The increase of political polarization has had a lot of negative effects on American foreign policy. It led the Obama administration to pursue a variety of foreign policy initiatives through executive actions alone. This gambit made certain agreements possible but also carried significant risks. Among other things, it has been easy for the Trump administration to walk away from them.
Polarization’s erosion of America’s credible commitment is disconcerting, but I am beginning to wonder if we have underestimated its effects. I have written previously about how polarization has led to the Trump administration pursuing an “omnibalancing” strategy. U.S. allies appear to be faced with an increasingly stark choice: choose to partner with the Trump administration or choose to partner with the Democrat opposition.
This started last year, when Canada responded to the Trump administration’s hostile moves by partnering with governors, mayors and members of Congress who supported NAFTA and the Paris climate change deal. On the other hand, Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which had extremely prickly relations with the Obama administration, have showered the Trump administration with glowing orbs and glitzy news conferences designed to make the White House look good.
This past week a raft of news reports suggest the ways in which allies have been forced into some extreme choices because of U.S. political discord. The New York Times’s Andrew Kramer reported that Ukraine has withheld cooperation with the Mueller probe on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s prosecution:
In Ukraine, where officials are wary of offending President Trump, four meandering cases that involve Mr. Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, have been effectively frozen by Ukraine’s chief prosecutor.
The cases are just too sensitive for a government deeply reliant on United States financial and military aid, and keenly aware of Mr. Trump’s distaste for the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign, some lawmakers say.
The decision to halt the investigations by an anticorruption prosecutor was handed down at a delicate moment for Ukraine, as the Trump administration was finalizing plans to sell the country sophisticated anti-tank missiles, called Javelins.
This follows up on a March report by the Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova that said, “In a series of interviews over the last few weeks, current Ukrainian politicians as well as former Manafort colleagues repeatedly told the Daily Beast that in today’s political situation in Ukraine, a year before presidential elections, leading political competitors did not want to upset President Donald Trump.” The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand has also reported that the Ukrainian government hired GOP lobbyists to influence the Trump White House.
Euromaidan’s Alya Shandra has pushed back on these reports, so there may be less here than meets the eye. Indeed, that also holds for other recent stories. Did Qatar buy $6.5 million worth of real estate from Trump World Tower in January to get the White House to pressure the Saudis to stop their Gulf Cooperation Council boycott? Or is it “due to their location, nothing more,” as the Qataris claim?
Similarly, has the Trump White House “hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a ‘dirty ops’ campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal,” as the Guardian’s Mark Townsend and Julian Borger report? On the one hand, their details seem a bit fuzzy. On the other hand, one of those key individuals has some interesting corroborating evidence.
As previously noted, one of the problems with thinking about the Trump administration is the degree to which one must indulge in conspiratorial thinking. Maybe all these stories are overhyped, and U.S. allies are not forced to choose between allying with Trump or allying with his domestic rivals.
On the other hand, it seems as if Trump’s opponents are starting to adopt a similar attitude about approaching other governments. For example, the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser reports that former secretary of state John F. Kerry is freelancing in an effort to save the Iran deal from the Trump administration.
John Kerry’s bid to save one of his most significant accomplishments as secretary of state took him to New York on a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, where, more than a year after he left office, he engaged in some unusual shadow diplomacy with a top-ranking Iranian official.
He sat down at the United Nations with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to discuss ways of preserving the pact limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was the second time in about two months that the two had met to strategize over salvaging a deal they spent years negotiating during the Obama administration, according to a person briefed on the meetings….
Kerry also met last month with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and he’s been on the phone with top European Union official Federica Mogherini, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal the private meetings. Kerry has also met with French President Emmanuel Macron in both Paris and New York, conversing over the details of sanctions and regional nuclear threats in both French and English.
What Kerry is doing will make the problem worse, not better. The ordinary way for the United States to credibly commit to an agreement is to have Congress ratify a treaty or a legislative-executive agreement. But it is highly unlikely that this Congress will be able to do anything of the kind for a polarizing Trump administration initiative. Which means that this White House will behave exactly as the Obama White House did and rely on executive agreements alone.
There are aspects of foreign affairs, like the Mexico City policy, that toggle back and forth depending on which party is in power. Carried to its logical extreme, one wonders just how much of foreign policy will wind up in this basket. The stock of allies will rise or fall depending on the partisanship of who is in the White House. Some long-standing allies, like those in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, will remain the province of Republicans. Others, like those in Western Europe or the Americas, will more closely link arms with Democrats.
This is a stupid way to run the foreign policy railroad. But it is not a problem that will disappear anytime soon.