President Donald Trump has spent the better part of two years ripping up international agreements, knocking international organizations off-balance, imposing new trade penalties on US allies, teasing breakthroughs with erstwhile enemies and generally unsettling the global diplomatic and economic order the US has built up around itself under his predecessors.
The main theme so far in Trump’s trade and defense agitations is increased tension with western democracies. The stark photo that encapsulated the weekend was of western democratic leaders leering down at Trump over trade and tariffs.
That image of confrontation was replaced Monday night by his smiling handshake with contrasted with an openness to undemocratic leaders, as with his historic meeting with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the vague promises to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and end US “war games” there. Tension with the West is contrasted with an openness to undemocratic leaders.
Trump’s actions touch every corner of the globe, and they have so far seemed to do more to break existing US bonds than to build new ones.
After his confrontational meeting with other members of the world’s seven largest democracies and remarkable bonding and agreement with the insular despot using the threat of a nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip, here’s a rundown of how Trump has played geopolitical chess so far.
Organizations and alliances
G7 – Tension with world’s largest democracies – The group of industrialized democracies notably ejected Russia over its forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014. That’s an episode less troubling to Trump, who wants Russia back in the room to make it the G8 again. He also refused to sign on to a communique expressing the benefits of free trade – he later tweeted it was “fool trade” – and he left the meeting in Canada early to prepare for his meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump also accused Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of being “dishonest and weak.” His adviser said there’s a special place in hell for Trudeau. It did not go well.
Countries involved: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, United States
NATO – Frustration with the most important defense alliance – Trump has teased upending the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, which was created to counterbalance the Soviet Union and is one of the oldest and most important alliances the US takes part in. He’s long complained that smaller nations don’t pay the same membership dues and spend the same portion of money on defense as the US, a factually dubious claim that has been checked repeatedly. Trump has toned down his campaign tease of leaving NATO, but he repeated the frustrations about dues again during the G7 meeting. NATO has grown since the fall of the Soviet Union and includes some former Soviet Republics. The US is currently bound to defend any member nation that is attacked as NATO members helped defend the US in Afghanistan after 9/11.
Countries involved: 29 member countries, including Canada, the US and most of western Europe.
Nuclear agreements: Ending one, working on another
North Korea – Making history with solo meeting – Trump’s historic mano-a-mano meeting with Kim Jong Un yielded a remarkable agreement that North Korea will work toward denuclearizing and the US will stop military exercises in the region and, Trump later teased, potentially reconsider its military support for South Korea. Both are incredible concessions if they come to pass. The details, and how to verify that North Korea lives up to its work, will take some time to hammer out. Trump has become the star of the negotiations with Kim, even though South Korean and Japanese leaders arguably have more expertise and are more invested in the region.
Countries involved: Trump has rejected the multi-country negotiating efforts of previous presidents in favor of direct talks with North Korea. He has still counted on pressure and help from South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
Iran – Ending a Obama’s international nuclear deal – Trump campaigned on a promise to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal engineered by the Obama administration and others in the world community, and he delivered in May, despite an onslaught of lobbying from European leaders. He said the deal, in which Iran promised to ice its nuclear program in exchange for eased sanctions, was flawed. He promised to negotiate better deals and pointed to North Korea.
Countries involved: Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany. The accord was also enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, incorporating it into international law.
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – Other countries step into the US void – Another Obama-era agreement Trump opposed as a candidate. Ending prospects for TPP was one of his first acts as president. The nations involved in the massive trade deal, meant to counteract China’s growing might, have carried on without the US and entered into a trade pact of their own. Trump mused about joining on after all, but did not pursue the idea.
Countries involved: Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Canada and Mexico, but no United States
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – To Trump, Europe is worse than China – Basically an Atlantic area version of the TPP, progress had been halted on this proposal before Trump was elected. Parties expressed interest again, however. Trump has groused about Germany’s trade deficit with the US, but Europe is one of the largest trading partners with the US. European nations have tried to use the idea of a trade agreement with the EU to pressure Trump into a climate change reduction agreement. Trump told French President Emmanuel Macron that the EU is worse than China on trade. The EU is the US’s largest trading partner.
NAFTA – Renegotiating or pulling – He’s teased the idea of pulling out of NAFTA altogether, but more recently Trump has insisted the deal that opens trade from tip to tail of North America must be renegotiated on better terms for the US. His now-fraught relationship with Trudeau could prove problematic, as could his already-fraught relationship with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over his promised border wall. Peña Nieto refused to visit the White House earlier this year. Trump has said NAFTA will either be renegotiated or become two bilateral agreements – one with Canada and one with Mexico.
Climate change agreements
Paris climate accord – Won’t crumble to world pressure – Trump said he’d negotiate a better deal, but that doesn’t seem to be a priority. His promise to pluck the US from the Paris agreement would make the US the only country not taking part. US states like California have tried to make their own commitments on climate change. Trump left that G7 meeting before talks on climate change were planned to occur.
Dealing with geopolitical rivals
China – Standing up to China on trade was a main promise of Trump’s during the presidential campaign. Despite tit-for-tat tariffs, Trump has tried to work toward a trade deal with China. He signed an agreement with China for new trade back in May of 2017. But that was before he tempted a trade war with new tariffs that drew a Chinese response. It is difficult to find a clear strategy on China from Trump. He imposes tariffs one day and rescues a Chinese company the next. By The Washington Post’s count, he’s put more tariffs on US allies than on China. He’s also got a complicated but apparently close relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping – each man has hosted the other on foreign trips and Trump has been up and down on Xi. But there’s no doubt China has tried to step into the global leadership position Trump has ceded for the US.
Russia – Just as he’s expressed frustration with NATO and the G7, Trump has had a more open mind toward Russia. His openness comes despite the ongoing investigation into whether members of his campaign colluded with Russians. Congress basically forced Trump to impose new sanctions on Russia and he, along with Europeans, expelled Russian diplomats. But CNN’s Stephen Collinson has documented how Trump’s actions on Russia pale in comparison to his predecessors. And his comments about returning Russia to the G7 are the latest example.
Middle East and the war on terror
Israel – A cheerleader for Trump’s moves – Trump has drawn raves from Israel for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and for making a point of moving the US Embassy there to Jerusalem. But that was a move perceived as taking sides in the disagreements between Israelis and Palestinians. Moving the embassy marks an indelible change in US posture and the way the US is perceived in the Middle East and by European partners. It is no longer possible to frame the US as neutral arbiters in that dispute. The peace process remains on ice.
Syria and ISIS – Trump wants more from the Arab world and will leave more for Russia – Trump has mused about pulling all US troops from Syria and Iraq, which would leave Russia, an ally of Syria, as the main outside force in that region and also provide an opening for Iran. He’s also launched bombing raids on the regime of Bashar al-Assad after chemical attacks. But his clear desire is to spend less US money and military commitment in the region.
The list goes on, but the theme of US disengaging as an interlocutor in the world community and instead speaking for itself, America First, as Trump would say, is everywhere.
This story has been updated.