But there may be no previous instance in modern American history when dealbreaking has been so central to an administration’s posture in the world. And the approach can’t entirely be attributed to Trump’s disdain for his predecessor’s policies; Obama brokered the TPP trade deal, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement, and the Cuban thaw, but it was George W. Bush who rejoined UNESCO and Bill Clinton, building on the work of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who orchestrated NAFTA.
As Richard Haass, the president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Thursday, “Trump foreign policy has found its theme: The Withdrawal Doctrine.”
Trump might point out that these are still the early days of his presidency—that he’s engaging in the kind of creative destruction that’s necessary to radically remake U.S. foreign policy, as he promised to do during his presidential campaign, and that he hasn’t had the chance yet to create something new in its place. In fact, that’s exactly what the president argued in an interview with Forbes published this week, in which he made comments that marked a dramatic departure from the broad strategy that American presidents have pursued since World War II to safeguard U.S. interests in the world, even as they’ve differed on specific tactics:
Doesn’t he feel a responsibility to honor agreements from previous administrations?
President Trump has a quick response: “No.”
It’s a dangerous precedent: an America where each administration, rather than building on the agreements of its predecessors, undoes each other’s deals—effectively undermining the authority of any American head of state. Again, Trump shrugs.
“I happen to think that NAFTA will have to be terminated if we’re going to make it good. Otherwise, I believe you can’t negotiate a good deal.. . [The Trans-Pacific Partnership] would have been a large-scale version of NAFTA. It would have been a disaster. It’s a great honor to have—I consider that a great accomplishment, stopping that. And there are many people that agree with me. I like bilateral deals.”
Of course he does. Trump has been doing bilateral deals his whole life. But bilateral deals are just that—one-on-one bargains carrying the implicit prospect of a negotiation that will create a winner and a loser. Doesn’t this fly in the face of our multilateral world?
“You can have it this way and do much more business. And if it doesn’t work out with a country, you give them a 30-day notice, and you either renegotiate or not."
Trump’s bilateral world, of course, explains why foreign aid gets cut. It comes with a huge downside. Deals score points, but deals don’t create long-term investments. It’s impossible to think of something like the Marshall Plan, which teed up more than six decades of peace and prosperity, coming out of the Trump White House. To that, he shrugs again.
“For me, it’s America first. We’ve been doing that so long that we owe $20 trillion, okay?”
“I tend to look at Trump as a real-estate mogul,” Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who now serves on Trump’s National Security Council, once told me. “You look at a building and say, ‘I’m just going to tear that down and build up something new.’ He’s not exactly Mr. Preservationist.”