On July 12, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators introduced a bill to prevent future United States’ presidents from arbitrarily leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On July 19, this legislation was adopted as an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Reauthorization Act, by a margin of 65 “yay” votes to 28 “nays.” Interestingly, this was a bipartisan two-thirds majority of the Senate, although the amendment still has to survive the increasingly hostile, Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which is going to be an up-hill battle.
This bill is being considered at a time when U.S. allies are experiencing increasing consternation, due to recent unreliability on the part of United States’ foreign policy, as well as growing murmurings of declining U.S. hegemony and impending conflict with China. More specifically, this bill is clearly targeted at former President Donald J. Trump, whose bombastic and myopic attacks against the NATO alliance have only appeared more dangerous and disgusting in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This bill would go a long way to shoring up the United States’ relationships with its essential European allies, especially as anxiety mounts globally due to President Trump’s campaign for re-election; however, this legislation is only the first step to repairing the damage done to the United States’ global image under the Trump administration.
While the damage perpetrated by President Trump is incalculable, it deserves delineation, especially as the United States begins to expect greater dedication from its allies, both in support of the Ukrainian people and during the impending great-power conflict with China.
On Jan. 3, 2017, just a few short days following his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP was a trade agreement negotiated between the United States and eleven other essential allies in the Asia-Pacific region. The 12-nation agreement accounted for approximately 38 percent of global GDP as well as one-third of global trade, and it was the largest trade agreement ever negotiated by the United States. Our withdrawal amounted to the abandonment of the United States’ strategic allies, and the forsaking of our national interests in the Pacific arena, both of which the agreement had been specifically designed to protect. This led to some frustration on the part of U.S. regional allies and allowed Xi Jinping and the PRC to garner further influence in the region. As The Economist magazine stated in an October 2022 piece: “China denies having plans to overturn the world order. But every time an established power [i.e., the United States] falters, it [China] carefully places another piece on the board.”
The United States stumbled with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and, in the chess game of geopolitics, the U.S. gave China a chance to exchange its pawn for a queen.
After six months in office, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accords, undoing 20 years of difficult international, multilateral, and cross-cultural negotiations toward cooperation on climate change efforts. The agreement, as described by MIT, “is a treaty that brings all the world’s peoples into a common effort to combat climate change.” By withdrawing the United States from the Accords, President Trump sent a message that the wealthiest nation in the world cared more about what amounts to pocket change than the welfare of the world’s most vulnerable peoples. This was detrimental to the United States’ global image, especially amongst the post-colonial, third-world, and developing nations of the Global South, whom are already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. What’s more, climate change action is increasingly beginning to be seen as a human rights issue, due to the widespread famine and disease that it will bring — as well as due to the impending refugee crises caused by these factors. The United States purports to be the bastion of the human rights-centric world order, and yet, President Trump embarrassed the United States and cheapened that legacy by refusing to lead on the human rights issue of our time.
A year and a half into his presidency, President Trump decided to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. cited the body’s “unending hostility toward Israel” as part justification for this action. However, the U.S. withdrawal from the institution, which was supposed to serve as a symbol and catalyze much-needed evolution within the United Nations, has actually done the exact opposite. The National Endowment for Democracy released a report – and held a conference – in recent weeks, titled “Defending the Global Human Rights System from Authoritarian Assault,” which describes the subversive actions of a PRC-led coalition of nations seeking the diminishing of institutions designed to protect universal human dignity. The report cites the United States’ disengagement as a significant cause of those illiberal states’ success and stresses that the United States’ re-commitment and engagement is the necessary solution. Additionally, once again, the United States’ abandonment of its prerogative of human rights leadership had underscored the relative privilege of the American people — and it has served to distance the U.S. from those nations who don’t share in our felicity (and thus, who see this action as selfish and as forsaking the cause of their welfare.)
A little closer to home, President Donald Trump also re-visited NAFTA, an agreement which he lambasted – and spread misinformation about – for cheap political points. While the re-negotiated and re-named (now known as the USMCA – rather underwhelmingly, this just stands for the “U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement,”) trade agreement could be seen as an improvement due to new labor protections that guarantee Mexican laborers the right to form independent labor unions and create an upward pressure on wages, as well as new environmental protections, the process for getting there was painful. President Trump’s rhetoric, repeatedly threatening to “tear-up” NAFTA, caused a great deal of anxiety for our trade partners. Concerningly, President Donald Trump brought to a head the possibility of conflict with one of the United States’ closest allies and our northern neighbor: Canada. Negotiations broke down between the United States and Canada, and President Trump’s response was to resort to personal attacks, as well as to threaten Canada with aggressive trade tariffs. President Trump’s mistreatment of an ally, and his misbehavior at a G-7 summit, caused a slate of United States’ European allies to rally behind Canada with sharp criticisms of the United States’ behavior. These responses were generally more irate than Canada’s own terse reply, “Canada does not conduct its diplomacy through ad hominem attacks … and we refrain particularly from ad hominem attacks when it comes to a close ally.” (Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland)
The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “In a matter of seconds, you can destroy trust with 280 Twitter characters,” and prominent economist Eric Nielsen said, “the world as we know it, namely the U.S.-led rules-based multilateralism, is now in serious danger of unraveling, as illustrated at the G7 meeting.”
The words of an unnamed European official, however, are perhaps the most concerning: “The G7 was a forum for friends – democracies with the same value system – to discuss issues of common interest. Now there is a question mark over that. But it did not start with this G7, but with the election of Donald Trump.” (Unnamed European Official)
So, in the span of just two years, the United States went from being the world’s greatest defender of democracy to being one of its many threats. Just like that, President Trump had alienated the few nations upon which the United States could reliably count for friendship and support.
As a final example, the Trump administration opted not to participate in the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (better known as the “Compact on Migration” or GCM), which aims to protect the dignity of vulnerable migrant populations. The United States justified the decision to remain out of the compact by saying that it “contains numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump Administration’s immigration policies.” Policies like, say, the questionable and inhumane policy of child-separation?
This article is by no means a complete account of the foreign policy actions, crises, or blunders of President Donald Trump. That task, necessary though it is, can only be fully attended to by dedicated historians — and the complete story can only be fully elucidated by decades of work. However, as the United States takes stock of the present world order, and looks towards the future, this article and further reflection upon the Trump Presidency becomes increasingly imperative. It would behoove the United States to begin making amends for the mistakes of President Trump, and fortunately, if this new piece of legislation securing the U.S. commitment to NATO is any indication, President Biden and other competent leaders recognize the monumental nature of this task, and they look upon it with the sobriety that it deserves.
[Photo by Scrumshus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Logan M. Williams is a student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and Global Studies, and he presently a researcher at the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center is an organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.