With Jan. 21 protests and Women’s Marches sprouting up in international cities—Rome, London, Tbilisi amongst others—it would be short-sighted to ignore the influence of the American Presidency abroad. In his inaugural address, Donald Trump proclaimed “America First” in both the domestic and international spheres. While Americans resist the trampling of rights and spreading of oppression at home, those in allied nations fear Trump’s message will result in illiberal intervention, abandoned alliances and exposed borders.
The opening days of this new administration were marked with a focus on power, ego and the spreading of untruth. While impassioned protest, political and legal action may check this behavior, the American arsenal grants impunity in foreign affairs. Though alliances have proven valuable to the United States, nations in the shadow of expansionist powers (e.g. Russia) rely on alliances like NATO for deterrence. Focusing opposition only on domestic issues would aid the Trump Administration in abandoning foreign alliances, resulting in dangerous exposure for these nations. Only the American people and political system can check the president for foreign policy transgressions.
In a 2013 piece for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf wrote off the growing danger presented by President Obama’s vast national security powers. Friedersdorf focused on the difficulty of checking a hypothetical American-tyrant: “I am not saying no one would resist a tyrant. Perhaps Congress would assert itself. Perhaps the people would rise up. Then again, perhaps it would be too late by the time the abuses were evident.”
Though Friedersdorf focused on domestic policies, with the American arsenal and cultural apparatus an American tyrant could extend the reach of illiberal, amoral power abroad—as has been done before. For Americans protesting the new administration there must also be an international focus.
President Obama jailed whistleblowers, stacked up the bodies of civilian ‘casualties’ and enabled the violation of American privacy rights with sweeping authority—and this was a man criticized for favoring ‘soft’ diplomacy abroad and succumbing to weakness and inaction in Washington. Now, we have a man with nuclear launch codes in his breast pocket with no respect for diplomacy, no tact and an open desire to ‘renegotiate’ the international order. If ignored by the American people as of lesser importance than domestic policy, Trump’s foreign policy agenda will be catastrophic.
As Friedersdorf noted, Americans must maintain a vigilant eye for these abuses. While some would be clear, responses to legitimate attacks on the United States could snowball, just as was done in the wake of 9/11. Foreign policy thinkers and former diplomats have highlighted this penchant for overreaction as a dangerous weakness.
Given the new President’s unconventional style and mercurial personality, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger cautioned that the Islamic State and others would launch attacks to prod Trump into such an “overreaction.” Although none outside the spacious confines of Donald Trump’s head could predict his reaction to an attack on the United States, his preference for overreaction means both State and non-State actors may view these coming years as an enticing opportunity.
With a policy dismissing the importance of alliances and international organizations, Trump’s foreign policy positions alone may cause a dramatic shift in the geopolitical map. Vladimir Putin’s push to have Trump elected stems from a clear desire to have a man with a demonstrable susceptibility to the influence of power. With clever action, Putin and others could quite easily goad Trump into confrontation. While lashing out may satiate his appetite for ego, an American foreign policy based upon dissolved alliances and outbursts will degrade American influence.
If the Trump Administration goes down this path, leaders like Putin will feel green lit in their aggression. Americans have been capable of largely ignoring the massacre of Syrians, the annexation of Crimea and other violations of human rights and sovereignty through physical distance and detachment. When the disorder begins to spread, Americans will have far more to be concerned with than the degradation of American power.
The great irony of the Trump campaign is that although his supporters rallied around aspirations of renewed power, it is their victory that has likely begun a precipitous decline in American global influence.