The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee charged Wednesday that the Trump administration’s foreign policy has broken with a precedent set by past U.S. presidents showcasing the U.S. as a model for democracy and freedom.
“The consequences of both Donald Trump's words and actions have been almost unequivocally negative for the American people and for broader United States interests globally,” ranking member Senator Bob Menendez said Wednesday while introducing a report, “The Costs of Trump’s Foreign Policy,” to reporters.
Among its recommendations, the report calls for renewed U.S. engagement with multilateral institutions, while communicating to allies and partners that U.S. relations with them are based on shared values. The report also recommended “autocratic leaders should be put on notice that the United States will hold them accountable for violations of human rights and efforts to repress their citizens” and the U.S. should prioritize “serious dangers Americans and the world face from global threats, including climate change, pandemics, authoritarianism and nuclear proliferation, which the Trump administration has ignored.”
Prepared by the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the report draws on interviews with experts and former U.S. government and foreign government officials to examine the impact the administration’s foreign policy has had on U.S. standing globally.
"Past U.S. presidents sought to showcase the United States as a model for what a society can achieve when it is based upon democracy and freedom. President Trump, on the other hand, has consistently shown disdain for pluralism, human rights, civil society, the press and rule of law,” the report says.
The report cited among its examples Trump’s sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and his criticism of democratic leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while praising authoritarian leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Four years ago while running for president, Trump vowed to “shake the rust off America’s foreign policy.” Much of his administration’s efforts overseas have been focused on reversing what he has repeatedly called a “disastrous foreign policy” of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
Menendez said that nearly four years into Trump’s term, “We see the North Korea nuclear and missile programs larger and more capable than before. We see Iran inching closer to a nuclear weapon. And instead of building alliances or coming up with a better deal as he promised, President Trump has alienated our partners and allies. Indeed, this president has repeatedly bullied and threatened our closest friends.”
James Jay Carafano, vice president of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said that view ignores the subtleties of U.S. policy that often require responding to challenges that span presidential terms.
“ ’We hate Trump’ is just kind of an excuse. ‘It's all Trump's fault.’ It's really papering over kind of very significant challenges that were there when the president came into office. People forget that the Europeans were not crazy about Obama and his last few years, and they didn't think U.S. policy was going in the right direction,” Carafano said.
If Democrats win control of the Senate in the upcoming elections, Menendez would be poised to assume the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“This report is the beginning of a conversation about the future of U.S. foreign policy and how to undo the damage wrought by this president. I hope it can serve as a road map for Congress and a future administration about what needs rebuilding and where the damage lies,” Menendez said.
Carafano noted that “it's a highly partisan report, as you would expect in the middle of an election cycle. I don't think it has any more credibility than that. Do you want to look at the punditry and the rhetoric and the tweets? Or do you want to actually look at the execution of U.S. policy?”
According to a statement on foreign policy posted on the White House website, the Trump administration aims to bolster “American influence by leading a coalition of strong and independent nations to promote security, prosperity and peace both within America’s borders and beyond. The promise of a better future will come in part from reasserting American sovereignty and the right of all nations to determine their own futures.”
By those metrics, Carafano said, the United States is in a better state of relations in Africa, the Indo-Pacific and Latin America.
But Menendez said, “President Trump's foreign policy had been marked by chaos, neglect and diplomatic failures. National security decisions have been driven by his ego and domestic political calculations, not the interests of the United States. Foreign officials recounted how they don't know who speaks for the president or whether a new policy announcement is real or will abruptly reverse.”
The report specifically cites the administration’s response to the coronavirus, including its withdrawal of U.S. assistance to the World Health Organization (WHO) during the pandemic.
“Our increasing absence from multilateral institutions means that our adversaries, particularly China, have a foothold to gain influence,” Menendez said. “And while we have a list of grievances with the U.N. Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization, walking away takes away our ability to effectively counter China and to improve these institutions.”
GOP support in Congress
Congressional Republicans have praised Trump’s tough stance on China and the WHO. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who co-chaired the China Task Force, said Republicans were proud to stand with Trump.
“We confronted China head-on. Tore up bad trade deals and made better ones," McCarthy said in a taped speech at the Republican National Convention.
Republicans have also recognized the president’s efforts to end U.S. engagements abroad.
“A strong America cannot fight endless wars. We must not continue to leave our blood and treasure in Middle East quagmires,” Republican Senator Rand Paul said at the Republican National Convention earlier this year. “President Trump is the first president in a generation to seek to end war, rather than start one. He intends to end the war in Afghanistan. He is bringing our men and women home.”
“This administration's national security strategy is actually predicated on working with friends and allies. That's actually one of the key pillars, because it acknowledges the United States can't be everywhere. It can't do everything. It doesn't envision withdrawing or disengaging from any part of the world. It recognizes in order to have global coverage, the United States has to have friends and allies everywhere,” Carafano said.
Viewed as important
According to the Pew Research Center, 57% of U.S. voters rank foreign policy as an important issue, below domestic issues such as the economy, health care an, in this election year, the coronavirus.
But Menendez said Biden’s foreign policy background should be an important consideration.
“Joe Biden did foreign policy for a long time. He did it as a United States senator. He was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He did it as vice president of the United States. This is a totally different person than Donald Trump. He will restore our standing in the world, build our alliances,” Menendez said.