US unlikely to withdraw from world stage
It has been a week since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th US president. People in the US and abroad listened very carefully to his inaugural address, for it is on that occasion that new presidents enunciate their worldviews and domestic policy agendas most clearly.
Trump said his domestic and foreign decisions would be predicated on policies that put “America first.” However, that should not be construed as an isolationist posture or a slight against international cooperation.
In his first week as president, Trump’s executive orders relating to immigration issues, including the proposed building of a wall along the southern border with Mexico, received inordinate media coverage. Another executive order that withdrew the US from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) also garnered attention, especially since it was among his first as president.
It is tempting to read these measures as a harbinger of things to come, but there are ample reasons to believe the US will be engaged on the world stage politically and economically. The order to withdraw the US from the TPP was essentially a formality. As the presidential campaign got underway, it became clear early on that both the Republican candidates and their Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton opposed the treaty.
Even former President Barack Obama, who championed it, acknowledged that it had no support in Congress and its chances of being ratified were slim. Trump’s executive order appears more a reaction to a treaty that was widely seen as unfair by both Republicans and Democrats.
Before assuming the presidency, Trump had been known primarily as a businessman who had a talent for developing real-estate in the US and abroad, including Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East. It is hard to fathom that his decades of deal-making with partners in the US and worldwide have not made him a firm believer in the efficacy and benefits of free trade.
The same can be said about Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson, who is expected to be confirmed by the US Senate soon, was CEO of the world’s biggest energy company ExxonMobil. He has spoken on the record about the benefits of free trade. His statements make clear that he does not see trade as a zero-sum game, where one party wins and another, by definition, loses.
His many decades of experience as a major player in the oil market, which has always been global in nature, will mean he will likely champion a foreign policy that promotes international trade and cooperation. The concern that the US in general and American workers in particular get a “fair deal” when trade treaties are signed is not at all unreasonable.
Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir expressed great optimism about working closely with the Trump administration, and the prospect of Saudi-US relations broadening and deepening on several levels, including politically, militarily and economically. Al-Jubeir said he expected the US to be more engaged in the world than it has been in recent years.
Trump has repeatedly said he wants to restore what he considers to be America’s diminished standing in the world. That cannot be done by withdrawing from the world stage. As Al-Jubeir correctly said, when the US is not engaged in the world, it creates a vacuum. There are strong indications that the veteran team of national security and foreign policy advisers that Trump has appointed understand that reality very well.
The international political and economic order — that was created after World War II to prevent a slide into yet another devastating world war — has served the US and much of the international community well.
Trade and economic cooperation have increased, and the world, despite some seemingly intractable conflicts, has become generally more stable and peaceful since the establishment of a host of economic and political institutions that encourage international economic cooperation and seek peaceful means to resolve political disputes. There is no reason to believe Trump will abandon that.
•Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.