America the Revisionist

By Liza Kane-Hartnett


One year into the Trump presidency and America is in retreat. Through an unparalleled abdication of global leadership, the U.S. is consistently distancing itself from allies and weakening its position in the international community.


The list of President Trump’s revisionist foreign policy decisions is long and growing: exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership; leaving the Paris Climate Accord, though a formal exit has not yet occurred; decertifying the Iran deal, although the U.S. remains a party; complaining over NATO funding; pursuing a policy of hostility toward key allies; limiting the U.S. contribution to the United Nations; declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel; threatening the continuation of NAFTA and other trade deals; praising of autocrats around the world; continuing the pronouncements of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; referring to Haiti and countries in Africa as “shitholes” in discussions regarding immigration policy; and, leaving key positions in the State Department unfilled.


While these are troubling developments in their own right, it is the knock-on effects and enduring impacts of these actions that have the potential to do real harm to American interests and the broader U.S.-led global order. For instance, when the president of the United States mocks news organizations and questions their validity, it implies that the U.S. will no longer stand for these values, and empowers other leaders to stifle the press within their nations. Praising autocratic leaders signals to dictators and aspiring dictators that the U.S. consents to their behavior and further encourages suppression of civil society, opposition groups, and democratic institutions. Ultimately, symbols mean something when they come from the White House. In its first year in office the Trump administration has routinely indicated that issues such as human rights, democratic governance, freedom of the press, and rule of law hold little significance in the administration’s foreign policy framework – a significant departure from traditional U.S. policy.


There’s strength in multilateralism. While President Trump and his administration mock international institutions as “bad deals” for the United States, they minimize the impact of alliances in sharing the burden of security for the liberal order. The United Nations, NATO, World Trade Organization, etc. were made in America’s image and serve her interests. Undermining the validity of international arrangements undercuts the systems of U.S. power and strengthens adversarial and rising nations, such as China. The Trump administration’s focus on transactional diplomacy rather than international institutions and frameworks erodes alliances founded on collective security and raises questions about U.S. commitments and leadership.


The impact of Trump’s revisionist foreign policy is reinforced by China’s growing global footprint. Investments throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the continued execution of China’s One Belt One Road initiative have spread Chinese economic and political influence at a time when U.S. presence is waning. China is not the only country taking advantage. Russia has used the opportunity to declare victory in Syria and reestablish itself as a regional power in the Middle East. Iran has continued to expand its influence and wage a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in all corners of the region. And, North Korea has continued to flaunt its nuclear program despite, and perhaps in spite of, U.S. efforts.


To be sure, this is not a problem caused wholly by President Trump. President Bush’s follies in the Middle East created much animosity toward the U.S. and raised questions about the role of U.S. global leadership both at home and abroad. President Obama’s fear of creating more problems than solutions fostered many opportunities for aggressors – both state and non-state actors – to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. And, since President Clinton, the U.S. has kicked the can down the road regarding the North Korea issue. But, President Trump has purposely and haphazardly retreated from global commitments, reduced the size of the foreign service and America’s diplomatic footprint, and joyfully ridiculed democratic institutions and celebrated autocrats; in turn questioning – and more critically – weakening the foundations of American power and leadership.


2018 will be a critical year for American foreign policy. Allies and foes alike are moving forward without U.S. leadership: the countries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are continuing towards a trade deal despite President Trump’s decision to remove the U.S.; world leaders – and many U.S. mayors and governors – remain committed to the Paris Climate Accord; and, at the UN, countries widely condemned the unilateral U.S. declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. America stands on the outside looking in. For the time being, France, Germany, and Canada have opted to take greater responsibility for defending the liberal order – a position long held by the United States – but they have neither the capacity nor political will to ensure its security in the long-term.


Today’s global challenges – such as cyber warfare, terrorism, migration, the environment, and widespread inequality – require collaborative responses. A revisionist and retreating America does itself a disservice by placing the future in the hands of others. Promotion and protection of America’s interests necessitate a U.S. foreign policy that is engaged, creative, adaptable, and bipartisan; a framework founded on principles of human rights and inclusiveness, bolstered by strong democratic alliances and institutions, and executed by a knowledgeable, well-trained, and diverse workforce.


Turning away from alliances, multilateralism, and diplomacy, breaks the norms that the U.S. has worked diligently to create and nurture since the end of World War II. Critically, norms are much easier to break than establish. Even if America’s revisionism is a short-lived policy, its impact could be long-term. During this key era of China’s rise, it is important for the U.S. to lean into its alliances, strengthen multilateralism, reinforce the rule of law, and demonstrate a commitment to values-based diplomacy and human rights. Otherwise, the U.S. could find itself playing by someone else’s rules – i.e. China’s – sooner rather than later.


Liza Kane-Hartnett is the Editor-in-Chief at YPFP New York and Program Coordinator at the O.L. Pathy Family Foundation. She holds a Master’s in Global Affairs from New York University and a background in U.S. foreign policy, international governance, and women’s rights.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.