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Akop Gabrielyan

PhD in international relations, contributor to the German Caucasus Watch, RIAC Expert

Since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017, U.S. foreign policy has been a rollercoaster. Its ups and downs are far from being predictable. From the outside view, American actions on the international arena seem hectic, which itself affects the international security system, making the latter less stable and predictable. As a result, we now witness more unpredictability and deviations almost in all parts of a world which is no longer a unipolar system. The core of these changes lies in two dimensions: personality and policy changes.

Since January 20, 2017 (inauguration day of Donald Trump), the United States appointed two ambassadors to the United Nations (not counting the acting ones): Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft. Along with relative success in promoting measures against North Korea (depending which side you support though), perhaps the most ambiguous moments of the U.S. endeavours in the UN are related to the ambassadorship of Nikki Haley. She is known for desperately defending the U.S. approach on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as well as attempting to condemn Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist militant movement in Gaza. The UN Security Council unanimously rejected the former: even traditional allies of the United States, countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, France and Japan were critical and expressed their deep concern that such initiatives do not bring regional peace any closer.

The geography of U.S. allies worldwide is also uneven. Germany, France, Britain, Israel, Japan and many other states are more cautious about following and being guided by the American path. One thing for sure is that they do not follow this path blindly anymore. Those who agree with Trump, concerning the end of Western hegemony, like Macron, and those who disagree with Macron, but agree with Trump concerning the necessity to return to the principles of state-nation, like Eurosceptics, paradoxically, have a standard view. This is what America’s dominance and desire to set the standard and trend in international relations is coming to its end. And this is not due to some external factors, but because America’s foreign policy lacks persistence, tenacity, maturity and general international consensus now more than ever. This is not a witch-hunt as some would argue; this is the end of U.S. foreign policy we have known for the last 80 years. The rise of Russia, China and other less influential regional powers pushes the United States to either defend its dominance or step back. In other conditions, it could have been something else. Still, as long as there is no subjunctive mood in history, it is what it is — the end of an entire era when America can become great again but only within its own limits and borders.


Since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017, U.S. foreign policy has been a rollercoaster. Its ups and downs are far from being predictable. From the outside view, American actions on the international arena seem hectic, which itself affects the international security system, making the latter less stable and predictable. As a result, we now witness more unpredictability and deviations almost in all parts of a world which is no longer a unipolar system. The core of these changes lies in two dimensions: personality and policy changes.

Since January 20, 2017 (inauguration day of Donald Trump), the United States appointed two ambassadors to the United Nations (not counting the acting ones): Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft. Along with relative success in promoting measures against North Korea (depending which side you support though), perhaps the most ambiguous moments of the U.S. endeavours in the UN are related to the ambassadorship of Nikki Haley. She is known for desperately defending the U.S. approach on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as well as attempting to condemn Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist militant movement in Gaza. The UN Security Council unanimously rejected the former: even traditional allies of the United States, countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, France and Japan were critical and expressed their deep concern that such initiatives do not bring regional peace any closer. Together with this fiasco, another U.S. resolution aimed at condemning Hamas was also defeated by the vast majority (two thirds) of votes at the UN General Assembly. Finally, 189 countries at the General Assembly session in 2018 urged the United States to remove the economic blockade of Cuba, which was almost a unanimous consensus of all states of the UN, except for Israel and the United States.

America’s relationship with its allies in NATO was also tested under Trump, who repeatedly requested that other members of the North Atlantic block increase their expenditure shares in the organization, many of whom were sceptical to that advice. Ceteris paribus, the difference of expenditures could have been mitigated by a joint position of NATO states on other more pressing issues; however, it seems that internal discontent over U.S. position is on its rise.

If one looks at U.S. bilateral relations with other countries, the overall picture seems the same. The United States is very inconsistent in its policies towards North Korea, the Middle East (predominantly Syria, Turkey and Iran), China, Venezuela, and Ukraine. And this inconsistency doesn’t seem to be a part of a grand strategy defined within the laws of “realpolitik”, where actions change and fluctuate in accordance with the situation at hand, but more a proof of cluelessness about how to act in a world of multiple centres of power in different regions. Apparently, for the current United States, the absence of any strategy is also a strategy.

Since Donald Trump officially became president, the U.S. Secretary of State was changed twice (Rex Tillerson and then Mike Pompeo), while the National Security Advisor was changed four times (Michael Flynn, Herbert Raymond McMaster, John Bolton and Robert O’Brien). The ‘record’ though belongs to Ronald Reagan, who appointed six chief in-house advisors during his two-term presidency between 1981 and 1989. These frequent shifts have been perceived by the rest of the world and many scholars as a clear sign of uncertainty and inconsistency, when each new U.S. representative did not follow the main policy line of his predecessor, thus causing ambiguity in how to interpret U.S. actions and maintain a reliable partnership.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this statement is the American-North Korean relationship under Trump. Having begun as a honeymoon and now continuing as unpredictably hostile and toxic, the relationship, and particularly the numerous touchés between the American leader and his Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, are suggesting that the United States is uncertain on how to tackle the North Korean problem. What is certain though is that even under strict authoritarianism, according to 21st century standards, North Korea should not be made a scapegoat to justify America’s problems with China, South Korea and Japan. Such tactics will only increase the degree to which Korea is alienated from the international community and peaceful dialogue, turning the country’s deep frustration and isolation into aggression. The current modality of U.S. dialogue with North Korea can be seen as a stalemate, given the fact that both sides fail to agree on the nuclear issue. Yet, a “cautious optimism” is the term used by international intermediaries, who believe dialogue is on the table.

The same cannot be said about Iran, as the United States is reluctant to listen to European proposals on how to normalize the latter. A report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggesting that there is no factual evidence or “credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009”, does not stop Trump from furiously accusing the Iranian government and its leader, Hassan Rouhani. Within the context of increasing regional instability, constant accusations of supporting and arming terrorists and the unwillingness of the United States to ease the burden of sanctions, the Iranian side seems to be actively seeking partners amongst those countries who disagree with American foreign policy. Under such conditions, it is France now, whose President, Emmanuel Macron, recently declared the “end of the Western hegemony”, and who has been trying to bring Iran and the United States back to the negotiating table. Having said that, Macron’s logic perfectly fits the Trumpean world order in which no one relies on the West anymore.

Amongst those who longer rely on the West, and particularly the United States, is undoubtedly Turkey, still a member of NATO. The country disrespected international norms and laws and initiated active hostilities on the northern border of Syria. Turkey’s explicit violations were not shackled completely, but with the latest engagement of U.S. and Russia, they were temporarily stopped from escalating. Back in the day, Turkey would never act against American interests in the region. Still, now, since the situation has completely changed thanks to the U.S. new passive laissez-faire policy in international relations, it is truly remarkable how Turkey operates and neglects its formal allies from NATO. Instead, it enthusiastically seeks Russia’s support, including its gradual reorientation towards Russian weaponry, as the latter came to replace the U.S. efforts in the region where no one else is ready to take the burden of responsibility for unstable regional conditions. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feels comfortable using the language of ultimatums against his European counterparts, particularly Germany. Playing the card of refugees, he often threatens European countries to allow the colossal flow of migrants to move further to Europe without stopping them in Turkey, asking in return Europe's tacit consent to his external policies. Clearly, not the U.S. business or its “border”.

The fact that Syria does not border with the United State did not stop Donald Trump from initiating active missile strikes against the country in 2018. It all began under another administration, but it was Trump, however, who promised to stop U.S. interventions in Syria. It seems that the U.S. President does return to his initial statements, but given how his decisions change overnight, there is no confidence that he will not rethink them tomorrow. In 2018, Trump, loyal to his diplomatic jargon, called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an “animal”, following a suspected chemical attack in the country. Now, when American foreign policy is still disoriented, many agreed that, perhaps, Assad is the least evil for Syria. As Stephen Walt argues in Foreign Policy, “the best course of action today is for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to regain control over northern Syria”.

Regardless of what one thinks of Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, he stands in office irrespective of hectic U.S. motions. The American plan was to replace the incumbent with pro-American Juan Guaidó, even if this decision comes at the price of deploying 5,000 troops to the region. Nevertheless, having other more urgent issues, the United States (already famous for its new type of foreign policy), jumped in and suddenly withdrew from this plan of the former U.S. security advisor John Bolton. Even though the secretary of state Mike Pompeo characterized Trump’s endeavours as “crystal clear and incredibly consistent”, the future of Venezuela does not seem that clear, especially if foreign interventions will continue to complement country’s further domestic instability.

China, another country where instability was recently evoked by mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, is going through the toughest period of relationship with America since Mao Zedong. Trade wars and spy scandals cannot and will not disappear as Trump actively fuels the idea of China’s “currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers, and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale”. There is no reason to believe that these bold statements will trigger a change of mindset of Chinese officials or any positive dynamic in bilateral relations. This is instead a one step forward, two steps back tactic, the utility of which is doubtful. At the very beginning of his presidency, Trump threatened China, then softened his position and announced a restart during the G20 summit last summer, only to return to his initial rhetoric. As the South China Morning Post contributor Anthony Rowley affirms, such an attitude makes little sense, if any.

The situation in Ukraine emerges as a true pinnacle of such inconsistency and unpredictability. The United States has traditionally supported Ukraine, especially after the 2014 crisis. The international issues being utilized for the sake of gaining domestic votes is not a rare phenomenon in the history of the United States. However, it is the first time that non-Trump powers are so aligned and united in an endeavour to maximize their efforts to impeach Trump. In this sense, the leaked telephone talk between the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and Donald Trump served as a perfect reason to intensify domestic pressure on the American President, who arguably conditioned military assistance to Ukraine in exchange for investigation of Democratic presidential hopeful for 2020, Joe Biden. In this respect, the assumption is that if Trump's opponents eventually succeed, among other things, they will completely reverse his foreign policy trajectory. But isn't it too late?

The geography of U.S. allies worldwide is also uneven. Germany, France, Britain, Israel, Japan and many other states are more cautious about following and being guided by the American path. One thing for sure is that they do not follow this path blindly anymore. Those who agree with Trump, concerning the end of Western hegemony, like Macron, and those who disagree with Macron, but agree with Trump concerning the necessity to return to the principles of state-nation, like Eurosceptics, paradoxically, have a standard view. This is what America’s dominance and desire to set the standard and trend in international relations is coming to its end. And this is not due to some external factors, but because America’s foreign policy lacks persistence, tenacity, maturity and general international consensus now more than ever. This is not a witch-hunt as some would argue; this is the end of U.S. foreign policy we have known for the last 80 years. The rise of Russia, China and other less influential regional powers pushes the United States to either defend its dominance or step back. In other conditions, it could have been something else. Still, as long as there is no subjunctive mood in history, it is what it is — the end of an entire era when America can become great again but only within its own limits and borders.


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