Trump’s “America First” policy: provoking adversaries and alarming allies

Trump’s “America First” policy: provoking adversaries and alarming allies

When U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the General Assembly in his maiden speech to the UN in late September, he promised “to defend America’s interests above all else.” Surrounded by fellow world leaders, he noted that “As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”

While the speech primarily centered on foreign policy, and while Trump used the most global of platforms, his address seemed as much directed towards his domestic audience and political base as towards the foreign delegations around him. Above all, the speech reasserted a commitment to “make America great again.” Yet it is more likely that Trump’s charted course will do just the opposite, as suggested by an overview of his foreign policy initiatives so far.

Ceding leadership: the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Few issues have been as central to “America First” as opposition to free trade. One of President Trump’s first decisions after assuming office was to make good on his campaign vow to pull America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The trade agreement, which was negotiated between twelve countries in the Asia Pacific that together make up roughly forty percent of the world’s gross domestic product, was meant to strengthen economic ties between member states and boost regional growth. But the agreement was also part of the Obama administration’s greater strategic emphasis on the Asia Pacific – the so-called pivot to Asia – and based on the recognition that America should position itself strategically in order to reap the benefits and mitigate the risks emanating from this dynamic region.

By walking away from the agreement, this opportunity will be squandered. But where America retreats, others are willing to step up their ambitions –  and none more so than China. In the wake of Trump’s decision, the Chinese leadership has actively promoted its own trade agreements, and when Xi Jinping addressed the Davos set at the the World Economic Forum earlier this year (the first Chinese leader to do so) he gave a remarkable defence of openness and global exchange. As John Key, the former Prime Minister of another signatory of the agreement, New Zealand, has noted, “We really like the US being in the region…But in the end if the US is not there, that void has to be filled. And it will be filled by China.”

Stirring up old tensions: Mexico

Equally misguided is the policy towards Mexico – another target of “America First.” As the political commentator Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, it is easy to forget that it was not long ago that Mexican policy was highly anti-American, and rarely cooperative with the United States on regional or international issues. Over the last few decades, this has changed markedly: since the 1990s, the United States and Mexico have become close partners on issues of mutual interest such as illegal drug trade and – ironically – border security. As Paul Krugman forecast early on, this change was partially aided by NAFTA – an agreement that Trump has vehemently criticized.

Yet the stability of the relationship seems increasingly at risk. President Trump has repeatedly lashed out against his southern neighbour and his heated rhetoric – from vilifying Mexicans on the campaign trail to proposing to build a wall along the border – has unsurprisingly led to disagreements with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. It has also reintroduced anti-Americanism into mainstream Mexican politics as the country is preparing for a presidential election next year. Recent polls put Andrés Manuel López Obrador – who has pledged to stand up to Trump with a nationalism of his own – in the lead. His victory could undermine cooperation on a host of issues vital to American interests and jeopardize bilateral relations.

Dealing with adversaries: Iran and North Korea

Finally, U.S. policy is likely to fall short in addressing the challenges from the two nations that dominated Trump’s speech at the UN: Iran and North Korea. The Trump administration’s signals that America might abandon its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal will not only embolden conservatives in Iran’s political establishment and jeopardize Tehran’s non-nuclear future, but could also unravel the diplomatic coalition that Washington led during the negotiations and raise questions about America’s credibility. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has made clear that he favors the continued implementation of the deal, and the same message has come from French President Emmanuel Macron. As for the Iranian leadership, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently quipped that America is “proving that it is unreliable.”

On North Korea, arguably the most pressing foreign policy challenge facing the United States, the stakes are even higher. The United States recently successfully pushed a new set of strict sanctions on North Korea through the UN Security Council in light of Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. Yet Trump’s bellicose rhetoric – including threats to “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary –  is more likely to push the crisis into nuclear brinkmanship than convince Pyongyang to denuclearize. Sidelining his Secretary of State’s attempts at negotiations and seemingly favoring military force over diplomatic dialogue further obfuscates Trump’s policy.

“America First” and its consequences

So far, the main consequence of Trump’s foreign policy has been to provoke adversaries and alarm allies. It is unclear exactly how this will serve U.S. interests, or how it will contribute to making America great again. At the moment, it seems more likely that it will raise geopolitical tensions and push others to seek alternative leadership, thus facilitating the “rise of the rest.”

In his UN address, Trump turned to none other than his predecessor Harry Truman, whom he quoted as noting “the success of the United Nations depends upon the independent strength of its members.” But in equating his own transactional view of foreign policy with that of President Truman, Trump is misreading history. The genius of America’s post-war foreign policy was the recognition that active international cooperation and the strengthening of other nations would promote international stability as well as America’s own interests. That broader point is missed in the “America First” agenda.  

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Axel Hellman

Axel Hellman is a foreign policy analyst with a focus on the United States and the former Soviet Union. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from King's College London and received his MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy from St Antony's College, Oxford.