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Senators Worry US Standing Abroad Is at Risk

Trump early actions draw resistance from both sides of the aisle

Arizona Sen. John McCain is among the senators concerned about the effect of President Donald Trump’s positions on foreign policy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Arizona Sen. John McCain is among the senators concerned about the effect of President Donald Trump’s positions on foreign policy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators on both sides of the aisle are raising alarms about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and questioning whether the administration’s actions threaten the United States’ position as a global leader.

Trump has rattled the international community and lawmakers say it has left U.S. allies scrambling for certainty from an administration that often sends conflicting messages about its positions on major diplomatic issues.

“Every country, in Europe and Asia, everybody, they are all concerned,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona said. “The United States is losing credibility.”

The president, for example, has praised authoritarian leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, while picking arguments with key allies, including Australia and Germany.

As a candidate, Trump threatened to upend NATO, and, since assuming the presidency, has left members questioning the U.S. commitment to that military alliance. On Friday, he reaffirmed the administration’s support for Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which provides for the common defense of alliance members. That came after reports that Trump deleted from a speech to NATO heads in Europe last month the U.S. commitment to that common defense. 

Trump has also sought to overhaul key trade agreements — such as the North American Free Trade Agreement — and critics say his ambivalence toward multinational trade deals has opened the door for countries such as China to capitalize on that uncertainty.

The list goes on: Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his administration’s proposal to cut millions in funding to foreign aid programs and then-candidate Trump’s early praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The administration says many of these actions should not come as a surprise, as they align with the promises Trump made on the campaign trail.

“Shortsighted critics would do well to consider the results and the fact we have no choice but to work with certain leaders in order to protect Americans,” White House spokesman Michael Short said. “The great thing about the strong alliances and deep bonds we have with many countries is that we can have candid conversations.”

Looking to Congress

But as uncertainty mounts over the administration’s long-term strategy, some foreign countries are pivoting to Congress to air their concerns.

McCain, for example, recently led a congressional delegation trip to Vietnam alongside Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Chris Coons, D-Del. During that trip, the lawmakers heard firsthand from “dozens of allies” about their apprehensions over U.S. actions, Coons said.

“I heard the same concerns, concerns that the alarming or unconventional statements by candidate Trump about the value of NATO, about our commitment to our allies, about our commitment to international institutions and international mechanisms for tackling the problems challenging the world, were translated into actions by President Trump that are deeply concerning to many of our long standing allies,” Coons said.

The Delaware Democrat said most of the uncertainty felt by global leaders stems from Trump’s social media habits.

“The president’s statements and actions, in particular his tweets, are unsettling to our allies … because they are so unconventional as a way of a head of state to communicate on fast-moving and complex international matters,” Coons said.

Such criticism is coming not just from Democrats. Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, say they are worried that the Trump administration’s foreign policy actions undermine U.S. leadership around the globe. 

“Overall, yes, I’m concerned. But I’ll leave it at that. I can’t comment on everything every day, but overall … I am concerned about our standing,” Flake said last week.

At the heart of the issue, Coons and others say, are the opposing messages the Trump administration sends out to the world. While allies find reassurance in statements and speeches made by officials such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, any gains made are potentially undermined by comments or actions from Trump himself.

Coons said such members of the administration are “working hard to reassure our allies,” as are members of Congress, but it is “not working.“ 

The conflicting messaging was on full display last week. Tillerson on Friday called upon a group of Arab nations to end their blockade of Qatar, a key U.S. military ally in the Middle East. Later that day, speaking from the Rose Garden, Trump said the blockade, led by Saudi Arabia, was “hard but necessary” and that Qatar has historically funded terrorism “at a very high level.”

A State Department spokesperson disputed the notion that the remarks were contradictory and provided several examples of how they believed Trump and Tillerson’s viewpoints aligned. Among them was a rebuke from both men of Qatar’s funding of some extremist groups, though Tillerson took a much more nuanced stance in his comments. But the presence of any ambiguity undermines the difficulty the international community has in deciphering Trump’s often broad and seemingly off-the-cuff statements. 

Alternative views

Not all actions by the administration are viewed negatively. Some lawmakers see the bombing of an airbase in Syria and the stronger stance against North Korea’s growing aggression as positive. 

“It’s a mixed bag,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.

Concerns in Congress, though, reach beyond just military matters. Trump’s desire to upend major trade agreements has sent shock waves around the globe. 

“I have been concerned about the direction the administration is taking on trade,” Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner said. “I do think one of the strongest ways to show U.S. leadership is through economic opportunity led by strong trade agreements.”

Gardner was one of only three Republicans to vote against the confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s pick for U.S. trade representative.

Other GOP members are holding their critiques until more information on the administration’s efforts to renegotiate NAFTA and pursue bilateral trade agreements are available.

“The tale has yet to be told here,” North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said. “They are working it. This is a new approach. Let’s see how it goes.”

The Trump administration has also pushed for drastic cuts to the State Department in its proposed fiscal 2018 budget and called for a significant restructuring of its operation.

The White House requested a roughly $16 billion decrease in funding for foreign aid and diplomacy programs, including a nearly 80 percent cut to programs that provide support to refugees. While Congress is unlikely to make such deep cuts, it still sent a strong message abroad.

And even as the concerns mount about any U.S. withdrawal from the international arena, some Republicans say the United States still offers the best example across the globe.

“The western governments know … that a rules-based international order is the only viable path forward for free peoples and free economies. China certainly is not supportive of a rules-based international order,” Gardner said. “That’s why the U.S. can’t shirk its responsibilities at the global stage.”