July 10, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: The Growing Isolation of the U.S.

The conflicting messages and tweets coming out of the Trump administration, especially those related to foreign policy, are damaging U.S. national security.

• The conclusion of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany saw the U.S. drift further away from its role as a world leader.

• 19 of the G20 countries reaffirmed the Paris Agreement, with German Chancellor Merkel labeling the U.S. withdrawal as ‘deplorable.’

• The U.S. is both domestically divided and internationally marginalized, with both trends likely to worsen.

• The bifurcation of the U.S. administration—between presidential tweets and stated executive policies—makes it difficult for allies to view the U.S. as a trusted and stable partner.


The conflicting messages and tweets coming out of the Trump administration, especially those related to foreign policy, are damaging U.S. national security. The U.S. appears increasingly adrift, lacking coherent policies and actions, and forcing allies and adversaries alike to essentially disregard much of what is said in Washington. The chaos—whether, as stated by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, it is ‘intentional’ or otherwise—permeates almost every statement and action of the executive branch. Statements by the Secretaries of State and Defense are routinely undercut and contradicted—most often in the form of tweets—by President Trump, whose open disdain for the press leaves little opportunity for clarification. The outcome of the G20 summit makes clear that foreign governments are beginning to ignore the rhetoric coming from the Oval Office, and that the Trump administration’s incoherence is prodding U.S. allies to exclude the U.S. from important strategic initiatives.

When President Trump left the annual meeting of the G20 in Hamburg, Germany he did so without holding a press conference, breaking with a tradition set by previous U.S. presidents. The lack of a press conference is far more than a continuation of the President’s declared war on the media; it removes a much-needed chance for the President to clarify the U.S. position on a host of important issues. In the absence of such clarity, matters of critical importance to U.S. national security—such as the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the product of a discussion between Presidents Trump and Putin—were left to be defined by the Russians and subsequently contradicted by bizarre tweets from the U.S. President.

While the U.S. political system is increasingly paralyzed—both domestically and internationally—its allies and partners are moving ahead with their priorities. Chief among these are climate change. On this issue, the G20 effectively acted as the G19 with all but the U.S. declaring that the Paris Agreement was ‘irreversible.' German Chancellor Merkel ‘deplored’ the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and stated that the G20 statement on climate change made clear ‘the dissenting view of the United States, but I am gratified to note the other 19 members of G20 say the Paris agreement is irreversible.’ The U.S. issued no statement on climate change.

On issues such as trade, the U.S. also finds itself on the wrong side of historic trends. The Trump administration prefers to engage in point-to-point bilateral trade deals, while most countries prefer the kind of multilateral cooperation that has yielded a net benefit for the U.S. for decades. Threats by the U.S. to enact tariffs on steel imports are being met with annoyance and counter-threats by the EU, but—as with many other important international matters—the actual intentions of the U.S. on this issue remain unclear. President Trump tweeted that he expects a trade ‘deal’ with the U.K. to happen ‘very very quickly’ but the reality is that the U.K. cannot enter into bilateral trade deals until it officially leaves the EU in May 2019. Meanwhile, the EU signed a massive trade agreement with Japan that accounts for 40% of global trade. The U.S. walked away from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January, to the dismay of its allies and the delight of China.

The lack of U.S. leadership is more than symbolic; it represents a fundamental shift of U.S. foreign policy that will be difficult to restore once ceded to U.S. adversaries. The countries that seek to influence the international order in the absence of the U.S.—such as Russia and China—are overwhelmingly autocratic, and openly hostile to the values that produced a largely stable post-WWII order. Thus, the intentional self-isolation of the U.S. in matters of global affairs—from trade to climate change—runs counter to strong historic trends, and is likely to have enormous and long-lasting consequences for U.S. security and prosperity. 



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