US President Donald Trump shakes hands with his 'favorite dictator,' Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in Biarritz, France, on August 26, 2019, on the third day of the annual G7 Summit. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

The United States’ mishandling of its foreign policy over the past decades has managed to erode many nations’ confidence in America drastically, leading them to question the authenticity of excessively professed American values.

The United States’ present standing as the largest economy in the world, combined with its supremacy in advanced technology and military power, should have boosted its relations with the rest of the world. Instead, today many people across the globe perceive the foreign policies of the United States as illegitimate, unjustified and immoral. 

The United States’ political dynamism that revolves around its system of “checks and balances” is meant to serve its domestic politics by offering its politicians a functional power-sharing mechanism. However, when it comes to foreign policy, the checks and balances are set aside; in practice, the US president articulates foreign policy singlehandedly with little influence from members of Congress or the American media. 

Donald Trump has managed to highlight the deficiencies of US foreign policy, but this does not mean that the US once had a sensible foreign policy. Past American presidents had the advantage of political talents that they used to design and embellish their foreign policies; however, their failures remain in many parts of the world. A number of deep-rooted political causes are hindering US foreign policy. 

Democrats vs Republicans 

The rotation of the US presidency between Democrats and  Republicans often comes with a complete shift in foreign policy – a shift that defines the United States as a nation driven by a short-term strategy. Nations that oppose the US know that its foreign-policy planning is limited to four years (or eight years at a maximum, or two presidential terms). This prompts US presidents to deal only with what they define as “clear and present threats,” leaving potential political crises to be dealt with by their successors, whenever they emerge. 

The Iran nuclear agreement is a perfect example of this. In 2015, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including the US, plus Germany and the EU, signed a preliminary framework agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. President Trump, who believes that applying intense pressure on Iran will produce better results, withdrew from the agreement as soon as he came to power – putting into question the consistency of US foreign policy and completely disregarding partner nations that continue to endorse the agreement.

Leading Western nations cannot produce a long-lasting strategy knowing that US foreign policy is determined by a single “provisional” leader, unlike the more consistent policies articulated by political parties in many other democratic nations. Meanwhile, the United States’ adversaries, aware that in a few years a new president will take over who could reverse foreign policy, are happy to exercise patience while awaiting a change of course. 

National interests vs rhetorical values 

The United States often argues that it balances its national interests with its values. In fact, however, the US is entirely driven by national interests that are served up by prominent lobbyists, while falsely claiming to be abiding by moral values. The political dynamics of the country enable diverse US groups to lobby candidly for their interests, while American citizens who defend values are fragmented and substantially less influential. 

The fact that the US exports arms to nations engaged in war crimes portrays a strong interest that surpasses the values argument. The US claims that exporting weapons to war zones is a necessity to avoid these “markets” being taken over by other nations – an immoral argument in itself. 

The US State Department and a few renowned rights organizations issue yearly reports on the status of human rights in the nations of the world. Yet the US never takes these reports into consideration in its dealings with foreign nations – unless there is a desire to apply political pressure on a given country by highlighting its rights abuses. In fact, some of America’s closest allies are nations with some of the world’s worst human-rights records.

The recent impeachment process against Trump highlights how members of Congress vote along party lines, abandoning any personal political positions and values that diverge from their party’s standpoint.  

Leveraging autocracy vs hindering democracy 

“Where’s my favorite dictator?” Trump asked at the most recent Group of Seven summit in France, expressing his admiration for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s autocratic rule. “Strongmen” in autocratic nations have always been assets to the United States, helping it achieve its political desires rapidly and, in some cases, secretly – as opposed to democratic leaders who are not as readily able to serve US interests. 

The United States is naturally a “shortcut” nation that prefers to deal with a few leaders who can help it to attain its goals than to develop a bottom-up strategy that engages large numbers of a country’s citizenry. Thus the US is often happy to deal with autocrats, extremists, corrupt civil servants or cronies well positioned to help it realize its objectives. Then Washington expresses surprise when these dishonorable “allies” sell out the US, as they do regularly.

Meanwhile, the two-thirds of the world’s population who are ruled by autocratic regimes are by default in conflict with their rulers. Thus any kind of policy consensus between the United States and autocratic rulers not only puts into question the morality of US foreign policy that is objectively realized at the expense of millions of oppressed people, it also increases the contempt of people across the globe, prompted by their rulers, to propagate hatred toward the United States.   

The superpower egotism trap

Being the most powerful nation as well as the largest economy should mean the US faces fewer challenges than its rivals – provided that these assets are well exploited. In fact, the United States could advance the economies of many nations simply by opening its borders to their products. Nevertheless, the United States often falls into what can be described as the “superpower egotism trap” – an attitude of arrogance in dealing with issues that is born out of the conviction that America knows better than all other nations combined. 

The United States tends to establish the rules of the game, which it obliges other nations to follow, completely disregarding the fact that these rules might be unsuitable for other nations’ political dynamics or culturally unacceptable. The recent assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, supposedly meant to reduce terrorism, is in fact intensifying hatred toward the US and galvanizing more people who want take revenge on Americans.  

In the Middle East, where I come from, the United States reaches out toward many Arab nations; it provides billions of dollars annually through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has an Arabic TV channel, Alhurra, to communicate with Arab citizens directly, offers thousands of scholarships to Arab students to study in the United States, and has troops stationed across the region. Nevertheless, the US lacks a coherent strategy and does not have a clear vision of what it wants to gain from the substantial funds it dispenses and the numerous people it educates. 

Local obsession vs international ignorance 

Americans generally are locally oriented; some of them have little knowledge of anything beyond their state’s borders. However, they are ruling the world, or at least have considerable influence on it. But the United States does not rule the world with its democratic majority; only a tiny political elite has access to significant intelligence and information that is processed by American political dynamics and eventually manipulated by diverse interest groups. 

If we assume, without indicting or justifying it, that the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 was for a good cause (which is highly questionable), the fact remains that as a result of the invasion, the US injected its narrow political dynamics into the body politic of one of the most complex Arab Muslim nations that had been ruled repressively for decades; thus failure should have been anticipated. Iraq is currently heavily influenced by the United States’ principal enemy in the region, Iran. 

Meanwhile, in the ongoing US 2020 presidential election, American media have been accusing top Democratic candidates of being ignorant about foreign policy. Less than a year from today, one of these ill-informed candidates may be the most powerful leader in the world.

In conclusion

The arguments above lead us to realize a number of US foreign-policy realities: The US is an opportunistically driven and non-visionary nation with a limited understanding of developments in the rest of the world that is unable to anticipate crises prior to their emergence. Its superpower competences are largely irrelevant for addressing many of the world’s present problems. Finally, the fact that the US is a progressing scientifically does not mean that it is liked by the rest of the world.    

In the Middle East, many people believe that the United States is deliberately working to suppress their nations and polarize their societies – broader accusations even blame the US for our own political debacles. I tend to argue with my peers that this is the natural outcome of the wrestling game between the “Donkey and the Elephant” (the symbols of the US Democratic and Republican parties). The domestic difficulties the US faces create problems for the rest of the world, unfortunately. 

The worst thing that happened to Arab citizens was the promotion of democracy that president George W Bush initiated during his tenure. Regardless of Bush’s actual intention, it was, at face value, a genuine attempt. Eventually, however, the United States relinquished this proposition. Today, US leaders maintain excellent relations with the region’s autocratic leaders, leaving millions of Arabs struggling to realize democracy. 

President Trump recently faced impeachment proceedings launched by the House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power for attempting to use a foreign nation to damage a political opponent. Regardless of the extent of Trump’s wrongdoing, it is striking that US foreign-policy failures that negatively affect millions of other nations’ citizens have never led to the questioning of a single US president. 

I do not anticipate any correction in US foreign policy, because American citizens are rarely affected by foreign-policy successes or failures. The consequences of American interference in many nations have naturally led a segment of global citizens to dislike the US, chanting against America in various civil protests and, for some, even  engaging in violence against the US and American interests. What we are harvesting today in the Middle East is not exclusively our fault. 

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Mohammed Nosseir

Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian liberal politician who advocates political participation and economic freedom. Nosseir was member of the higher committee at the Democratic Front Party from 2007 to 2012, followed by being a member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptian Party until 2013.