Thinking the unthinkable: How Donald Trump has changed international relations, possibly forever

Borzou Daragahi
·7 min read
Which way next? NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, front left, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump, front right, after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England in December 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File) (AP)
Which way next? NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, front left, speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump, front right, after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England in December 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File) (AP)

It was a moment of celebration for diplomacy across the world, ending years of escalating hostility and fears of war over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Over the course of months, officials not just from allies in Washington, Brussels, London, Paris, and Berlin, but also from adversaries in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran had pierced through years of mistrust. On 14 July 2015 they forged a deal placing limits on Iran’s nuclear technology in Vienna and easing the possibility of another catastrophic armed conflict in the Middle East.

America, it seemed, had overcome the disaster of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and had rediscovered peaceful diplomacy.

“It was the paradigmatic modern example of multilateral diplomacy solving or at least addressing a major global problem,” says one former member of the nuclear negotiation team under the administration of President Barack Obama.

But less than three years later, Donald Trump scribbled his signature on a piece of paper and pulled America out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, undermining what much of the rest of the world considered a landmark achievement and damaging, perhaps permanently, confidence in the U.S. and international diplomacy.

“It’s a fiasco,” says Tytto Erasto, an arms control expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “When countries negotiate agreements in general, when there will be some new negotiations on Iran or any other countries, there will be no trust. Why should anyone trust others in any negotiation?”

Regardless of whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump takes office on 20 January, the trauma of the last four years has radically and perhaps permanently changed international relations and the world order.

Some of the developments were a consequence of years-long trends in United States foreign policy and global dynamics. They include the rise of China and India, and the inevitable slow decline of American domination, as well as a surge in nationalist ideologies following the failures of the post-World War II liberal order.

But much of the world’s turn toward a darker, predatory path can be rooted in the decisions and policies of the Trump administration.

In addition to pulling out of the nuclear deal, they include threats to abandon decades-long allies and alliances, decisions to withhold funding for global health and security organisations, and attempts to blackmail and bully weaker countries to win political and economic concessions. They have seen the transformation of national security and foreign policy into turbulent domestic political wedge issues.

Fluctuations in America’s political situation never used to apply to foreign policy to this extent but now makes it harder to reach agreements in the future, the former Obama administration official said.

US President Donald Trump at the White House after the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognised Israel. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images
US President Donald Trump at the White House after the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognised Israel. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images

“We didn't used to make arms control agreements that lasted until the end of the administration that made them,” they added added

Transgressions of diplomatic protocol and norms have abounded during the Trump years. Trump sidled up to autocrats across the world, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, India’s Navendra Modi, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah-Sisi, whom he famously described as his “favourite dictator”.

Meanwhile he hectored longtime allies and stormed out of global summits. His enforcers have wielded sanctions against not just those who do business with Iran or China or Russia, but anyone who crosses Washington.

In just one example, Trump administration officials have imposed economic sanctions on judges serving in the International Criminal Court in the Hague for investigating alleged U.S. war crimes. Now European officials are struggling to figure out a way to get the jurists credit cards so they can pay for their public transport tickets.

Hypothetical plotlines out of paperback thrillers -- like the U.S. allowing Russia to invade a Nato country or helping a foreign tyrant dispose of a troublesome critic -- are no longer so farfetched.

“Those unthinkables are now thinkable,” says Jonathan Hackenbroich, a scholar focusing on foreign and economic policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Trump administration officials have defended the president’s foreign policy legacy, pointing to peace deals between Israel and several tiny Arabian Peninsula absolute monarchies and the killing of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani, long a thorn in the side of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

His advocates have argued that his brash demands, including noisy calls for Nato allies to contribute more toward their own defence, have helped bring about policy changes long sought by previous administrations.

“I think there’s no secret that President Trump had initially been skeptical about NATO, but I think that he has now acknowledged that our European partners with Canada as well have stepped up and started going in the right direction on burden-sharing and spending, and I think that is a major accomplishment,” US envoy to Nato Kay Bailey Hutchison said in response to a question by the Independent during a 21 October online briefing.

She noted that she had served in the Senate for 20 years “and every president, Democrat and Republican, have said that Europe needs to do more for its own defence”.

Still both policymakers say something fundamental has shifted during the Trump years, damaging the credibility of Washington to such an extent that it may take years to repair.

Under Trump, the world watched as the U.S. opened up like never before to outside interests, with foreign countries openly buying their way into the inner sanctums of power by booking rooms at Trump properties or cozying up to Trump and his friends at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. U.S. allies and foes alike flooded America with cash as well as disinformation via the internet, which Trump at times welcomed.

The first Trump term has exposed Washington to the world as a kind of open-air market where foreign policy can be bought and sold.

“It’s all good and well to talk about intervention from Russia and China and adversarial governments,” says Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who competed for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination. “But what is really important is to address some that are not adversarial such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Israel and the role they play in our foreign policy debates.”

He emphasised that the power of lobbyists and other foreign interests has long been a reality in Washington.

“It’s just more blatant now,” he says. “The theme of the Trump era is that he says the quiet part out loud.”

Nations around the world have already begun to adjust to the new post-Trump reality. Hackenbroich and a team of colleagues recently wrote a report about how Europe can defend itself against bullying by countries such as the U.S. and China that attempt to drag other countries into their disputes with each other.

Trump at the Saudi Royal Palace in May 2017, a trip which launched a dramatic relationship revamp that freed the hands of the Gulf monarchies. (Photo by BANDAR AL-JALOUD/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP via Getty Images)Saudi Royal Palace/AFP via Getty
Trump at the Saudi Royal Palace in May 2017, a trip which launched a dramatic relationship revamp that freed the hands of the Gulf monarchies. (Photo by BANDAR AL-JALOUD/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP via Getty Images)Saudi Royal Palace/AFP via Getty

One example cited in the report was the threat of sanctions being imposed on Germans, including the mayor of a small town, over the building of the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

“I’m not a big fan of Nord Stream but threatening German officials and a mayor over this? That’s just something that you don’t do between allies,” says Hackenbroich, whose report notes both Republicans and Democrats are endorsing the measure.

“The legacy that Trump is leaving is that he’s shown Europeans how vulnerable they are,” he says. “And they will want to reduce that vulnerability. There is mistrust, and even if Joe Biden is in the White House, that’s not going away immediately -- maybe in 10 to 15 years.”

Above all, the Trump years so far serve as a cautionary tale about the fragility of international relations that serve as the bedrock to ensure global security and prosperity.

“Even in a democracy as firmly established as the United States, one committed demagogue and autocrat can do considerable damage even over just four years,” says foreign policy advisor Duss. “The main project and challenge for a Biden administration is not just to switch to better policies but to rebuild a functioning American consensus on which those policies are based so that the general policy will not whipsaw back and forth.”

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