President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, as expressed so far through his actions and rhetoric, threatens to weaken the United States’ standing in the world, according to a Bowdoin government professor.
Rebecca Davis Gibbons, a visiting professor who specializes in foreign policy, national security, and arms control, explained in a recent talk at Bowdoin that Trump’s policy of isolationism could undermine the economic and security benefits the US has reaped from an integrated global order that it largely helped to build after WWII.
“Some of what we have seen in Trump’s actions and rhetoric may lead to a weaker US position in the world and lead to a less predictable and less stable world, one where US interests are undermined,” Gibbons said, adding, “Trumps actions and remarks show a lack of appreciation for the benefits this order has provided historically to the US.”
Gibbons argued that the US has a lot to lose if it retreats from its global engagements. Currently, the US “is the most powerful nation on earth,” with a GDP that represents one-quarter of the total global GDP. China is, however, quickly gaining on us and expected to bypass the United States within the decade. The US military budget — almost $600 billion — comes close to equaling the military budgets of the next 14 nations. But Trump’s approach to foreign policy, isolationist and defensive, fails to put those national strengths to use in maintaining peace and stability abroad.
Gibbons articulated her argument — which she described as nonpartisan — in a talk she gave to students as part of The Uncommon Hour series organized by the Bowdoin Student Government. Before teaching at Bowdoin, Gibbons worked as a national security policy contractor for a Pentagon client while getting her PhD at Georgetown University.
Defending her argument, she said that “free trade, alliances, and multilateral institutions have been the building blocks of the global order, an order that has allowed economic growth, prosperity, and stability in the United States” since the 1940s. Of course, this global order has also fostered economic inequality, she conceded, prompting individuals “in all corners of the world” to protest globalization.
The desire to avoid new tragedies like WWI and WWII pushed leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill to pursue the establishment of institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, the GATT trading system (which led to the World Trade Organization), and the IAEA, a nuclear nonproliferation agency. And these institutions — which promote free trade, disarmament, and collective security — all provide the US with “a higher benefit than [they do to] other states,” Gibbons argued.
“The uncertainty of the US keeping its commitments to allies undermines stability and weakens the US’s ability to get allies to do what it wants, which has been a source of US power.”—Rebecca Gibbons
One way the US benefits from this system is through the consistent strength of its dollar, which is the reserve currency for many countries. “This allows the US to run deficits and borrow at cheap interest rates,” Gibbons said. “The kind of deficits the US runs are not acceptable for other countries.”
In addition, the post-World War II global order allowed the US to gain favorable outcomes on trade and economic issues, Gibbons said. And its allies joined its side in wars — even in battles like the Iraq War that weren’t popular with many citizens of these nations.
While Trump’s presidency is still young, so far he has demonstrated troubling tendencies that have “shown a lack of appreciation for US alliances,” Gibbons said. For instance, he has been critical of NATO (a stance he has recently walked away from) and antagonistic during a phone call with Australia’s prime minister.
This lack of appreciation extends to Trump’s seeming blindness to the “strategic benefits of trade,” Gibbons said. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Trump scrapped in his first month as president, “was part of the US pivot to East Asia in part to solidify US influence in this region and to balance against China,” Gibbons explained. “Those states that the US has abandoned are actually in talks now about a trade deal that excludes the US, and China is negotiating a free trade deal that excludes the US.”
(China, by the way, “is relishing” the global leadership vacuum it sees in Trump’s presidency, Gibbons noted. Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum, China’s president delivered a defense of globalization and called for international cooperation on issues that threaten international prosperity, she said.)
Additionally, Trump’s desire to increase military spending by $54 billion, paid for with cuts to domestic programs, including the State Department and US foreign aid, signals his lack of interest in diplomacy and soft power, Gibbons argued. US foreign aid is not just altruistic — it is a tool that we use to persuade countries to do our bidding. “If we don’t use the tools of diplomacy, we will have a less stable world where the military will be more relevant,” Gibbons said. “This is not necessarily what we want, and it is not cost effective.”
Trump’s inward-facing policies, his seeming desire to pull back from an interconnected world, does not bode well for solving worldwide problems. “The challenges we face today and are likely to face in the future, whether it is nuclear proliferation, climate change, global pandemics, or cyber attacks, require collective action,” Gibbons said.
While Gibbons was mostly pessimistic about the outcome of Trump’s foreign policies, she did make a caveat at the end of her talk that many people have come before her and predicted the decline of America. “This country has faced many challenges in the past and it has overcome these challenges because of the country’s strengths: its economic strengths, political strengths, cultural strengths, and moral strengths,” she said. “Let’s hope this is just one more example of wrongheaded US decline-ism.”