By SM Farid Mirbagheri
Fourteen months into his presidency Donald Trump has had a very visible impact upon the foreign policy of the United States. The US president seems to have replaced the passivity of his predecessor with a simple but pro-active approach that inter alia has rattled the North Korean leadership into an unwilling acceptance. It has also got the Europeans wondering how to chart an independent security mechanism should the White House decide to pursue an all-too-American international life.
Equally noticeable has been the US policy on West Asia and North Africa. By a swift and radical shift that has simultaneously reconciled its differences with Israel whilst anchoring Washington’s regional outlook in Arab capitals the Trump administration has reversed the weakening position of the US in regional politics.
By replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, as the new secretary of state, President Trump has underscored the three principles that underlie his foreign relations.
First and foremost he has parted with the idea of actively pursuing a policy of promoting liberal democracy in the world at any cost, even where and when local conditions appear to be averse. The old adage “I will teach these people democracy even if I have to shoot every one of them” does not seem to have any place in the current US administration’s thinking. Under circumstances, where for instance tribalism and religiosity are rife, there may well be more suitable mechanisms than Western-style democracy to gauge people’s views and to ensure human rights and civil liberties.
The second principle underlying Trump’s approach to international relations has to do with agreements, partnerships and alliances. As a leader critical of the Establishment, he will not hesitate to cancel any agreement or withdraw from any partnerships or set of arrangements that he perceives against the interests of the United States. Examples include the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015), which the president has dubbed as embarrassing to the United States and may likely withdraw from it in May. Another is the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), in force for 24 years but now under renegotiation.
Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the linchpin of Western defence for decades has not been immune from the president’s nationalist outreach. He has openly criticised the current arrangements, whereby the great majority of the 28 members reportedly do not pay their fair share of the collective defence system.
Lastly the White House does not appear to share the view that strategic parity will necessarily deliver international peace. On all fronts and in all manners of policy a stronger United States is being pursued relentlessly in the belief that there is greater chance for peace through the projection of superior power. The unwavering policy on North Korea, the near-destruction of Isis and the US armed forces’ readiness to engage in Syria are prime examples.
Perhaps the all-too-simple approach of the US president is not that simple after all. ‘A dramatic change in awareness’, as one US policy observer has noted, is the kernel of what Donald Trump represents. In that he seems prepared to break with convention and adopt ways and means that yield basic but very important results for his country.
SM Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the dialogue chair in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Nicosia