15 Sep 2017

US foreign policy under Trump: implications for Europe and global trade

The WTI was pleased to host a distinguished lecture by Dr James Lindsay, a leading authority on American foreign policy-making, on 14 September.

Dr Lindsay, Senior Vice President and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the United States, spoke on the topic of US foreign policy under President Trump and the implications for Europe and global trade.

Professor Manfred Elsig, Deputy Managing Director of the World Trade Institute and Director of NCCR Trade Regulation said it was a great pleasure to welcome Dr Lindsay. The lecture was facilitated by the US embassy in Switzerland.

Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency on a platform of disrupting trade and doing things differently, but as president has found it hard to fulfil the promises he made as a candidate, the speaker said.

On the campaign trail Trump had railed against trade deals, deciding that this was a winning message. On foreign policy he had called NATO obsolete, and suggested that the US should not lecture others on human rights and democracy. Dr Lindsay said the take away message from this was that Trump’s view was that foreign policy as conducted in recent decades has hurt the US, and has led it to fight unnecessary wars.

Not an isolationist

But despite what many commentators have said, Trump is not an isolationist, Dr Lindsay believes. “He is not talking about withdrawing from the world but changing the terms on which the US interacts with the world,” he said.  Trump’s America First policy is self-centred in that it takes a narrow view of US interests. The president is not interested in remoulding the world in the shape of the US but in cooperating with other countries where it makes sense to do so.

“Trump focuses on getting the best deal, not on building the most durable relationships. He has no sentimental attachment to multilateralism,” the speaker said.

But Trump has learnt that campaign promises can be very hard to deliver, the foreign policy expert said. This is not to say he has not achieved anything. He has pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and has also withdrawn from the Paris climate accord.

But he has not done all the things he pledged to do, such as impose 35 percent import tariffs on China, pull US troops out of Afghanistan or withdraw from NAFTA. “Looking at the substance of his policy, it looks a lot like Obama’s, although it comes in very different packaging,” Dr Lindsay said.

Trump is not the first president to have “simplified” the promises he made on the campaign trail once in office, the foreign policy expert said. “Governing is about choosing. The choices you make you will be held accountable for.”

Pushback over trade

Trump has slowed down on implementing his policies because of resistance from within the US and from friends and allies, Dr Lindsay said. Partly this has come from Congress where many Democrats but also Republicans are wary of his policies. Most Republicans favour free trade, and don’t want higher tariffs.  In short, Trump faces very significant opposition on Capitol Hill.

There has also been pushback to his policies from abroad, for example over the Paris Agreement. As a result, the administration now says it intends to send delegations to Paris Agreement meetings. The White House is also to convene a climate meeting. So the issue is still alive.

Trump has similarly faced a pushback over trade, with trading partners having made it clear they would retaliate against the measures Trump has threatened to take.

So has Trump been tamed? His foreign policy has so far been traditional but with an unconventional ‘Twitter’ element, the speaker said.

Trump’s announcement last week that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) immigration policy was big news. But a few days later it was all over Twitter that he had reached a deal on legalising the programme.

However, Trump’s views on trade issues, and his hostility to US trade deals is “deep and substantial”, Dr Lindsay says. A withdrawal from NAFTA in the coming months would not be a surprise.

President Trump could also withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal that lifts crippling economic sanctions and was agreed by the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. “If he walks away this will cause a major rift in the Transatlantic alliance,” Dr Lindsay warned. “As they say on planes: buckle up, we may experience some turbulence.”