Kashish Parpiani
Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (India)

Trump’s Exemptionalist US Foreign Policy

President Donald J. Trump participates in the multilateral meeting of the North Atlantic Council | July 11, 2018 (Official White House photograph by Shealah Craighead)
President Donald J. Trump participates in the multilateral meeting of the North Atlantic Council | July 11, 2018 (Official White House photograph by Shealah Craighead)

Under President Trump, the United States seems to adopting an unprecedented antagonistic stance against the institutions, commitments, and unpronounced precedents alike, of the liberal world order that the US itself put in place in the aftermath of the Second World War.

This month, reports revealed the Trump administration is considering to spur the United States’ withdrawal from the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  According to reports, President Trump ordered his staffers to prepare a draft legislation that would essentially nullify the United States’ commitment to WTO rules. Apparently, the President was briefed on the resultant draft legislation – titled the “United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act”, in late May. Although the chances of such a legislation going through the US Congress are slim, the withdrawal would come at the heels of Trump administration’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council last month. 

The same was the latest in the Trump administration’s list of exercising US “exemptionalism” – the other prominent US withdrawals being from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition to the evident motivation of undoing his predecessor’s legacy, one may argue that President Trump’s adoption of “exemptionalism” does not really constitute an overt departure in US foreign policy. This untoward tradition of US foreign policy is often defined as the United States’ unwillingness to be “bound by multilateral regimes and agreements to the same extent as other states.” Some prominent historical examples of which are, the United States having the dubious distinction of being one of the few holdouts from critical multilateral fora such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). 

In many of these cases, the rationale behind not having America bound by such multilateral engagements pertain to a strong belief in American Exceptionalism. For instance, in case of CEDAW, a report by the US Congressional Research Service noted one of the leading arguments presented by its naysayers to be the view that the United States is “already an international leader in promoting and protecting women’s rights.”  

In other cases, administrations have often justified their exercise in “exemptionalism” with allegations of multilateral agreements “undercutting” American sovereignty. A notable example of the same, is the George W. Bush administration’s move to scuttle the Kyoto protocol. Similarly, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement bore resemblances to this brand of “exemptionalism” that derides multilateral arrangement’s impingement of American sovereignty. 

However, under the real-estate mogul turned US Commander-in-Chief, another brand of US “exemptionalism” seems to be coming to the fore.  Recent developments – the ‘G6 plus Trump’ debacle and the pageantry-filled Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, indicate President Trump to be lobbing systematic blows to the institutionalised dictums of US foreign policy. Simply put, the Trump brand of US exemptionalism goes one step further than usual to pursue a systematic dismemberment of the US-led world order. 

Under President Trump, the United States seems to adopting an unprecedented antagonistic stance against the institutions, commitments, and unpronounced precedents alike, of the liberal world order that the US itself put in place in the aftermath of the Second World War. In fact, so grave is this emerging Trump brand of “exemptionalism” that a recent opinion piece in The New York Times declared the Trump administration to be ready to “pull down the liberal order, with America at its helm, that remains the best guarantor of world peace humanity has ever known. We are entering a new, terrifying era.” Meanwhile, The Economist with its cover story – with Trump sitting atop planet earth riding it as a wrecking ball, issued a warning against the consequences of Trump’s “demolition theory of foreign policy.” 

Consider last month’s G7 summit. The same was a nail-biting event for foreign policy watchers – not because contentious global governance issues like climate change were on the agenda, but because the President of the United States engaged in proverbial fist fights with some of America’s oldest allies. Captured for posterity in the photograph that went viral, other members of the G7 grouping were reported to have had a trying time warning a petulant US president about the perils of ‘America Alone’. At the summit, not only did Trump raise the specter of a trade war with America’s allies, he also – to the collective reverberating gasps of US foreign policy elites – argued for Russia to be readmitted into the grouping. Lastly, the American president accused allies of using the US as “a piggy bank everyone is robbing”, and flip-flopped over the United States signing the final summit communiqué underscoring the grouping’s collective commitment to oversee a “rules-based international order.”

Shortly thereafter, an unnamed senior Trump administration official reportedly surmised the ‘Trump Doctrine’ as “We’re America, Bitch!” Another administration official tugged on that idea to underscore the same as, “The president believes that we’re America, and people can take it or leave it.” Such is the emerging Trump brand of American “exemptionalism” – one so intoxicated on American economic and military primacy, that it counter-intuitively involves pursuing policies that “undermine the Western alliance, empower Russia and China, and demoralise freedom-seeking people around the world. 

The above assessment holds water in view of the relevance of the American “Internationalist” tradition in the post-Second World War era. The tradition’s mainstay being the crafting of an international order thriving on “free trade, multilateral cooperation, a global alliance network, and the promotion of democratic values.” Certainly this order – pushing economic interdependence under the guise of “globalisation” – remained Washington-led in terms of the US dollar underpinning the global financial system and concrete American security commitments keeping a lid on historical rivalries spanning from Western Europe to East Asia. 

Most importantly, the same also produced unprecedented prosperity beyond American pocketbooks. A striking fact in support of that assertion is, “in 1981, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Today it’s 10%.” However, the egregiously named ‘Trump Doctrine’ of “We’re America, Bitch!”, involves adopting American “exemptionalism” even with respect to this “internationalist” tradition. 

It is key to note, if deterrence is in the eye of the adversary, then Trump’s repeated open derision of US allies sets dangerous precedents. This is not to say that, all outstanding issues between America and her allies persist baselessly. However, adopting an overly confrontational predisposition against US allies and partners may encourage nation-states hostile to the US-led order to call the bluff on America’s oft-stated “iron-clad” commitment to her allies. The ramifications of which wouldn’t just mean instability in a said region, but a barrel-roll effect on the prosperity and security of the world — spurring ramifications that will not stop at border controls. A case in point is the recent dip in the Indian Rupee spurred by fears of a prospective “full-blown US-China trade war.

Further, far from gaining any concrete steps towards North Korea’s “Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible” denuclearisation, President Trump’s highly anticipated summit with Kim Jong Un reflected more of the aforementioned Trump brand of American “Exemptionalism”. Amidst all the pageantry of the summit, President Trump lobbed another systematic blow to America’s preeminence in the region. Not only did Trump announce the cancellation of long-standing military exercises with Seoul and indirectly doubted the rationale behind stationing US troops in the region, but he also did so whilst adopting the North Korean rhetoric of referring to them as “provocative” and “war games”. Subsequent analyses of China being the “big winner” of this outcome of the summit hold credence in view of any possible downsizing of the US-led ‘hub & spokes’ alliance system in the Asia-Pacific being compatible with China’s assertive ambitions in the region. 

More importantly, the announcement of the cancellation coming to the horrid surprise of the South Koreans (and the Pentagon!) is sure to raise doubts about the United States’ credibility as a security partner – especially in the eyes of newly-developing American partners like India.  

In summation, it can be argued, just as Trump has hijacked the US Republican Party and hauled it further to the right with greater emphases on the politics of the “other”, on matters pertaining to US foreign policy too, Trump seems to be pursuing steps that may overtime consolidate an American worldview underpinned with zero-sum instincts. 

However, the irony remains that, by practicing American “exemptionalism” over the United States’ post-Second World War role of underwriting the world order in search for “fair” or rectifying “bad” deals or mere symbolic political “wins”, President Trump is somewhat eulogising Washington’s own influence. Sustained for roughly three-quarters of a century, the same today seems to be inching towards its poetic erosion – recently surmised in the Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s statement, “… if history tells us one thing, it is that no one nation’s pre-eminence is eternal.”

About the Author
Kashish Parpiani is Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Based in Mumbai (India), his research interests include US–India ties and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. Beyond ORF, he has been published at the Institute for National Security Studies (Israel), the Centre for Asia and Globalization (Singapore), Deccan Herald (India), the Marine Corps University Press (US), The Hindu (India), and the Rising Powers in Global Governance Project (Turkey). Kashish is also the co-author of the forthcoming book — America and the Indo-Pacific - Trump and Beyond (Routledge, June 2021). He has presented papers at conferences by the Shanghai University, the International Studies Association (ISA), and London School of Economics–IDEAS. Kashish has been quoted across media platforms such as The Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg, TIME magazine, and Al Jazeera.
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