In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to former US Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh.
US foreign policy is a hot topic of discussion in the media. Since his inauguration in 2017, President Donald Trump has been embroiled in controversy with world leaders: from hanging up on then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to being scoffed by French President Emmanuel Macron over his use of Twitter.
The peculiarity of Trump’s foreign policy is not only because he has been involved in so many spats with his counterparts and high-ranking politicians around the world. The unilateralism of the Trump administration and the president’s disregard for accords and treaties are unprecedented in the history of the United States, giving rise to concerns that America is isolating itself internationally.
Trump’s major foreign policy decisions, which have drawn widespread criticism, include his withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accord; pulling out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); de-certification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal; and scrapping the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Carey Cavanaugh, a former US ambassador and special negotiator for Eurasian conflicts, about US foreign relations under Donald Trump. Cavanaugh is currently a professor of diplomacy and conflict resolution at the University of Kentucky.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: The foreign policy of President Donald Trump appears to be very aggressive as compared to his predecessor, Barack Obama, who was always in favor of diplomatic and negotiation-based approaches. What do you think is the reason? Won’t this attitude isolate the United States on the global stage?
Carey Cavanaugh: President Trump’s foreign policy approach and preferences contrast sharply with those of President Obama. I believe this reflects the two men’s character and the very different paths each took to reach the Oval Office. Obama’s political experience was as a community organizer, an Illinois senator and then a US senator. He cut his teeth on building coalitions and crafting compromise solutions. He was also a policy wonk. In foreign affairs, Obama was strategic in his outlook, favoring diplomacy, and comfortable working with a wide array of international partners on complex issues. This was underscored repeatedly in his diplomatic interactions.
Trump, in contrast, entered the White House with no political experience, having honed his skills in an unconventional business and entertainment environment where success was largely a zero-sum game. There, the objective was to win and to beat your opponents, not to play well with others. Trump’s instinct remains to divide and disrupt, not unite. His style is intentionally abrasive and volatile, with a predilection for always being the center of attention. This has made him more comfortable acting unilaterally or developing one-on-one relationships, instead of pursuing multilateral engagement. This more solitary, aggressive, transactional method may have worked for Trump in his personal business dealings, but it has proven far less effective for advancing US foreign policy interests.
There is no question that Trump’s approach has diminished America’s global leadership. This has been evident from his participation at NATO and G-7 meetings, which the Germans now jokingly describe as “sechs gegen eins” [six against one], and was dramatically highlighted with the just concluded Paris Peace Forum.
About 70 world leaders attended the Peace Forum, which aims to improve coordination between governments and international organizations to tackle today’s global challenges. Participants included UN Secretary-General António Guterres, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and even Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not President Trump. Even though he was already in Paris for the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I, Trump snubbed the invitation and flew back to Washington just as the event got underway.
Ziabari: Since coming to power, President Trump has pulled the United States out of many international organizations and treaties, including UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Council and the Paris climate agreement, and stopped funding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. What could the consequences be of abandoning these international organizations and deals for the United States? Won’t this undermine multilateralism globally?
Cavanaugh: You should add to your list the decision to break the long-established international consensus not to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, stepping away from major multilateral trade negotiations, as well as the October decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). President Trump characterizes his approach as “America First,” but many experts fear that it risks leading to “America alone.”
America was the driving force behind the post-World War II liberal international order, which collectively promoted security, prosperity, democracy and human rights. Trump is now charting a very different, separate path. From global accords on climate change and trade agreements with Europe, Asia and North America to longstanding security relationships like NATO or newly established arrangements like the JCPOA, the US under Trump has either withdrawn or raised deep questions about its commitment to multilateral cooperation. Trump has also moved away from Washington’s historic role as the world’s champion of democracy and human rights.
Much of this disengagement reflects Trump’s desire to appeal to his electoral base and his transactional philosophy that makes him believe many of these arrangements hurt the US financially. This has led Trump to regard some of America’s closest friends more like opponents — “the European Union is a foe” — than partners, and has expanded opportunities for traditional opponents, in particular, Russia and China, to assume greater global leadership roles.
One key consequence of Trump’s “America First” approach has been to make historic partners believe they cannot rely on the US. Merkel, for example, has declared Europe can no longer put all of its trust in the US and “really must take our destiny into our own hands.” This sentiment, echoed in France, Canada and the United Kingdom, has been reinforced by the US decision to abandon the JCPOA.
In September at the United Nations, Macron issued a call for greater multilateralism in diplomacy and trade in direct response to Trump’s celebration of nationalism and rejection of global governance just before him at the same venue. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which effectively removes restrictions that have prevented Russia from introducing new nuclear weapons that would threaten Europe, is cementing the attitude that Europe must provide for its own protection. The French newspaper Le Monde is now writing about the “Europe-USA divorce.”
Ziabari: As you mentioned, one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions of President Trump was the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Why do you think he departed from the JCPOA? Will this unilateral de-certification of the Iran deal leave any room for rapprochement with Tehran?
Cavanaugh: Trump’s presidential campaign underscored his strong opposition to President Obama’s signature achievements in both domestic (the Affordable Care Act) and foreign policy (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).
The JCPOA, in fact, was much more than an Obama success. It was a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, having come about through 20 months of hard negotiations between the UN Security Council’s permanent five members —the US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France — plus the European Union and Iran. The agreement reined in Iran’s nuclear program and included an intrusive monitoring and verification regime to determine whether its provisions were being met. While the JCPOA did not guarantee Iran could never acquire a nuclear weapon, it moved Tehran away from the nuclear weapon threshold, extending the warning time between any potential decision to seek a bomb and the ability to obtain one.
Trump’s main criticism of the JCPOA was that it did not prevent Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon and did not curtail Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah and its broader engagement in the Middle East, something that the JCPOA was never meant to do. The problem was not that Tehran did not abide by the terms of the negotiated agreement. Trump opposed recertification, accusing Iran of violating the “spirit” of the action plan. On May 12, he withdrew the US from the agreement and, on November 5, re-imposed all of the sanctions that had been lifted. In this instance, the United States isolated itself. The International Atomic Energy Agency continues to declare that Iran remains in compliance, and the other JCPOA parties have vowed to try to maintain the deal despite the unilateral US actions.
The Trump administration is currently engaged in a “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran to stop its “malign” behavior across the Middle East and renegotiate the nuclear deal. National Security Advisor John Bolton is playing a key role in this effort, as is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The centerpiece of this is the aforementioned aggressive sanctions regime that targets Iran’s energy and financial sectors.
Those bearing the brunt of these sanctions, however, will be the people of Iran, not the leadership. Few other nations support these efforts. Any prospect of a rapprochement between the US and Iran right now is hard to imagine.
Ziabari: The critics of President Trump’s foreign policy say his sumptuous summit with the leader of North Korea was fruitless and that he will not be able to achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. What’s your take on that?
Cavanaugh: As a former American peace mediator, I know from experience the value of direct diplomatic engagement. Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear and missile technology are serious threats. The United States should be talking to the government of North Korea.
That said, the first step in such a diplomatic process should not have been a summit meeting between the two leaders, especially when there had not been substantial preparation, a predetermined agenda or even a well-developed strategy. Summits can be perfect for cementing an agreement that has been negotiated at a lower level, or spotlighting a significant breakthrough in relations, but they are not the best way to begin the conversation.
What we saw in Singapore in June was primarily a photo op, and it may have even diminished prospects for success. The prize sought by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his predecessors has long been exactly such recognition from a sitting US president. The price Trump made Kim pay to achieve this prize was simply to pledge that North Korea would work with the US toward a fuzzy “shared goal” of denuclearization, without having to agree to any future concrete steps.
Secretary of State Pompeo is now engaged in tough negotiations with the North, but there is no consensus on what is meant by “denuclearization,” let alone agreement on vital technical details. And, as every negotiator knows, the devil is in the details. These are the type of negotiations that would have normally preceded a summit meeting.
Furthermore, Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, even though Iran remains in compliance, may make Kim view any commitment by this administration as unreliable. With US sanctions on North Korea continuing, Pyongyang has warned that it may again act to strengthen its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, evidence has emerged that North Korea continues to work on its ballistic missile program.
North Korea remains unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the present-day situation is far better than just this past February, when the Trump administration appeared to be seriously weighing a military strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure. That action could have triggered all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
Ziabari: The Trump administration has imposed economic sanctions on a number of countries. Do you agree that the disproportionate use of economic sanctions will undermine diplomacy as an effective tool in international relations?
Cavanaugh: Economic sanctions are an important component of any US president’s foreign policy toolkit, but they must be crafted carefully and implemented judiciously. When sanctions are properly targeted, they can be used to punish governments and individuals who have engaged in unacceptable behavior, such as electoral interference, unfair trade practices, espionage, human rights violations, etc.
Broad, heavy sanctions, however, like those imposed by the United States on Cuba in the past or on Venezuela and Iran today, tend to hurt the general population more than the leadership, and risk inadvertently rallying public support for a regime more than fostering effective public pressure for change. Also, in our interconnected world, multilateral support is required to establish and maintain a successful sanctions regime.
Trump’s ongoing skirmishes with friends and foes, and narrow diplomatic engagement, are eroding America’s ability to use sanctions as an effective tool.
Ziabari: Why do you think President Trump has adopted such stringent policies on immigration? Will his Muslim ban, the wall across the border with Mexico and his crackdown on refugees make America safer?
Cavanaugh: I believe that none of these measures would make America safer. While harsh treatment of refugees, a Muslim ban or a border wall may appeal to elements of the president’s political base, these policies do not reflect the America that I know, love and have served.
Furthermore, Trump’s inordinate political focus on these issues has become a distraction from addressing key international problems that truly threaten the United States. Those include ongoing military conflict, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and climate change. The common denominator of these challenges is that none can be resolved by the US alone; all demand concerted multilateral diplomatic action.
As for immigration, this has long been a hot button political issue in the United States. But it is immigration that has made America vibrant and strong, building on this continent an incredibly diverse country, with citizens who are representative of virtually every nation on the planet, whose freedoms and prosperity are the envy of much of the world. The US remains a powerful magnet, drawing people who see here the opportunity to use their creativity and industriousness to obtain a better life for themselves and their families. Their talents and hard work help drive our nation forward.
While some reform of our immigration system is needed, discriminatory measures like a Muslim travel ban or the unnecessary construction of a southern border wall are no solution to the problem we face. A more sophisticated mix of diplomacy, development assistance and security measures would not only be more humane and reflective of America’s values, but far more likely to achieve the desired result.
Ziabari: The United States and Russia have been accommodating each other reluctantly in recent years, but have not had close and amicable relations. President Trump seems to be deeply in favor of bridging the gap between Washington and Moscow and considers the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, a friend. How do you interpret Trump’s overture to Russia?
Cavanaugh: Trump is not wrong to want a better US-Russian relationship. The two nations can and should cooperate on a wide range of mutual concerns, from strategic arms control and nuclear nonproliferation to stopping terrorists and helping resolve regional conflicts. It is hard to imagine crafting solutions on North Korea, Iran or Syria without productively engaging Moscow.
At the same time, it is a mistake to expect that the two countries will become close allies. There are too many instances where our fundamental interests and values collide. The best that we can hope for, as Georgetown Professor Angela Stent has said, is “a limited partnership where cooperation and competition co-exist.”
Ironically, Trump’s fondness for Putin has impeded the advancement of a coherent US-Russia strategy. Trump’s unwillingness to criticize Putin, coupled with concerns about collusion between Russia and people involved with his presidential campaign, has cast a pall over moves to work more closely together. Many Americans question Trump’s motives regarding Russia, and some even fear that Putin may be in a position to exercise undue influence over him. This perception was exacerbated at the July Helsinki Summit, where Trump suggested that he trusted Putin more than his own intelligence community on the question of Russian interference in the US elections.
Ziabari: Finally, will the recent US midterm elections have any significant impact on President Trump’s foreign policy?
Cavanaugh: No one should expect President Trump to recalibrate his foreign policy approach. He believes the midterm elections confirmed the popularity of his key positions with his base, making him even more confident that his gut instincts are correct. Issues that resonate for him domestically, like the wall, trade wars and restrictions on immigration, will remain prominent.
At the same time, with a new Democratic majority in the House and the Republicans having increased their control of the Senate, there may be even more legislative gridlock than before. Nevertheless, Democrats are now better positioned to engage in trench warfare against Trump’s foreign policy excesses.
One area of congressional inquiry will be whether the president’s personal business interests have influenced in any way the direction of US policy. Russia policy may also be particularly problematic, as House Democrats expand oversight and investigate more thoroughly Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 elections. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged collusion between Trump’s election campaign operations and Moscow will also continue to advance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.