U.S. Foreign Policy: From the Force of Politics to the Politics of Force

Michal Bokša and Caitlyn Hendricks-Costello examine the recent U.S. turn toward "politics of force" and its potential long-term ripple effects for NATO and NAFTA. With a look back at Moscow in the 1980s, they argue that the White House is expending international political capital at an unsustainable rate, to a point that U.S. global influence may be compromised well beyond the current administration.

Michal Bokša
Caitlyn Hendricks-Costello
October 11, 2018

In an audacious attempt to revitalize a stagnating empire, foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze revolutionized the Soviet Union’s foreign policy in the late 1980s by implementing a strategy based on the “force of politics” rather than the “politics of force.” With regard to both the West and its own allies, reconciliation and soft power were to replace confrontational methods and military posturing. Perhaps the shift was too little, too late, as the Eastern bloc started to crumble anyway, demonstrating that the diplomacy of confrontation, whether toward partners or a geopolitical adversary, has its limits and drawbacks. The Russian Federation has since retracted many attempts at reconciliation, and a similar shift is currently underway in Washington D.C. The decades-long traditions of soft power, mutual cooperation, and force of politics, the basis for U.S. cooperation with its allies, have all but disappeared, giving way to blunt unilateralism. Trump’s version of politics of force is epitomized by political pressure, intimidation, and continuous Twitter threats. Will such an approach objectively prove to be an effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy or will it undermine U.S. international standing and its role in global affairs?   

Trump’s singular determination to renegotiate the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is one of many recent examples of Washington’s new approach. Although the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations each circulated proposals to renegotiate NAFTA, in neither instance did the White House act unilaterally or forcefully, despite the dominant position the U.S. occupies within the bloc. In 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama claimed, “…it’s important to work together to maintain a constructive and comprehensive dialogue.” Yet, against present criticism, including that of Mexican President Nieto that, “Mexico is not going to negotiate on the basis of pressure,” new and perhaps more beneficial counter-offers are being suggested by Washington’s NAFTA partners following a U.S. probe exploring auto tariffs. After several failed attempts by previous administrations, the Trump presidency might eventually be the one to deliver on its NAFTA renegotiation promises.

Likewise, transatlantic allies have felt the acute effects of U.S. politics of force in recent months. The European Union (EU) was targeted by U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs earlier this year and recently labelled by Donald Trump as a U.S. foe on trade. Brussels’ own retaliatory tariffs on several U.S. goods soon followed in a move which made many debate the possibility of an impending trade war between the U.S. and the EU. Such fears were only exacerbated by subsequent threats coming from the White House suggesting that the U.S. will impose further tariffs targeting the EU’s car imports. In spite of the fact that the EU itself was preparing counter-measures, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Trump suddenly and surprisingly agreed to work together toward “zero” tariffs, barriers and subsidies on non-auto industrial goods. Additionally, the EU agreed to purchase increased amounts of U.S. exports, in particular soybeans and liquefied natural gas (LNG). Such an agreement, if eventually successful, could trigger new efforts for more open trade between the U.S. and the EU.

What binds these two cases together is that the U.S. is ultimately sacrificing an overarching economic strategy for the sake of several short-term, immediately beneficial aims. Such a pressure-laden approach, inherent to politics of force as exercised by Donald Trump, derives from the misguided perception that the U.S. will only benefit if it acquires a more favorable position in any trade agreement it establishes. Taking a zero-sum approach, the current administration views virtually any trade negotiation which does not directly favor the U.S. position as disadvantageous. This has been the driving force behind the current efforts both to renegotiate NAFTA and to pressure European countries into more beneficial terms of a trade agreement. However, the more the U.S. unilaterally favors itself during individual negotiations, the less partner countries will be motivated to proceed with the negotiations. One strategic counter-example is the EU, which occasionally permits the negotiating partner to secure more favorable conditions in trade agreements than the EU itself.[i] This approach has proved instrumental in allowing the EU to secure such a large number of free trade agreements, thus providing European companies with access to markets around the globe. As of October 2018, the EU has 36 free trade agreements spanning 60 countries, while U.S. free trade agreements extend to only 20 countries. The EU’s long-term overarching trade strategy is precisely what the U.S. currently lacks and undermines attempts to pursue.       

Economy and trade are not the only areas of concern in U.S. foreign policy. As reiterated during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Wales Summit in 2014, Washington’s NATO allies have been under increasing pressure from the White House to enlarge their defense spending up to the agreed 2% of their Gross Domestic Product—as of now, only five out of 28 NATO member states meet this criterion. Just as in the case of NAFTA, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama made similar arguments. Still, never before has this issue seemed as vital, with the White House now suggesting the U.S. could eventually pull out from NATO should its allies fail to meet their defense obligations. Although the legitimacy of such a threat is debatable, in 2017 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg indicated that the number of NATO countries that would meet 2% spending goal would rise from five to eight this year. Undeniably, President Trump’s pressure has played a factor in contributing to such an end. U.S. advocacy for this goal is not faulty, in fact such goal should be pursued. The sole problem is the antagonistic manner in which Trump has attempted to achieve it, as the current approach based on intimidation results in further disunity within the NATO alliance. 

When assessing new strategic components to U.S. foreign policy, it is important to examine not only the use of politics of force, but also the way in which it is delivered through informal channels on a daily basis. While the official White House website still offers well-crafted diplomatic statements, social media, Twitter in particular, and sporadic statements by the U.S. president have become a key vehicle for invoking politics of force even towards countries with whom relations are precarious. Trump’s recent tweets at Turkish President Erdogan, stating that the U.S. will “impose large sanctions on Turkey” should they not release a jailed U.S. pastor, exemplify this unofficial manifestation of U.S. politics of force. Likewise, his earlier threats to withhold support to unspecified African and Middle Eastern countries if they do not vote in favor of the US-Mexico-Canada 2026 World Cup bid against Morocco is yet another example of targeting aggressive foreign policy through informal channels. The efficacy of this messaging notwithstanding, the administration’s approach certainly demonstrates how deeply embedded the politics of force is within its strategy.

Politics of force, as exercised by the Trump Administration, has objectively managed to deliver several short-term results, but the long-term ramifications of such a blunt approach remain to be seen. U.S. credibility and overall trustworthiness as a partner on the international stage have dropped considerably, the most likely early consequence of such a policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has openly stated that “Europe can no longer rely on the United States… Europe must take its destiny in its own hands.” Similarly, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, followed a July NATO signing ceremony by asserting, “America does not have, and will not have, a better ally than Europe… dear America, appreciate your allies, after all, you don’t have that many.” Tusk’s imploring words demonstrate the impact of the United States’ increasingly antagonistic tendencies in the Euro-Atlantic area. If further division between the U.S. and its key partners is the cost of the current approach, then it is worth considering whether Washington eventually will lose more than it gains.

Ultimately, the potential success of politics of force can be measured in the political capital any individual country has accumulated and can yield at a given time. As of now, the White House is almost recklessly spending and to a large extent wasting this capital without full realization that, once depleted, achieving desired goals via unilateral moves or by international pressure will become increasingly difficult. Should this policy essentially end with the current administration, the U.S. may salvage its global role and international reputation, as the world continues to closely watch Trump’s every step and adjust with each course of action that the White House pursues. Should the politics of force become a normalized tool in Washington’s foreign policy toolbox, it is possible that the U.S. could at one point experience the 1989 Soviet fate, when Moscow’s nominal allies, its satellites, turned their backs and left a once mighty empire with its politics of force abandoned on the global stage.

Michal Bokša is a graduate of the University of Cambridge (MPhil in International Relations and Politics) specializing in international security, with research and analytical experience from the politico-military dimension of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, NATO Defense College, and most recently NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Currently, Michal serves as a lecturer at the University of Economics in Prague, where he teaches European Security and International Institutions within the Central and East European Studies Program. Besides that he works as a Research Fellow for The German Marshall Fund of the United States and for the Association for International Affairs’ Research Center.

Caitlyn Hendricks-Costello is pursuing a degree in Economics (B.S) from Arizona State University (ASU), particularly focusing on international political economy and public policy. She has gained professional and research experience at the U.S. Commerce Department and as a Research Fellow with Barrett Honors College at ASU. Currently, she works as a researcher on economic policy with ASU School of the Future Innovation in Society as well as an experimental economics research assistant with ASU College of Health Solutions.


[i] Monika Bokšová, “The Importance And The Effects Of The Common Commercial Policy Of The European Union When Reaching Non-Economic Goals,“ (PhD diss., University of Economics in Prague, 2018), 57.