Remember all of the criticisms of President George W. Bush for his “unilateralism” in world affairs? And of President Obama for his reliance on executive orders in domestic affairs? Some apologies are in order. President Trump is outpacing them in his willingness to rule by fiat, disdaining any attempt to win the support of either Congress or America’s allies. It turns out that when he claimed grandiloquently during the 2016 campaign “I alone can fix it” — meaning everything that ails America — he meant “I alone” literally.
While Trump has been prevented by his saner advisors from carrying out some of his insaner ideas — he hasn’t ordered the torture of suspected terrorists, turned Afghanistan over to mercenaries, or tried seriously to force Mexico to pay for a border wall — his first nine months in office are littered with abandoned international treaties and renounced obligations.
Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, handing China a gift in its attempts to dominate its neighbors; the Paris climate accords, setting back efforts to combat global warming; and now UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias just as that organization was selecting its first Jewish head, France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay. Trump didn’t quite withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, but he did refuse to certify that it is in America’s interest and threatened to withdraw in the near future if it cannot be toughened in ways that Iran is unlikely to accede to. Now Trump is making impossible demands of Mexico and Canada during negotiations over the future of the North America Free Trade Agreement, leading many observers to suspect he is deliberately sabotaging a treaty that has fostered closer economic and political ties among the three nations of North America.
In all these instances, Trump has acted in the face of nearly unanimous opposition from America’s allies, isolating the United States in a way that it has never been isolated in the post-1945 era.
Alienating allies is going to backfire because we depend heavily on other nations for our own security.
George W. Bush was denounced as a unilateralist for invading Iraq without the blessing of the United Nations or NATO, but he did have a “coalition of the willing” made up of 31 nations, even if most of them provided only token support. For his decertification of the Iran nuclear deal, by contrast, Trump has assembled a coalition of perhaps three other nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The move was roundly denounced by Britain, France and Germany — three of America’ most important allies — and even many current and former Israeli security officials believe that it is misguided, because for all its limitations the deal is constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Israel was the only nation supportive of the U.S. move to leave UNESCO, but even it was caught off guard by the decision. And Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords places the United States in the company of precisely two other nations: Syria and Nicaragua.
Alienating allies is going to backfire because we depend heavily on other nations for our own security. Exhibit A: Chad. This tiny nation has been an important partner in fighting Islamist terrorists in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet over the objections of the State and Defense departments, Trump included Chad on the revised list of nations whose citizens are not allowed to enter the United States. Now Chad has withdrawn its troops from neighboring Niger, where it was working with the U.S. to fight Boko Haram terrorists.
Trump has been similarly high-handed and capricious on the domestic front. The only major piece of legislation passed during his administration so far is a bill tightening sanctions on Russia that he opposed. His attempts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act — which he seems to object to principally because it was created by his predecessor — have failed spectacularly. He can’t get Congress to fund his “big, beautiful” border wall. So he has resorted to rule by executive order — precisely what he criticized Obama for.
“Obama goes around signing executive orders,” Trump said in February 2016. “He can’t even get along with the Democrats…. It’s a basic disaster.” How much more of a disaster is the Trump presidency? Trump has signed more executive orders at this point in his administration than any president since Lyndon Johnson, who racked up legislative achievements Trump can only dream of.
Some of Trump’s executive orders have been helpful in rolling back needless regulations that hinder the economy, but his most recent order could be a disaster for Americans who have received health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act. On Friday, Trump ended $7 billion in insurance subsidies intended to defray the cost of insuring low-income Americans, which will by all accounts lead to a spike in individual insurance rates. Trump has been predicting that Obamacare would collapse, and he now seems intent on making this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The good news is that the checks and balances provided by Congress, the courts and the media have largely worked, but we are a getting a lesson in the vast powers inherent in the American presidency. Acting willfully and thoughtlessly, Trump is jeopardizing our prosperity and security. We can only hope that he does not top himself by demonstrating his authority to launch a nuclear war — something that his unhinged rhetoric against North Korea is making more likely.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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