Trump upends bipartisan consensus on multilateral cooperation

As far back as World War II, United States foreign policy has been characterized by a bipartisan consensus in favor of expanding democracy and free markets. Republican or Democrat, we believed this was the path to a safer, more secure, more prosperous world.

President Donald Trump is upending that consensus. While it is early in his tenure, Trump's rhetoric is cause for concern when international tensions are high and foreign policy challenges are serious.

A hallmark of America's approach to international relations has been our willingness to engage extensively with other nations. We have supported our allies, financially and in other ways, and acted globally to meet challenges through a strong international network marked by consultations, treaties, agreements and accords. We led the way in creating and endorsing institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

We believed that progress toward peace, security and prosperity would come through interdependence, co-operation and multilateralism. We acknowledged that this approach was in our self-interest. We believed not only that our security and prosperity were advanced by broad and deep alliances and partnerships, but that they were the best way to create a more peaceful, free and prosperous world.

This was the way we conducted our business, met our challenges and solved problems.

Trump challenges all of that. He supports what he calls economic nationalism. His campaign theme, now applied to governing, is America First. He embraces a protectionist, mercantilist foreign policy and questions the value of international institutions.

Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of the World Trade Organization. He has criticized the World Bank for linking climate change and global poverty. He says that trade agreements are killing American jobs and that NATO is obsolete, and he appears eager to get along with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He favors greatly expanding our nuclear forces and welcomes an arms race because, he says, "we will outmatch them." That runs counter to decades of policy aimed at reducing nuclear weapons and threats, an area where we have had significant success.

The president insults and rattles our allies and disparages our alliances. He says other nations are taking advantage of the United States; that they are laughing at us for protecting them from threats and paying for their defense. They're "screwing us," as he puts it. Condemning his Republican and Democratic predecessors alike, he says American leadership has been "stupid" for decades. In his view, we will "make America great again" by taking oil from our rivals, building a wall to keep out immigrants and forcing concessions in bilateral trade agreements.

Trump is prone to bluster, and his actual approach may not match his rhetoric as he wrestles with real-world challenges. There have been hopeful signs that his policies -- on Iran, Russia, China and terrorism, for example -- may be more pragmatic than his bombastic statements would suggest. Several of his cabinet secretaries have, with reasonableness and even-handedness, spoken up for a more traditional American approach to foreign policy.

Some of his criticisms of the global order have merit. Our approach has not worked perfectly. Multi-nationalism has produced significant benefits, but it has not eliminated wars, prevented terrorism or narrowed the gap between rich and poor. Many of Trump's voters clearly felt that global economic progress left them behind and that American leadership was not appreciated or respected.

But we should all be aware of the stark changes the new president is advocating. As Americans, we have long believed that our interests are furthered through the spread of democracy and freedom. We have had faith that, in the long run, our system of government would prove superior to others. We have maintained that multilateral cooperation is the way to achieve these ends.

Trump rejects that consensus and thinks we've gotten a bad deal from the international order. He seems to see every relationship as a contest in which one side wins and the other loses. That's not the way America has conducted foreign policy in our lifetimes. But it may be our approach in the future.