Above all of its attributes, the Olympics provide an accurate reflection of the current international environment. From what has happened in the 16 days of curling to speed skating in PyeongChang, South Korea, and all the diplomatic mishaps in between, it is evident that there is a key shift in the United States’ position on the international stage.
During the Games, the United States agitated the Olympic Truce, a hallow but key principle of the Games in which participant nations observe peace seven days before and after the Games. Even before the Opening Ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence, in unusually bad diplomacy, refrained from joining the head table at a VIP dinner hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Pence had also refused to sit with North Korea’s senior diplomatic delegation Kim Yo-Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-Un. When the two Korean teams appeared on the Parade of Nations, joined together by a unification flag, Pence refused to stand and clap like the rest of the heads of states.
That same week on February 12, the Trump Administration proposed a fiscal year 2019 budget that represented a 30 percent cut to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), severely reducing contribution to foreign funding. Reduced to $39.3 billion, the United States would struggle to fund foreign aid and diplomacy or further “national security and economic prosperity, demonstrate American generosity, and promote a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience,” according to Vox. The proposal is a “radical rejection” of the State Department’s mission, also according to Vox, depicting a highly differentiated U.S. prioritization of foreign policy from previous years.
Roughly 20 percent, or $10 billion, of U.S. spending on foreign aid make up contribution to the United Nations (UN) and its entities. The proposal “would take a knife to several UN bodies,” according to the Council of Foreign Relations. The cuts would halt all U.S. payments to UN climate change programs and would decrease contribution to peacekeeping to 25 percent; less than the 28 percent currently required by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Furthermore, voluntary funding to UN organizations would be scaled back; global health spending would be reduced to 28 percent, which would cut contribution to the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by 31 percent, according to the UN Dispatch. The CFR also estimates that entities like UNICEF could see as much as a 16 percent decrease in funding.
Last year, Congress ignored much of similar cuts and continued funding near previous levels. However, this year, according to the Washington Post, President Donald Trump is “threatening to link foreign assistance to support for the US, measured by how countries vote in the UN.” Furthermore, during his State of Union address in January, Trump asked Congress to pass laws that require U.S. aid to channel to only “friends of America, not enemies of America.” This tone was largely sparked by a 128-9 General Assembly vote at the UN last December, during which, against the United States’ wishes, the UN approved a nonbinding resolution calling on countries to avoid moving their embassies to Jerusalem. While the U.S. position on Jerusalem would have been strengthened by more diplomatic engagement, it was conducted threateningly, hurting not only the United States’ immediate position but also damaging long-term relationships.
By distancing U.S. leadership from the international community, from the UN to the Olympics, it will become increasingly difficult for the United States to find common ground with its international peers. Not only has the United States isolated itself on key global issues, such as on climate change, but it has also adopted a unique approach to international affairs. As the new Administration entered in the White House, U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stated that the United States will “change the way we do business,” dictating a sharp departure from the spirit of fostering international unity.
At the closing ceremony on February 25, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach referenced the united Korean team to show the world that the Olympics bring people together and build bridges. He then promised to “continue this Olympic dialogue” even after the Games. In contrast, just a day later, the U.S. renewed its pledge to apply maximum pressure on North Korea, going against diplomatic engagement that the international community achieved with the nuclear nation during the Olympics.
Back from PyeongChang, for diplomats, athletes, and fans, it remains to be seen whether there will be better cooperation among nations. With the United States’ more aggressive tone towards the international community creating newfound tension, cooperation among nations takes on a new challenge.