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Trump's foreign policy.
Foreign policy seldom featured in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But when they did, international affairs were discussed in an odd and unfamiliar fashion. Some Trump supporters, and many Hillary Clinton sceptics, made the curious argument that electing the Republican candidate would actually make for a more peaceful and stable world than his Democratic counterpart. As with most spurious arguments, this one grew from a kernel of truth.
That truth was that Hillary Clinton represented a violent, arrogant, neoconservative strain of U.S. foreign policy. From Iraq to Syria, Libya to Afghanistan, Egypt to Israel, Clinton had been on the wrong side of most fundamental issues in recent U.S. foreign policy. “Wrong” in the sense that she almost invariably advocated violent intervention with little regard for the long-term consequences, the “collateral damage,” or global and regional peace and stability. For a country with politics still scarred by the disastrous war on Iraq, the decision to nominate Clinton as the candidate of a progressive party was a baffling and self-destructive decision, in some way guaranteeing an advantage to a younger or novice crowd of Republican politicians.
The argument that Trump supporters and Clinton sceptics (and here I mean people whose scepticism led them to vote for Trump or to leave their ballot blank in November) made was that in contrast to Clinton, Donald Trump represented a kind of benign isolationism. He might not have an impressive grasp of world politics, cause and effect, or U.S. interests, but his railing against Clinton’s Iraq vote (his own support aside) led some people to believe that he usher in a kinder, gentler, if less informed U.S. foreign policy.
Those who articulated this view, wittingly or otherwise, ignored a host of troubling factors. Firstly, Trump demonstrated a contempt for international law and U.S. norms in war that eclipsed even Clinton’s bad record. Trump advocated torture and a whole range of other war crimes and crimes against humanity which made it clear that if we took him at his word--supposedly his selling point--he would prove far worse than the neoconservative Bush and hawkish Obama administrations.
Trump also decried the need for the U.S. to participate in international fora, ranging from the UN to NATO, and launched scathing attacks on institutions like the EU. Imperfect though each of these institutions were, their existence stemmed from a desire to mitigate the harmful effects of nationalism, which took the world into two now-unimaginably catastrophic world wars.
Trump’s contempt for human rights, international law and institutions, and embrace of ethnic nationalism should have made it clear to any informed observer that this was a president who would not just perpetuate or initiate dangerous wars, but could actually undo seventy years of peacebuilding and institution-making. His admiration for strongmen like Putin, his fascination with simple solutions (“bombing the hell” out of ISIS), and his ready use to use terrorism as an excuse for the erosion of constitutionally protected rights, should have rung abundant warning bells for onlookers.
Since coming to office, Trump has continued his attacks on international and regional institutions and alliances. He appointed Islamophobes, white nationalists, and corporate executives to key positions, while damaging the ability of the State Department to function.
His otherwise-sidelined Secretary of State recently indicated that the U.S. would follow the oil industry’s own inclination to ignore human rights violations in pursuit of commercial interests, in this case selling arms to Bahrain and waiving the human rights conditions attached to the sale. The administration has also continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, even as that country continues to massacre civilians in its war in Yemen.
The U.S. has stepped up its own contributions to the wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, with the bombing campaign in the former country intensifying dramatically and taking a toll of civilian lives. The president received harsh criticism after endorsing a botched raid with many casualties that the Obama administration had for months held off on endorsing, responded by abdicating responsibility for key military decisions. Letting the “generals” or “commanders on the ground” decide might sound popular, but it ensures that there are no clear political goals confining and directing state violence, and also represents a blatant attempt to dodge responsibility for deadly serious decisions.
Trump has also backed away from U.S. commitments to address global climate change. Polls show that substantial majorities of Americans believe climate change to be both real and man made, but remain divided on what the U.S. can and should do, and largely believe that they will remain unaffected by climate change. Trump has taken advantage of this ambivalence to both retreat from our own nation’s responsibilities, while attacking the efforts of states like Californians to shift consumption habits and reduce emissions.
Thus far, Donald Trump’s presidency has consisted of reckless efforts to undo key features of a democratic post-WWII order, feckless decision-making, a lack of clear planning, abject ignorance of the world writ large, serial irresponsibility, and an embrace of senseless violence without even the Obama administration’s tenuous efforts to protect the lives of civilians.
In addition to putting U.S. soldiers and many civilians in harm's way through his violence and irresponsibility, Trump’s presidency is likely to lead to the kind of global tensions that can explode into wider warfare in surprising places, the continued expansion of international terrorism, an increase in the nationalism that has contributed to many historic conflicts, the emboldening of authoritarian governments around the world, and the imperilling of our planet and the future of many of its inhabitants.