Tuesday, February 12, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

President Trump has done his most damage to the US image in foreign reputation and action, yet American voters are choosing Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 based on their domestic policies.

That’s not unusual. Unless we’re in a shooting war and a draft for young men and women affecting every household, foreign entanglements seem distant to voters.   But it may be short-sighted this time without knowing which issues will rise to the top in an election 22 months away. It actually could be a shooting war.

No one running is putting foreign policy experience first.  The public assumes again that someone who can handle our basic economic issues will do right in foreign quarters, but it is a dangerous assumption, given how many countries no longer look to the US as the necessary partner and adviser. There will be a lot of healing in world affairs required in the choice of next president.

Congress can’t stop but it can slow down Trump’s effort to change the face of the judiciary.

It can block some of his most outrageous initiatives to spend taxpayer money.

But it has pretty much let him do what he wants in the foreign arena, unless you count tsk-tsking, screaming and feeble attempts to control troop movements. That is very strange since the Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war and approve treaties.

Yet with barely a murmur, Trump has pulled the US out of or damaged our central position with: 

The Paris Agreement on climate change. Not only does Trump deny climate change exists and needs to be addressed, he has forced nearly every other country in the world, plus many US states, to move ahead on their own in curbing fossil fuels and muting the impact of human activity on our water, air and Earth.

The Iran nuclear deal.  Other nations are struggling to continue icing Iran’s nuclear capabilities for 10 years in exchange for eased sanctions.  Trump is at war with his own intelligent experts on whether Iran is standing by the deal or not, but he’s pulled out in any event, leaving the other nations involved to fend for themselves.  

The Intermediate Range Nuclear Deal with Russia, credited since 1987 with slowing the pace of ballistic and cruise missiles development and implementation.  Pulling out struck many allies as an extreme reaction to small Russian violations and a preliminary to a new arms race.

Undermining the G7 unity. The major developed economic nations had united to speak out against Russian intrusion  into Crimea and kick that country out until it behaves, but Trump now wants to readmit Russia without mentioning its invasion of Ukraine territory.

His Singapore Agreement with North Korea’s dictator abandoned a uniform front against Kim Jung-un. Trump claims, and the experts disagree, that his one-on-one diplomacy  averted a war.  The critics argue he was encouraging a hot war with verbal insults hurled back and forth – and so far his summit style has resulted in a lot of promise of nuclear cutbacks that North Korea has not delivered.

The World Trade Organization.  It has existed in some form since 1947 and has angered labor rights activists for giving corporations an equal place with nations in its procedures.  Trump doesn’t want to end that, but he doesn’t like other nations telling him when the US is on the wrong side of their rules.

Similarly, NATO. The military alliance credited with balancing North American policy since World War II has been savaged by Trump as costing too much and not being important.

The United Nations.  Trump has pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

That top of my head list does not even include trade deals. Americans have mixed feelings about those and about the value of Trump imposed tariffs that seem to be harming US farmers and businesses more than its supposed target, China.

Lori Wallach, head of the influential Global Watch, has summed up the dilemma in her talks – Trump sometimes  grabs the right end of the stick for the wrong reasons. 

The self-described great deal maker has only partly replaced NAFTA with the USMCA, which still needs congressional approval. He has renegotiated portions of KORUS, the deal with South Korea, to miniscule effect.  While 11 other nations remain active in Asian trade policy designed to curb China’s influence, he has dropped out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership with no replacement on the horizon, talking vaguely about deals one by one with other nations.

That only scratches what experts and think tanks describe as the harm Trump has done to the US international image.  Suspicions that Trump harbors colonialism instincts have encouraged rebellion against US influence on continents from Africa to South America and countries like India and Indonesia, where Chinese business initiatives are making headway.

European nations are openly struggling to develop a future that doesn’t rely on US involvement. Mideast nations waffle between playing up to Trump or seeking other alliances. Israel is facing a corruption scandal of its own, with Trump firmly on the side of the accused.

The US standing in international polls has plummeted even as Trump boasts how well he is doing.

Another dilemma facing US voters: Several economies affected by global politics. Wall Street seems to thrive when companies lay off workers but it clearly reacts in both directions over little blips of financial news from around the world.  Small businesses, farmers and Main Street retail respond to different data points and realities. Even with Trump’s boasts of a strong economy, his “wrong direction” numbers in polls are staggering.

In such an atmosphere, it will be essential which economic and social policies  generate enthusiasm among people who want Trump gone.  Will it be health policy, which drove many elections in 2018 without specifically speaking about Trump?  Will it be wages and a healthier middle class, which some candidates are already emphasizing?  Will it be voting access and accountability, the first bill out of the gate in the House?  Will it be comprehensive immigration reform? Infrastructure? 

Foreign policy is not in there.  Sadly it might take warlike tensions to make it No. 1, though how Trump handles Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russian excursions, Turkey and the Kurds could heat up voter worries in a hurry.

To this point, among the talked up candidates, only Joe Biden has considerable foreign experience. But if he enters the race, many see him as a one-term placeholder to knit the country together.  Two senators likely campaigning, Sherrod Brown and Amy Klobuchar, have  considerable foreign policy experience from their long-time roles in the Senate.  Another senator, Elizabeth Warren, has spoken up on Israel in a way not comforting to those concerned about the Palestinians.  Three other candidates,  Kristen Gillebrand, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, are something of a cipher on details of foreign policy.

All, frankly, are hoping the voters will continue their indifference to foreign policy decisions, relying on the old habit that someone good on domestic issues will do right by the foreign policy side.  Problem is, no president has given such enormous troubles to his successor in that region as Trump is handing whoever replaces him.  It’s almost as if he intends to make it so bad that voters will believe his statement that “I alone can fix it.”

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.