With Friday’s decision to undercut the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump has again called attention to how much he is driven by opposition to international agreements struck by his predecessors. At the nine-month mark of his presidency, the action brings in sharp focus what an “America First” foreign policy means in practice.
The president, who views himself as a master negotiator, made clear in his announcement that he sees the Iran deal—reached in 2015 by the United States, China, France, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and the European Union—as emblematic of what he ran against. His speech on Friday included 59 words that succinctly captured his view. The Iran deal, he said, is “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. The same mind-set that produced this deal is responsible for years of terrible trade deals that have sacrificed so many millions of jobs in our country to the benefit of other countries. We need negotiators who will much more strongly represent America’s interests.”
The president chafes at any restrictions placed on him, the United States, the military, or U.S. businesses, and he has taken aim at any international treaties or agreements that prevent them from operating freely.
In his short time in office, Trump has pulled the United States out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, threatened to withdraw from both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, taken the United States out of the Paris climate accord, objected to extending the 2010 New START with Russia limiting the size of nuclear arsenals, ended membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and threatened to pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council. He has also questioned the benefit to the United States of both the U.N. and the NATO alliance.
Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat who served in the State Department and National Security Council for two Republican presidents and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that the theme of Trump’s foreign policy is “the Withdrawal Doctrine,” and the slogan could be “leaving from behind.” Heather Conley, who also held top positions in the State Department under both Presidents Bush, calls it “the Shred Doctrine.” Trump, she told National Journal, “is shredding America’s engagement strategy, through alliances, multilateral organizations, and specific agreements, whether on free trade or security issues that we work with others to protect the United States.”
At the heart of the president’s objections is his firmly held belief that previous presidents—particularly Barack Obama—have been badly out-negotiated and have forgotten whom they represent. He voiced both those views in May when he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said pointedly. He added, “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore. And they won’t be.” Repeatedly, he has argued that other countries have “taken advantage” of the United States and suggested the outcome would be more favorable in bilateral rather than multilateral talks.
Most foreign policy analysts see this as naïve and damaging to American credibility overseas. “The Trump administration says that ‘America First’ doesn’t mean ‘America alone.’ But Trump is driving a wedge between America and its traditional allies,” said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council and in Obama’s State Department. “In an integrated world, it makes little sense to just do bilateral trade agreements. Global supply chains don’t work that way.”
James Lewis, who worked in Ronald Reagan’s State Department and was a longtime foreign service officer, said some of the opposition to multilateral trade is based on “nostalgia for the 19th century, when we could hide behind two big oceans and didn’t have to worry about trade. Some of it is frustration with how multilateral organizations work.”
Crowley said foreign governments see Washington “in retreat and self-absorbed,” adding, “President Trump is actually not building a wall. He’s digging a hole, and it will take years to climb out of it.” Crowley contended that in all the agreements being scuttled by Trump “the United States got far more than it conceded.” Conley, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed, saying, “I think most foreign interlocutors would say that the U.S. is a very, very tough negotiator.”
But she said Trump has been able to tap into the failure of presidents to explain the agreements. “The foreign policy elite in this country stopped talking to the American people and stopped explaining to them why … an agreement is important and what we get out of it.” She said if no one is properly explaining a multination treaty, “then you probably would be open to the idea that everybody is taking advantage of us.” She said the experts too often “speak an acronym-filled language that is not accessible to anyone.” Who, outside Washington, she asked, “knows what a G7 or a G20 is unless you follow these things?”
While Trump is a master at exploiting populist doubts, he is less skilled at mastering the details of the deals. Conley said the president may be surprised to find that his actions will shift some of the power from his White House to Capitol Hill—where the details matter. “Usually, most executive branches don’t want to give that much authority to Congress on trade and foreign policy,” she said. “That could be an unintended consequence now.”