitments made to others is inherent in all social relationships. [[i]]
The Reagan administration broke more than 40 treaty commitments with allied nations in the postwar period of the Soviet Union. His actions strained relations, undermined relations with allies, and reduced faith in the United States’ capacity to afford protection.
The Reagan’s administration rejected the law of the sea treaty, conducted interventions in Nicaragua, withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), failed to make required payments to the United Nations, and withdrew from the compulsory jurisdictions of the International Court of Justice.
Reagan announced that the United States would no longer be bound by the provisions of the Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT II) treaty, despite the protests of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. Reagan’s Administration abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) and threatened the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. [ii]
Trump went one better than Reagan by questioned whether he would extend security guarantees to NATO members [[iii]] while threating to decrease United States spending on NATO and in the Pacific region. [[iv]]
Trump reportedly lobbied “dozens” of European officials against doing business with Iran during the May 2017 Brussels summit and on May 8, 2018, Trump unilaterally announced withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the “Iran deal” or the “Iran nuclear deal” that was negotiated with the United States, Iran, and five other world powers in 2015.
On December 6, 2017, Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel despite criticism and warnings from world leaders. He subsequently opened a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018.[[v]][[vi]] The United Nations General Assembly condemned the move, adopting a resolution that “calls upon all States to refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Holy City of Jerusalem.”[[vii]][[viii]]
During his presidency, Trump has launched a trade war against China, sanctioned Huawei for its alleged ties to Iran,[[xi]] significantly increased Visa restrictions on Chinese nationality students and scholars[[xii]][[xiii]] and classified China as a “currency manipulator.”[[xiv]] With the deterioration of relationships comes the threat of a new cold war with China.[[xv]][[xvi]][[xvii]]
In November 2017, the Trump administration tightened the rules on trade with Cuba and individual visits to the county, thus raising concerns about longstanding commitments and raising doubts about the durability American foreign policy.
In contrast, Obama’s foreign policy was foreshadowed by his receiving of the Nobel peace prize nine months into his presidency.
Obama made his officials repeat the phrase: “Don’t Do Stupid Shit.” And in 2014 it was said he got the White House press corps to repeat the words after him.
Unlike George W. Bush, Obama considered Iran not as a monolithic embodiment of evil but as a complex society that led to the July 2015 limits on its nuclear program, which Trump overturned.
Obama’s cautious approach to foreign policy left the impression that the U.S. was too hesitant when other government actors acted in ways that endanger U.S. interests. Thus, Obama left an opening for the election of Trump, a pro autocratic nationalist.
Marriages do break up, courts are filled with contract disputes, religious pledges are at best honored occasionally, and saluting one flag does not guarantee obedience to others.
As Trump loses his grip on Middle East policy, the Kurdish fighters, he abandoned have struck an alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.
The normal reaction of bungled foreign policy is to use diplomatic and military channels to deconflict.
Unfortunately, today’s U.S. foreign policy is made from hubris by tweets.
[i] Kegley, Charles W., Jr., and Raymond, Gregory A., “When Trust Breaks Down, Alliance Norms and World Politics” 1990.
[v] Nelson, Louis; Nussbaum, Matthew (December 6, 2017). “Trump says U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite global condemnation”. Politico.
[vii]“Illegal Israeli actions in Occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory – Turkey and Yemen: draft resolution – Status of Jerusalem”. United Nations General Assembly. December 19, 2017.
[viii] Gladstone, Rick (December 21, 2017). “Defying Trump, U.N. General Assembly Condemns U.S. Decree on Jerusalem”. The New York Times.
[x] Huet, Natalie (March 22, 2019). “Outcry as Trump backs Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights”. Euronews. Reuters.
[xiii] “Visas Are the Newest Weapon in U.S.-China Rivalry”. NPR. April 25, 2019.
[xiv] Meredith, Sam (August 6, 2019). “China responds to US after Treasury designates Beijing a ‘currency manipulator'”. CNBC.