‘Withdrawal Doctrine’ in Washington

Trump has made withdrawing from international agreements the guideline for his foreign policy.

When it comes to foreign affairs, the “America First” principle that guides Donald Trump is increasingly taking the shape of “America Alone.” The steps taken by the president of the United States to pull out from international agreements and organizations are piling up. Not without mockery, some critics have found in that unilateralist route the single theme indicating a strategy in Trump’s foreign policy. It’s been dubbed “Withdrawal Doctrine” by Richard Haas, a former diplomat who worked in the State Department with Colin Powell and who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Irony aside, the reality is not far from that description. Since he arrived in the White House, Trump has withdrawn, or threatened to withdraw, from at least three international treaties: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreement for the global fight against climate change, and the North American Free Trade Agreement — the major trade deal with Mexico and Canada that has been in force for 24 years, the future of which now hangs by a thread in the fourth round of negotiations, which have taken place over the past three days in Washington.

On Thursday, the Trump administration announced that, once more, the United States would put an end to its full membership in UNESCO, the cultural, scientific and educational agency of the United Nations. Although as of this Friday he had not yet broken the multilateral agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program, he had taken a step forward, putting the deal in jeopardy for the first time since it was signed.

Destroying Obama’s Legacy

Most of the steps taken so far — except that involving UNESCO, since it was Barack Obama who suspended all contributions in 2011 — fit into Trump’s obsession with destroying the legacy of his predecessor, a committed multilateralist who regarded the Tehran deal as his greatest achievement in foreign policy, and who culminated his environmental legacy with the Paris climate commitment. But the steps taken so far are also moving within the personalist field of a leader who enjoys boasting about having been a master of “the art of the deal” (the title of one of his books) in his business days.

He promised voters he would renegotiate agreements for the benefit of the United States or else opt out, without seeming to care about potential power vacuums that could open up opportunities for other countries to take away Washington’s leadership on the international scene; about the seismic movements these could cause in complex regions like the Middle East; or about warnings of adverse economic consequences for his own citizens if he were to end the NAFTA deal.

Moreover, Trump still lobs verbal bombshells. His attacks range from NATO to the START treaty with Russia, the treaty meant to reduce strategic nuclear warheads in both countries. He has also placed a trade agreement with South Korea close to his guillotine, rhetorically speaking, precisely when an alliance with Seoul is key in facing North Korea’s nuclear threat. He has denounced the European Union’s “protectionist” measures on a regular basis, as well as the trade deficit with Germany, and has called the World Trade Organization into question. And he often makes the United Nations, the ultimate symbol of multilateralism, the target of his threats. He reiterates his criticism of the U.N.’s bureaucracy and mismanagement, demands reform and, on Thursday, his ambassador, Nikki Haley, reminded the U.N. that, as the organization’s chief contributor, Washington will continue evaluating its “level of commitment” in all agencies of the system.

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