Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Trump is Learning that He Needs the International Community. But is it Too Little Too Late?

By Kevin ZongPublished May 6, 2018

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As President Trump sits on the brink of an all-out trade war with China, he has quickly realized that facing the behemoth that is the Chinese economy alone is foolish, leading him to attempt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Understandably, resentment and doubt may prevent a happy reunion, but the greater question remains at stake: Has President Trump's isolationist rhetoric and rash action cost the United States its ability to find success on a global stage? At this point, it's likely the disarray in the White House has doomed the U.S. to fend for itself for the foreseeable future.


Written by Kevin Zong, 5/6/2018

As President Trump sits on the brink of an all-out trade war with China, he has quickly realized that facing the behemoth that is the Chinese economy alone is foolish, leading him to attempt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Understandably, resentment and doubt may prevent a happy reunion, but the greater question remains at stake: Has President Trump's isolationist rhetoric and rash action cost the United States its ability to find success on a global stage? At this point, it's likely the disarray in the White House has doomed the U.S. to fend for itself for the foreseeable future.



On the campaign trail, President Trump proclaimed a newfound "America First" policy, in which he lambasted the United States' long-lasting diplomatic approach. He tore apart NAFTA, raced out of the Paris Agreement, remained wavering towards NATO commitments, and targeted the Iran Deal. Of these decisions, one of the most looming was President Trump's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade-deal he labeled a "rape of our country". Yet recently, President Trump has decided to take on a country that many economists agree is a massive and manipulative offender: China. His proposed tariffs have set off global panic over a potential trade war but ironically enough, the Obama-era TPP aimed to pressure and prod China towards preferred economic practices and to open its markets — what President Trump's tariffs are aiming to do in a far more effective method. The issue at hand is that Chinese President Xi Jinping has no need for concern, with complete control of an economy that he has been growing through the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. Now, as President Trump faces domestic pressure over the fallout from a potential trade-war and realizing the doomed nature of attacking the Chinese economy single-handedly, he has capitulated, saying he would re-join a "substantially better" TPP. This has repeatedly been the case: The President has pulled out from international communities only to balk in due time — from his willingness to re-discuss NAFTA to his slow affirmation of Article 5 in NATO. A pattern has now emerged; one that shows President Trump is learning that he must rely upon the international community. Yet, with relationships frayed and feelings hurt, is it too little too late for the United States?
    At the heart of the issue is President Trump's rushed isolationism. President Trump claims his business prowess gives him a leg up in negotiating economic matters on the global stage, yet the reality is the President has rarely shown an ability to strategize or work towards major policy goals. He remains at odds with the Mexican government on the funding of the border wall, he has failed to ease our allies' concerns of non-commitment, and in this most recent event, President Trump's goal to bring China to cooperate with global market regulations has been anything but successful. Even in the case of the TPP, it is unlikely the president will be able to rejoin. The remaining eleven members of the TPP have already painstakingly renegotiated a new deal to move past the chapter of U.S. involvement with Japan replacing the U.S. as leader; for what reason would they undo all the work they invested in? Furthermore, President Trump maintains the only path to a U.S. reunion with the TPP is through conciliatory action, yet Japan warns that the partnership is unwilling to offer any type of concessions to allow the United States back in. In all these circumstances, President Trump's decision to quickly exterminate an opportunity to work with a multitude of powerful allies with the means to achieve larger ends have been a seismic blunder. Rather than biding his time, and working towards larger, long-term goals, President Trump has repeatedly taken small "victories" of America First policy in the face of far greater circumstances. Only now, after severing or straining most ties, the president has realized his foreign policy goals cannot be achieved alone, leading to a begrudging re-opening of possible diplomatic relations.
    In fact, there is still a glimmer of hope that President Trump can recover from his initial year of isolationism and destruction of diplomatic ties and trade deals. He has shown a willingness to rework the NAFTA deal in more realistic terms, while over the last week, as developments in Syria showed Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, President Trump finally condemned Russia for the attack, working with the UK and France to execute a retaliatory strike. Such cooperation has sparked the idea that Trump can recover trust in the global community.
    The reality speaks otherwise. President Trump still insists other nations must offer conciliations to the U.S. even in positions of little to no negotiating power. The ignorance and brashness of President Trump's diplomacy has already left a bitter taste in allies' mouths; it would be unlikely that neutral or adversarial states would entertain an audience with him. Neither is there any form of consistency in the White House. From an ever-changing staff, in which many high-profile positions have already changed hands, to a president that throws out policy ideas without much forethought, waffling on his stance of NAFTA and the NRA, no one truly knows the intentions or priorities of the President of the United States. A lack of clarity, an overabundance of alienation, and the audacity of ignorance that is currently exuding from the White House has left the United States in a very difficult position. As President Trump has grown enlightened to the concept of international cooperation, he will soon learn that he has squandered his chance at it.