How will Trump's tariffs affect foreign policy?

How Donald Trump changed world politics

With just two words, Donald Trump made it clear at the start of his presidential candidacy in 2016 what the goals of his foreign policy would be: "America first".

Now, after almost four years in office, these words can be backed up with facts and events. Ruthless self-interest and confrontation have shaped Trump's foreign policy just as much as constant personnel changes, surprise and confusion.

And regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, these changes will also have long-term effects on the actions of other political actors.

Some of the main consequences:

Shyness of multilateralism

Since taking office, Trump has undermined international cooperation. After only three days in office, he dissolved the USA from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement with Asian countries. The USA then withdrew from various international bodies and agreements - the UN Human Rights Council, for example, or the Paris Climate Agreement.

In addition, the US often made important political decisions unilaterally and against international consensus. Like the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of the US embassy there.

Pure waste of time? Donald Trump at the 2019 UN climate summit in New York

"The US has seriously damaged its once-useful network of alliances and international institutions," said Margaret MacMillan, history professor at the Universities of Toronto and Oxford and visiting historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York and Washington. "I think that has weakened America's position in the world a lot."

In fact, a poll by the US polling institute Pew Research Center shows that approval of US politics in many countries has fallen to its lowest level in decades.

Damaged transatlantic relations

"Trump's opposition to multilateralism represents a philosophical difference between Washington and the European capitals," wrote the international Carnegie Foundation Endowment for International Peace in a February 2020 assessment of transatlantic relations. Since the end of the Second World War, this European-American partnership has been shaped by shared values, goals and global approaches.

But the rift between the EU and the US under Trump is more than an ideological rift. Trump has actively criticized and questioned the transatlantic relationship. He repeatedly questioned the value of alliances like NATO and announced a withdrawal of US troops from Germany because Germany was spending too little on its military defense. Trump imposed trade tariffs on the EU and threatened sanctions against the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Chilled relationship: Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel

MacMillan believes that these pressures could lead to permanent change. "It's like a friendship. You tend to trust your friends. Once that trust is broken, it's difficult to restore it," says the historian.

"Europe had made a habit of relying on Big Brother over there in Washington. And perhaps the Europeans are now saying: we can clearly no longer do that and we have to become more independent, we have to develop our own, independent foreign policy more strongly," so MacMillan.

China forced into the critical spotlight

Trump's course of confrontation with China has put the Asian country at the center of international attention. Ranging from a trade war triggered by tariffs to pressure on other nations to exclude the Chinese company Huawei from setting up the 5G mobile network.

Trump's harsh criticism has been welcomed by many who believe that China has unfairly benefited from global trade agreements for too long while perpetrating human rights abuses.

Trump is extremely suspicious of the policies of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping

"The President has rightly challenged China because of its activities in the trade sector," wrote Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, in the foreword to an interim review of Trump's foreign policy.

The historian MacMillan sees it similarly. She doesn't want to praise Trump too much, but in her opinion it was the right thing to do to challenge the Chinese for violating intellectual property. The tensions between the US and China existed before Trump, but during his tenure they had "become much clearer and more articulate".

The dangers of Twitter diplomacy

With regard to foreign policy communication, Trump and his administration have sent mixed messages at different times and via different communication channels - not least via Trump's personal Twitter account, which often contains bellicose rhetoric.

Alexi Drew conducts research on social media and conflict escalation at the Center for Science and Security Studies at King's College, London. For them, the US-Iran relationship is a prime example of how delicate and potentially dangerous Trump's Twitter diplomacy has made international conflict.

Politics on 280 characters: No other head of state in the world relies on Twitter as much as Trump

"If you put yourself in the shoes of Iranian Foreign Minister Sarif and the Iranians, it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact position of the US. They repeatedly receive contradictions from the State Department and Donald Trump's various channels," says Drew. "They don't coordinate their messages and their content."

Drew doesn't think Twitter itself could create a conflict. But in an already escalating situation or a historical crisis between state or other actors, it could further fuel such crises.

Encouraged autocrats

And Donald Trump’s four years have another episode: Autocratic rulers on the global stage feel encouraged. While many of them were in power before Trump, his uncritical to admiring treatment of them means a subliminal approval of their style of government. It turns out that Trump is unwilling to address alleged violations.

Criticism of autocrats? Nothing. Donald Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

One example of this is Trump's stance towards Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As evidence of alleged involvement of the Saudi royal family grew, Trump pledged his support to the Saudi government.