President Trump has been in the Oval Office for more than three years and has yet to claim a foreign policy doctrine of his own. The time may have come to bestow one upon him. Call it the Withdrawal Doctrine.
Trump has a slogan — “America First” — but not a doctrine, a term reserved for broad constructs that explain a good many specific policies. The Truman Doctrine communicated that the United States was ready to provide help to countries threatened by Soviet-backed Communism. The Carter Doctrine proclaimed U.S. determination to defend the Persian Gulf. The Reagan Doctrine signaled U.S. intent to support “freedom fighters” against Soviet-backed regimes. In every instance, allies and foes alike, along with Congress and the American public, were intended audiences.
Withdrawal is no less central to the Trump presidency. He has pulled the country out of every manner of multilateral agreement and institution overseas in the name of going it alone. Going it alone, though, makes little sense in a world increasingly defined by global challenges that can best be met through collective, not individual, action.
In one of his initial actions, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact including a dozen countries that represent some 40 percent of the world economy. The impetus behind TPP was to establish ambitious rules for trade that China would have to meet or risk being left behind. But the U.S. decision not to join the pact it had done so much to bring about has instead relieved pressure on China to reform while penalizing U.S. exporters seeking to sell to the new pact’s members.
Most recently, the Trump administration cut off funding and threatened to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) amid a global pandemic. Days later, it announced that it would be leaving the Open Skies Treaty, an agreement among three dozen countries that allows for reconnaissance flights over one another’s territory in order to reduce uncertainty and the chance for miscalculation.
And there were a host of other withdrawals, including the Paris climate accord, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), UNESCO and the U.N. Human Rights Council.
It may be that Trump believes withdrawal increases U.S. options and gives him leverage in future negotiations. He clearly likes the political message withdrawal can send. Whatever the motive, it comes at a high price. Withdrawal from the Paris pact has alienated many allies who rightly see climate change as an existential challenge. Serial withdrawal from treaties adds a heavy dose of unpredictability and unreliability to U.S. foreign policy. Withdrawal of another kind, in this case military support for the Kurds in Syria and now possibly the government in Afghanistan, exacerbates this perception. For friends and allies, the possibility of withdrawal can leave them to question their decision to place their security in American hands.
Without a United States to rely on, allies are faced with the unappealing choice of deferring to a powerful neighbor, building up their own military capabilities, or both. Either outcome works against U.S. interests and can create opportunities for competitors, such as China, to gain standing at our expense. In the case of Afghanistan, reported plans to withdraw militarily tied to the U.S. political calendar rather than conditions on the ground risk the country once again being dominated by the Taliban, the very group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Making matters worse is that the withdrawals were unilateral. It would have been very different had the United States consulted with allies and partners and approached the WHO with a package of reforms, making clear that if they were not undertaken, all the countries would fund a new organization better able to meet global health challenges. In the case of Iran, withdrawal undermined prospects for getting France, Britain and Germany on board an approach that would have extended critical provisions of the 2015 agreement in exchange for selective lifting of sanctions. Now we have isolated ourselves more than we have Iran at a time it is steadily breaking out of the accord’s constraints.
In principle, withdrawal from an international agreement can be warranted by its flaws. This was the explanation for leaving the Iran nuclear deal. It can also be justified by a judgment that one or more parties are violating the accord. This was the argument with the INF and the Open Skies treaties.
But any agreement negotiated with others is inevitably imperfect. The question to ask is not whether an arrangement is flawed, but whether it is less flawed than an alternative arrangement that could be negotiated, or preferable to living with no agreement and acting unilaterally. So far, at least, evidence is scant that withdrawal has paved the way to something better; to the contrary, as a doctrine, it is leading to diminished U.S. influence, prosperity and security.