Policies enacted by the previous presidential administration affected and, in some cases, negatively impacted U.S. relations with several nations and multilateral international organizations. Most of these nations and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been long-time allies of the U.S. and most Latin American countries. During the Trump administration, ties with these and other organizations were severed.
Since the establishment of the United Nations in October 1945, under the initiative of the United States, the U.S. was one of its most important shareholders and largest financial contributors for its operations. The UN headquarters are in New York and its security council convenes under the auspices of the 75-year-old Rules Based International Order (RBIO), which outlines the principles and commitment by which the member nations conduct their collective work. Successive U.S. administrations have strongly supported the multilateral UN organization and RBIO, which they saw as securing U.S. power and geostrategic interests. However, according to David Whinerary,
“[s]ince 2017, U.S. foreign policy has become more transactional, mercantile, nationalist, and unpredictable, with a greater emphasis on sovereignty and a reduced focus on alliances. The Trump administration, unlike its predecessors, has often seen the RBIO as constraining, rather than advancing, U.S. national interests” (2020, p. 2).
According to Whineray there are five important areas in the UN-U.S. relationship impacted by the previous administration’s policies and directives: In the area of sovereignty, confrontation, and neglect, the U.S. pulled back from providing broader political leadership within the UN. The Trump administration also took a more transactional, less strategic, approach, picking issues and sidelining the UN depending on national interests. Its biggest achievement occurred in 2017 when it was able to secure tough new UN sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In the area of finance, the Trump administration pushed for reductions to UN regular and peacekeeping budgets and often made U.S. funding conditional on the UN supporting U.S. policy objectives. The U.S. also downplayed human rights at the institutional level and withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council. Finally, the U.S. departed from previous administrations by withdrawing from the alliance system that was the basis for the establishment of the UN and began working more with Russia and China than had prior administrations.
Paris Climate Agreement
The United States left the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2020. Of the nearly 200 nations that signed the agreement in 2015, the U.S. is the only country to abandon its pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since the beginning of the industrial era in the mid-1800s, the U.S. has released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country in the world. Current U.S. emissions are decreasing, especially because of the pandemic, declining by 21% below 2005 levels, and exceeding its 17% reduction target set by the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord target. The decline, of course, is not the result of intentional actions by the Trump administration, and the problem of global warming remains to be addressed.
U.S. contributions to a global fund to assist small and poor countries that bear disproportionate costs due to climate change ended with the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. This creates a huge financial problem for countries dealing with rising sea levels and heat waves. With increases in climate migrants, these countries need assistance to move people out of troubled areas and to shift energy generation from fossil fuels to renewable sources such as wind or solar plants.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
The United States is one of the principal founding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance formed in 1949 to secure peace in Europe and to promote democratic practices, individual liberty, the rule of law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and cooperation among its members. One of the key principles of NATO is Article 5 of its charter, which states that an armed attack on one member nation would be considered an attack against all members, which could take concerted action to secure the region.
The Trump administration reduced the U.S. portion of NATO’s operational budget from 22% to 16% and pressured allies to meet the required expenditure of 2% of their GDP to defense spending. As a result, America’s NATO allies have stepped up defense spending by a total of $41 billion, which represents an increase of 9% from 2016-2018 levels, the largest increase in 25 years. NATO allies were expected to increase defense spending by approximately $100 billion by 2020.
Withdrawal from World Health Organization
On July 6, 2020, the U.S. administration officially notified the UN Secretary-General of its intention to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO). This notification was made at the same time as record daily increases in worldwide COVID-19 cases and rising infections in more than 75 percent of the U.S. states were occuring (Gostin Koh, Williams, et al., 2020).
The U.S. became a WHO member by a 1948 joint resolution passed by both chambers of Congress and this decision has been supported by successive administrations. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the WHO and terminate funding to the organization violated a binding condition in Congress’s 1948 resolution, which requires that the U.S. meet its financial obligations for the current year.
There are several U.S. institutions that collaborate with the WHO on important scientific work that would be negatively affected if the U.S. were to withdraw. There are currently 21 WHO centers collaborating with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and three at the National Institutes of Health working on health priorities such as polio eradication, cancer prevention, and global health security.
As soon as the Trump administration announced the withdrawal from the WHO, China announced its willingness to increase its funding contributions and to fill the leadership vacuum left by the U.S.
Iran Nuclear Deal
The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, blocks all conduits to an Iranian nuclear weapon and provides the international community wide access to inspect this program. Without this agreement, Iran’s nuclear program would remain intact and there would not be any international inspections monitoring its activities. It would keep its stockpile of nuclear material along with its infrastructure and would be able to pursue research and development without any restrictions (Sleight 2015).
In May 2018, the U.S. government announced its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. This decision was not received well by America’s key allies, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which were strongly opposed to this action. Israel, a strong ally of the United States, was divided on the decision to withdraw. Some found it useful in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while others saw the deal as inadequate. Since U.S. withdrawal, however, Israel has been supportive of the decision. Tensions between U.S. and Israeli leaders with Iran have reached historic levels. During the period of the agreement Iran bolstered its conventional military forces, and since the withdrawal it has resumed and expanded its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The U.S.-China Trade War
In 2018, the Trump administration set in motion a trade war with China, one of the country’s largest trade partners. For many years, President Trump accused China of intellectual property theft and unfair trading practices. The Chinese government considers that by imposing tariffs on some of its exported goods the United States is trying to control its rise to a global economic superpower. Between July and August 2018, both countries imposed $50 billion in tariffs on each other’s products. In September 2018, the U.S. imposed a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion of Chinese products and in May 2019, a 25 percent tariff on another $200 billion of Chinese products. China responded to these measures by imposing a 10 percent tariff on U.S. goods with a value of $60 billion and, in June 2019, China imposed a 25 percent tariff on U.S. products with a value of $60 billion. The Trump administration, by imposing these tariffs, sought to encourage U.S. consumers to buy American products.
According to the Brookings Institute, these tariffs “have significantly hurt the American economy without solving the underlying economic concerns that the trade war was meant to resolve. The effects of the trade war go beyond economics … [T]hey will produce a more permissive environment for China to advance its interest abroad and oppress its own people at home” (Hass and Denmark, 2020, para. 2).
The Loss of U.S. Influence in Latin America
For a long time, the U.S. has had a strong presence in and influence on most Latin American countries, including Cuba, where it maintains a military base. The proximity of these countries to the U.S., the large number of Latin American government officials trained in U.S. universities, strong regional trade levels, the number of remittances sent by Latin Americans living in the U.S. to their native countries, and U.S. support, albeit inconsistently, of Latin American democracies sustained these relationships. However, U.S. support of military coups and the rise of democratic leftist governments in some Latin American countries have undercut U.S. relations with some countries.
The Trump administration ignored relations between the U.S. and most Latin American countries. Only Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro had close relations with the Trump administration, which was mainly concerned with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which were seen as “problem” countries. Loss of U.S. leadership in Latin America resulting from its poor relationships with countries in the region strongly favored the interests of China, Russia, and Iran, which expanded their presence in the region to the detriment of U.S. political, economic, and military interests in the region.
U.S. relations with Mexico have historically been complicated since the American-Mexican War. Today, points of contention are the constant flow of Mexican and Central American immigrants to this country, drug trafficking, money laundering, and the imbalances in labor costs that induce many American companies to move at least part of their operations to Mexico. The Trump administration was mainly concerned with two issues, stopping migration and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
President Trump sought to solve the migration problem by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border which might have reduced but not contained migration. The NAFTA-2 agreement was renegotiated between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico with changes made in the agricultural sector, ensuring more vehicles and parts are made in North America, stronger protections for patents and trademarks in areas such as biotech, financial services, and domain names, and updates to labor and environmental standards among the most important.
In 2014, the Obama Administration initiated a policy change in its relations with Cuba, lifting sanctions and moving in the direction of engagement and normalization of relations. In 2017, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum that introduced new sanctions, including restrictions on transactions with companies controlled by the Cuban military. Other sanctions included: 1) efforts to stop Venezuelan oil exports to Cuba, 2) lawsuits related to confiscated property, 3) restrictions on travel and remittances, 4) trade and financial sanctions, 5) targeted human rights sanctions, 6) terrorism designations, and 7) injuries to U.S. Embassy personnel. These sanctions aimed to reduce the internal and external support of the current Cuban government.
Finally, for more than 20 years, U.S.-Venezuela relations have deteriorated, especially during the presidency of Hugo Chavez (1999-2013). The current president Nicolas Maduro has failed to stabilize and improve the economy, which has facilitated widespread corruption and stoked hyperinflation. He continues with Chavez’ policies of strong opposition to the U.S., criticizing its policies and relations with Latin America. This has resulted in the U.S. suspending bilateral relations between both countries on March 12, 2019. The U.S. was Venezuela’s largest trading partner before the U.S. suspended diplomatic operations.
In summary, the policies and actions of the previous administration diminished U.S. relations with several countries and longtime partner organizations. As a result, U.S. leadership has been seriously diminished in Europe, Latin America and other regions. The current administration has begun to restore, at least in part, key policies and reestablishing the country’s relationships with its allies based on trust and mutual respect, but it will take time to rebuild ties that were torn apart over the past four years.
BBC Report, 2020. A Quick Guide to the U.S.-China Trade War. Available online: https://www.bbc.com/business-45899310
Hass Ryan, and Abraham Denmark, 2020. More Pain than Gain: How the U.S.-China Trade War Hurt America, Brookings. Available online: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/08/07/more-pain-than-gain-how-the-U.S.-china-trade-war-hurt-america/
Gostin, Lawrence, Harold Hong Koh, Michelle Williams, Margaret A. Hamburg, et.al., 2020. U.S. Withdrawal from WHO is unlawful and Threatens Global and U.S. Health and Security, available online: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2931527-0.
Sleight Jessica, 2015. Iran Nuclear Deal: The Facts, in https://www.globalzero.org/updates/iran-deal-the-facts/?gclid=EAalQobChMI4sTJ16Cr7glVhr3ACh2-egA1EAAYAiAAEgllkfD_BwE
U.S. Defense News Partnership, 2019. U.S. – NATO Relationships Spans 70 Years, from https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/1741621/us-nato-relationship-spans-70-years/.
Whineray, David, 2020. The United States’ Current and Future Relationships with the United States, (New York: United Nations University).