The news, broken on Wednesday by Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch, seemed to take many observers by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn't have. Leaving UNESCO fits into the dominant theme of President Trump's foreign policy: what Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, describes succinctly as “the Withdrawal Doctrine.”
You could plausibly argue, in fact, that the one consistent plank in Trump administration policy has been to walk away from every international agreement possible. Before pulling out of UNESCO, Trump ended the United States' participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the huge trade pact negotiated with 11 other nations — and withdrew the country from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Trump will also make an announcement on the Iran nuclear deal later today, and he is widely expected to “decertify” the deal, leaving its future in doubt. The North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact with Mexico and Canada, may soon be on the chopping block. And Trump has spoken negatively about a number of other international deals or organizations, including but not limited to NATO, a trade agreement with South Korea and a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.
A big question is what actually motivates Trump, who often brags about his own dealmaking abilities, to seek withdrawal from so many international agreements. Many point to his apparent obsession with overturning the legacy of his predecessor, former president Barack Obama, and it is clearly notable that a number of the agreements Trump aims to back out of — TPP, the Paris agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, for instance — were reached during the Obama administration.
The UNESCO withdrawal cannot be explained by antipathy to Obama alone. Although the organization may seem relatively benign — it is perhaps most famous for its list of World Heritage sites — it has long been a controversial organization in the United States.
The Reagan administration decided to withdraw from UNESCO in 1984 because of complaints about corruption and pro-Soviet bias. The United States rejoined in 2002 under President George W. Bush, but in 2011 — during the Obama administration — the U.S. government stopped funding the organization after it accepted the Palestinian territories as a member. The Trump administration's claims of anti-Israel bias largely follow this Obama-era stance.
But pulling out of UNESCO certainly fits with another potential aspect of Trump's aversion to international agreements, one often seen on the domestic front. Trump brags that he has cut more regulation than any other president “by far.” Whether that's true is hard to gauge, but it's certainly clear that the president sees regulations as hindrances to his leadership, dubbing them “costly and unnecessary” (much like UNESCO, perhaps) in August. Such an attitude may stem from his days in business: Trump has been accused of breaking contracts routinely when he was a private citizen.
The president's fear of being boxed in extends to the international stage. “We need to send the message that the president does not feel constrained by the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and does not feel beholden to it,” one White House aide told The Washington Post's Anne Gearan recently, using the formal name of the nuclear agreement with Iran. That may go beyond formal agreements to basic norms: As I mentioned yesterday, then-candidate Trump reportedly asked a foreign policy expert why the United States shouldn't use its nuclear weapons if it had them.
“If you thought 'repeal and replace,' or perhaps, 'repeal and not replace,' was only a strategy for the botched Obamacare repeal effort, you’d be wrong,” wrote Kingston Reif and Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association for War on the Rocks, a prominent national security blog, on Thursday.
When it comes to major trade deals or nuclear weapons — and in particular, talks with North Korea about them — that thought is especially grim. Apart from exposing the country to potentially greater risks, the instinct to back out at the first sign of obligation puts at risk U.S. participation in other efforts down the road. If the Trump administration does decertify the Iran deal, Reif and Davenport wrote, “it will have not only lost credibility in future nuclear negotiations, but also isolated itself and ceded leadership on nonproliferation efforts.”
Of course, Trump isn't the only recent U.S. leader to be accused of ceding global leadership — ironically, he's not the only one to be accused of having a “withdrawal doctrine” either. But there are huge differences in the ways that Obama and Trump sought to step back from the world's problems. Obama was an internationalist, “leading from behind” and keen to pull back on what he claimed were the excesses of U.S. foreign policy. Trump is simply a unilateralist: He doesn't want anyone to tell him what to do.
To put it more crudely, Obama once suggested his motto was “don't do stupid s---." Trump's mantra might be a demand that he be allowed to do whatever he wants, stupid or not — or he'll simply leave.
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