By: Nick Santangelo

It’s natural for the United States’ relationships with foreign countries to change some when a new president comes into office and new domestic and foreign affairs reframe situations. But President Donald Trump’s election has seemed to create more volatility in international relationships than usual. Last Friday, the Department of History welcomed a handful of panelists from the Department of Political Science to its final Teach-In of the academic year to discuss some of the ways these relationships have changed since January 2017.

Human Rights

Political Science Assistant Professor Sarah Bush sees human rights concerns as the biggest divergence from previous administrations. Trump isn’t actually the first president to have some confusing rhetoric in this area, she explained. In fact, past presidents have made a habit of saying one thing but doing another thing that seems to contradict their words.

“Promoting democracy and protecting human rights abroad have been goals of American human rights policy for a long time,” she said, “but they have been implemented in ways that are very hypocritical or half-hearted.”

On the surface, human rights have been an important cause for U.S. presidents since World War II ended and the Cold War began. There have been times when sanctions, economic policies and military interventions were enacted to follow through on the country’s supposed interest in seeing other countries respect human rights. But Dr. Bush explained that actions taken by America have often not matched up with this supposed concern. With President Trump, the real difference is that there seems to be far less rhetoric taking a hard stance on human rights issues.

In fact, the president ran on a platform that “emphasized the need to concentrate on hardnosed American interests,” said Dr. Bush. Further, the Temple University professor speculated that rights for women and minorities “may even be something he has an active dislike for.” Nevertheless, the actual actions taken by his administration have largely continued precedents set by previous administrations. That means there’s “somewhat of a disconnect, and the picture isn’t entirely bleak.”

Trade

Political Science Associate Professor Roselyn Hsueh wanted to talk about human rights (and other) issues in one country in particular. Previous administrations spoke publicly about China in very measured ways while combatting the country through actions like condemning its human rights violations and championing the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TTP), said Dr. Hseuh. President Trump, as promised during his campaign, pulled the United States out of the TTP. While the move may have been popular among Americans, it left a void for China to step into and spearhead a trade partnership with Pacific nations on its own terms.

Meanwhile, the president has announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, and while China is not one of the top countries the U.S. imports those materials from, the country is still viewing the tariffs—as they were intended to be—as a  move against it.

“China will see this or at least perceive it as about China,” said Dr. Hsueh. The professor explained that China has struck back by putting tariffs on around 135 U.S. products. It’s a much smaller number than the 1,300 Chinese products President Trump placed tariffs on after China announced its first wave of U.S. product tariffs, but those products make up about $150 billion in U.S. products.

Interestingly, trade issues like these have historically not been partisan, said Political Science Assistant Professor Alexandra Guisinger. The U.S. has long been at the forefront of trade liberalization “regardless of which party has been in power,” she said. Agreements have been negotiated by Republicans and signed by Democrats and vice versa. Then came Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders.

As candidates, both men talked far more about trade issues and problems they may have caused and could yet cause for Americans than presidential candidates normally do. They had many issues with the TTP and didn’t shy away from talking about them. But candidate Trump may have gone further in making trade an issue than any other presidential candidate in modern times. Dr. Guisinger called his promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and place a 35 percent tariff on China “a huge change in rhetoric.”

The wall hasn’t been built (not yet, at least), but in addition to pulling out of the TTP, the president also renegotiated NAFTA. Then, after a prolonged silence on trade issues, he introduced new tariffs earlier this year. In January, he put tariffs on washing machines and solar panels and later followed with his proposed steel and aluminum tariffs. Like her colleague, Dr. Guisinger pointed out that the steel and aluminum tariffs won’t affect China much on a practical level. But from a public perception standpoint, they are very much about the communist power.

“We’re now officially in a trade war,” said Dr. Guisinger.

China’s response has been to strategically tax items coming from swing states: fruits from Florida and aircraft parts from Ohio, for instance. The idea is to turn the president’s base against him.

“I think that’s going to be an interesting political cleavage that’s emerging,” added Dr. Guisinger.

Nuclearization and Denuclearization

This standoff has the potential to spill into other areas besides just trade, too. Dr. Hseuh reminded the College of Liberal Arts audience that North Korea and South Korea are in talks to sign a peace treaty that would officially end the Korean War, which effectively concluded when an armistice was signed in 1953 but never formally ended.

As Political Science Assistant Professor Jane Vaynman pointed out, a peace treaty could potentially lead to North Korea’s denuclearization. It’s not completely clear if that would be the case or not, but the North has at least floated the idea out there. The panelists seemed to agree that, regardless of what damage the president’s rhetoric has done for the U.S. in the world, this would be a major accomplishment.

The main talks in the Koreas, though, look to focus on officially ending the Korean War. To do so, both the United States and China would need to be involved along with North and South Korea, since all four nations were belligerents. It’s not clear how China will approach these talks given its trade standoff with the U.S.

It’s hoped that the threat of North Korea becoming a nuclear power is enough to get all parties working together. In the meantime, another communist state known for contentious nuclear standoffs with the United States has been causing trouble elsewhere in the world—or so it seems.

On the subject of an ex-Russian spy being poisoned in the United Kingdom, Dr. Vaynman said she was “pretty fully convinced that Russia is in some ways responsible.” She believes the country purposefully used a nerve agent that it knew would be traced back to it. The Trump administration initially refused to blame Russia for the incident. It’s since changed its tune, however, expelling Russian diplomats from the U.S., which caused Russia to respond in kind while also making boisterous claims about new kinds of nuclear weapons.

Russia, of course, has never used a nuclear weapon in war. But Dr. Vaynman said that’s by no means a guarantee it would never do so in a proxy war somewhere in Europe or elsewhere. That’s why it’s so terrifying when other countries, like Iran, attempt to develop nuclear arms.

President Trump has been blasting the deal to prevent or at least delay Iran from developing nuclear warfare capabilities and threatening to de-certify it. French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited the White House and tried to convince Trump to change his mind on the matter. Dr. Vaynman believes he did so at the behest of many European Union leaders who believe in the deal and want to keep it in place.

Strategy

If you’re wondering where all this maneuvering is taking the U.S. and the world with Donald Trump in office, you’re not alone. A student asked the panelists what the administration’s actual foreign policy strategy is.

Dr. Guisinger responded that she sees mixes of both populism and realism in the president’s moves, suggesting that whoever happens to have the president’s ear at any given moment has the most influence over what happens next. Dr. Hseuh agreed that it’s hard to pin down the overarching strategy, with Dr. Vaynman echoing that it’s “super reactionary.” But it was perhaps Dr. Bush who summed things up best, capturing the frustration and confusion of the entire panel.

“I’m not sure that there is a single, coherent grand strategy or philosophy that’s underpinning his foreign policy.”

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