Can Anyone Trust the United States?
Can the United States really be trusted by any other country? The answer was a definitive no during the turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet, presidents deviating from the foreign policy norms of their predecessor is far from unprecedented, as historically, the U.S. has left a trail of broken contracts and empty promises with each new administration. Even though Biden won the election, and hopes to undo the wreckage left by Trump, our allies see no cause for celebration yet. Deep ideological shifts with each new president consistently and drastically alter U.S. foreign policy, making it increasingly difficult for any country, from allies to enemies, to trust the robustness of a U.S. commitment to agreements signed when there’s the potential of radical change coming four to eight years down the road.
Right now, the world is focused on the change a Biden presidency will bring, wondering if he will be able to mend deep bonds broken by Trump and his administration. This speculation is well deserved, as Trump set records for pulling out of numerous international deals, including the INF Nuclear Treaty, the Paris Agreement, the TPP trade deal, the UN Human Rights Council, and the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Further reversing U.S. foreign policy norms set by Barack Obama, Trump continued to engage in “very friendly” relations with other strongmen, such as Xi Jinping, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-Un, showcased by Trump meeting with and signing an agreement with the North Korean leader. Trump also attempted to renegotiate the terms of the G7 to include Russia, a move rejected by other members, angering him into postponing the meeting indefinitely. While Trump’s foreign policy agenda massively damaged America’s global standing, a new president switching foreign policy initiatives is anything but extraordinary.
Administration after administration demonstrates how unreliable agreements are once the sitting president’s term ends, and this reneging has only increased in the modern era. While Bill Clinton sought to engage NATO, George W. Bush ignored it and even went against the majority of the world’s wishes when going to war with Iraq, straining European-American relations.
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was convinced to dispose of his weapons of mass destruction when Bush promised the U.S. would not overthrow him in return. However, Obama’s first term saw him completely ignore Bush’s pledge as he collaborated in Qaddafi’s overthrow. Obama clearly demonstrated his intent to switch away from Bush’s foreign policy stance when beginning his presidency with what many refer to as an “apology tour.” By traveling to various countries with speeches expressing a desire to start anew, Obama assured countries of his plans to undo the previous administration’s foreign policy norms. While meant to improve relations that suffered during Bush’s era, it exposed the ubiquity of change in foreign policy each new president brings, making the U.S. a very difficult power to trust long-term.
As the U.S. changes foreign policy decisions with each election, America’s promises are exposed again and again as only pertaining to the president that spoke them, not to the country as a whole. It is no wonder that leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are urging Europe to stop placing full faith in the U.S. Macron, in a later interview deplored, “look at what is happening…things that were unthinkable five years ago…an American ally turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues – nobody would have believed this possible.” Five years ago this was impossible with a president committed to fostering strong international relations. Nonetheless, each new president brings new foreign policy realities.
The rest of the world cannot continue to count on the U.S. unless drastic change is made. The country must get over partisan divides and come together to decide America’s foreign policy values so the U.S. can stand for something again. This way presidents can be held accountable for staying consistent to and upholding these values, instead of exorbitantly changing course based on personal biases and opinions. If the U.S. continues down this path of fluctuating foreign policy norms, other countries will continue to grow increasingly wary of trusting the U.S. until we are left out of agreements entirely.
As we enter the Biden era, it is imperative that the bitter divide between political parties is overcome so the United States can work towards a common goal. This will foster a sense of trust in other countries, thus allowing the U.S. to benefit from the additional resources, security, and economic growth that stem from healthy allyships. Furthermore, it ensures future deals will be stronger and longer-lasting. Unfortunately, how U.S. foreign policy moves after the 2024 election will be the true evidence of the United States’ capacity to maintain a consistent international agenda. In the meantime, all we can do is hope that Biden is the president capable of uniting Americans once again.