Has Washington’s stance in the international arena changed radically with the Trump presidency? What have the consequences been for Latin America?
The campaign promise that got Donald Trump elected was “America First.” He was never very clear about the main international issues on his agenda, but it marked a general change in direction that could be interpreted as isolationist. In effect, there is a long tradition in the United States that is preoccupied above all with internal and domestic issues. Trump seems to want to revive this tradition. And for that reason, without denying the important role of the U.S. in the world arena, he is not prepared to advance an active and multilateral foreign policy in various parts of the world.
That isolationist stance has already had concrete effects. For example, Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change. He argued that, more important than defending any other interest, the U.S. presidency must protect the real opportunities of its citizens for development and growth unlimited by environmental concerns. In addition – less important but very symbolic – Trump decided to pull the United States out of UNESCO, accusing it of huge, unnecessary spending and of being anti-Israel. Trump also decided to pull out of the United Nations agreement on immigration and refugees.
Trump has revealed his frame of mind, which is quite different from that of his predecessor, in two key areas. In the Middle East, he has been critical of the agreement among major powers on the denuclearization of Iran; his position in this respect has accordingly moved closer to that of the Israeli government. In addition, he has, in a way, reverted to a kind of pro-Sunni realism in the region, relying on Egypt, and above all, giving a free hand to Saudi Arabia in its fierce war in Yemen. Finally, his recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been criticized even by powers traditionally friendly to Washington.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Trump has decided to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic cooperation agreement. Additionally, he has engaged in an unusual and escalating verbal conflict with the president of North Korea against a background of increased military tension in the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Finally, in a very U.S.-centered understanding of international relations, Trump has placed emphasis on a key bilateral cooperation agreement between Washington and Beijing to resolve the main security problems afflicting Southeast Asia, and above all, with respect to the nuclear issue in North Korea.
That is where a good part of the explanation of the change in U.S. foreign policy lies. As if it were for his own businesses, Trump has shown himself to be in favor of bilateral relationships for conducting international affairs. That’s the way he planned it with China, for example, to resolve issues of economic, political and military cooperation. That’s the way he wanted to do it with Russia under Putin, about whom he understood that direct dialogue is key above all for a political and military solution of the Syrian problem, and for greater cooperation in the face of international terrorism.
In this sense, Trump is quite different from Obama, for whom the key to U.S. influence depended on active leadership within the framework of multilateral links among the major powers – namely the main countries of Europe, Russia, China and Japan – which have taken on different roles depending on the region in play.
However, this change of administration and mood in Washington has not been accompanied by a corresponding change with respect to relations in the western hemisphere. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against Mexicans and against Muslims, which is quite different from Obama’s approach, was translated into anti-immigration executive orders, which seem finally to have prevailed against challenges in the U.S. courts. But what is certain is that the first year of the new Republican administration has confirmed a long-term development that was also characteristic of the previous Democratic administration: Latin America in general, and South America in particular, are not areas that Washington is especially interested in.
Aside from an interventionist gesture in Venezuela or the hardening of relations with Cuba, the truth is that the Republican administration has, comparatively, paid very little attention to Latin America. For us, this is a very important feature of Trump’s foreign policy that will certainly linger for the next three years of his term.