Ever since Donald Trump came to power, the United States has not had a univocal foreign policy but rather a forked one.
One is the approach to the world of its president Trump, a mixture of his isolationist and bombastic fixations; the other is the perception that the world has of U.S. external relations that were traditionally anchored by the establishment.
The dichotomy works out in a way that important nations in the world, and most tellingly in Europe, do not take Trump’s foreign policy seriously. To be honest, they are affected by those actions of the president that threaten to disrupt the international order and its recognized institutions, from NATO to the Paris climate agreements. Their reaction is a mixture of patience and sufferance underlying the common secret understanding that the American establishment remains a strong subterranean force that will mitigate the ruinous effects of Trump’s personal foreign policy.
At the moment, the separation between Trump’s persistence in embracing disruptive courses of action and the European strategy of pushing back with quiet diplomacy can be managed only through the status quo. This is the only hope, apparently, of preventing some cataclysmic event or at best containing the fire in hot spots of the world.
In fact, there are quite a few of those, the most conspicuous ones being Ukraine and the Middle East. President Trump’s sympathy toward President Putin is not shared by the European allies that would like to see more determination in facing up to the hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. The forgotten war in that region was hardly on the agenda of Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki last July.
Now, the new Ukraine-Russia clash in the Azov Sea is forcing President Trump to face the reality of Russia’s aggressive actions. The Europeans have backed the Ukrainian argument of freedom of navigation and shipping while President Trump has limited his reaction to the statement “I do not like aggression.”
The Middle East is the crisis area where the allies are most preoccupied by Trump’s decision to stand by Saudi Arabia as they do not share his judgment about the importance of Saudi leadership in countering Iran and contributing to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. They are not alone in this assessment as an increasing number of members of Congress and the intelligence agencies question the relationship with the Saudis and above all American indirect connivance in the catastrophic war in Yemen. This is another situation where the policies of the Trump administration are in stark contrast with the foreign policy community in Washington.
In practical terms, the fallout of the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi is already altering President Trump’s ability to pursue his policy goals in the Middle East. In the near future, the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has given hope to many around the world that out of coming battles among Trump, Congress and the intelligence network will come the realignment of American foreign policy demanded by the establishment. The world needs America to speak with one voice and to reclaim its moral leadership.