Appeals and Constraints of Trump’s “America First”
“America First,” featuring its appeals in prioritization and choice of new policies, has become a constant motif of Trump’s diplomacy, but shortcomings of leadership capabilities and constraints from domestic politics have dulled its initial cutting edge. Ironically, Trump’s confusion in strategic thinking of “America First” might make the US the biggest loser of the concept he has long advocated.
By declaring “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first”1 and making “America First” the core principle for governance and foreign policy, the US President Donald Trump has abandoned the “globalism” cherished by successive American administrations in the post-war era. Although the “Trump Doctrine” is not yet clearly defined as an overall diplomatic strategy, “America First” has already constituted the most critical element in this strategy, representing a change in direction for the US foreign policy. The distinctive prioritization of Trump’s foreign policy will have a tremendous impact on the US itself and on its external environment with effects to be revealed as time goes by.
Connotation of “America First”
“America First” dates back to the nationalist and protectionist movement in the 1930s. From 1940 to 1941, the isolationists once opposed the US involvement in the World War II under the slogan of “America First.” The slogan disappeared when the US was actually involved in WWII and became a global hegemonic power with a policy of active interventionism in the post-war era. Today, President Trump has picked up this phrase and
given it a new connotation.
Domestic affairs comes first
Trump takes “America First” as the principle for realizing the goal of “Make America Great Again.” He tries to show that all his ideas and actions proceed from a desire to protect American national interests. In his speech during the Republican presidential primaries, he said, “(American First) means on foreign policy we will never enter into any kind conflict unless it makes us safer as a nation …. On trade, America First means the American worker will have his or her job protected from unfair foreign competition …. On energy policy, America First means opening up America’s great potential to bring wealth and prosperity to our own workers …. On economic policy, America First means having tax and regulatory policies that keep jobs and wealth in the United States …. On immigration policy, America First means protecting the jobs, wages and security of American workers.”2 During his first year in office, Trump has experienced an obvious “learning curve” in his pursuit of foreign policy, moving gradually from election rhetoric to real politics. Some subversive proposals, such as reshaping the US alliance system and repairing Us-russia relations, have been challenged by reality and gradually faded into mediocrity. However, what remains unchanged is his steadfast pursuit of “America First,” since it is the political basis for his attacks on “elite politics,” overturn of “political correctness” and efforts to shape himself as a savior of the working class.
In Trump’s opinion, his predecessors have missed one important thing, that the United States is still confronted with hostile rivals even when the Cold War has ended. The current world is weak, divided, and in danger. The political, business and media elites in the “Washington swamp” that he once vowed to drain, are more familiar with their foreign counterparts than their domestic constituents, benefitting themselves at the expense of the common man. Given this, he would launch a political revolution against globalism to
maximize the US interests and establish new rules of trading with the world. “America First” means that his government’s priorities are domestic concerns rather than aid to developing countries, or regime change in faraway Iraq and Libya, and the government will no longer sit idly by watching American workers being left behind in the global economy.
In his inaugural speech, Trump said, “… it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.”3 Whether to “shine” in the world by example or by force has long been a measure for judging whether the US pursues isolation or intervention. From his remarks, an evident trend can be seen that Trump is taking his electorate back to an “American fortress.” Trump is also the first US president to challenge the post-war international system which the United States helped create. He believes that the US has been taken hostage by the international order, that the alliance is a burden, and that multilateral agreements have hampered Washington in its actions. And he also questions the necessity of maintaining a US military presence all over the world, seeking to relieve the US from what he sees as excessive burden of global affairs.
In response to the concerns worldwide that the US would turn to isolationism under the Trump administration, in June 2017, then National Security Advisor H. R. Mcmaster and then Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, where they clarified that “America First” is not “America Alone.”4 Specifically, “America First” puts the security of US citizens first, and thus the US encourages other countries to step up their strikes against terrorist groups. The US economic prosperity is a critical interest under “America First,” and therefore the US would strongly oppose any unfair trade practices. Another vital interest of
“America First” lies in the solid alliance system and the prosperity of US global partners. In addition, the article explained Trump’s new outlook: “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”5 It can be said that seeing the world as a hostile jungle is the essence of Trump’s worldview,6 under which concept he turned his debut speech at the UN in September the same year into a war threat and mobilization.7 In practice, his decisions on intensified offence against ISIS and tough military response to the chemical weapons incident in Syria, as well as air strike in Afghanistan with the “Mother of All Bombs,” all demonstrated the capacity and will of a resolute American power, and partially alleviated the external concerns that the US is abandoning its global leadership.
No allies in front of trade
Trump is the first American president who recognizes the relative decline of the US in overall national strength. He believes that globalism and multilateralism have gone too far and that many countries in the world are taking advantage of the US in trade. Trade agreements over the past decades are riddled with concessions made to trade partners by feeble negotiators.8 In the area of foreign trade, “America First” means above all to change the situation in which other countries gain while the US loses. Since Trump rejected globalization as completely negative and established an erroneous anti-globalization ideology, he has solemnly declared “the end to the policy of economic surrender.” Washington will no longer tolerate “economic aggression” and the US will work to establish trade relationships based on fairness and equality. Trump has vowed to “use all possible leverage to encourage other countries to give US producers fair, reciprocal access to their markets” and address “unfair trade practices” like currency manipulation,
government subsidies and theft of intellectual property. In addition, the US will strengthen reviews on foreign investment, launch multiple anti-dumping and countervailing investigations, and re-negotiate previously agreed trade arrangements. All these have shown the American psychology of curtailing further losses and striving for compensation in trade, even if the actions might hurt the interests of its allies.
Trump withdrew from the Trans-pacific Partnership in the first days of his office, even though it would deal a heavy blow on the US diplomatic reputation and produce complicated geopolitical and economic implications. He pushed for re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and spelled out harsh terms for Canada and Mexico, resulting in little progress so far. In recent months, Trump has also launched a trade war with the European Union and Canada on steel and aluminum, discarding the
dispute settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization. On a series of multilateral occasions including the G7 summit, the G20 summit and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) working meetings over the past year, the Trump administration has focused on trade fairness and readjustment, and involved in disputes with its allies. Apparently trade disputes and frictions, the actions are actually a competition of economic power, and represent another round of the US strategic design on global trade rules and trade system to serve its own interests.
Return to great-power competition
The United States has always kept a close eye on its major competitors. Previous American administrations, while putting stress on anti-terrorism, have made the rise of Russia and China as an important strategic issue that requires the US to address. They tried to “reset” Us-russia relations and defined China as a “responsible stakeholder,” and adopted a dual tactic of engagement and precaution. By “assimilating” and “managing” Russia and China, the US has attempted to reduce the possibility that the two powers would challenge the US hegemony after their rise.
What is different of Trump’s strategy is his open declaration to address global challenges in a confrontational manner. The US National Security Strategy released in December 2017 identified three kinds of threats facing the US, the first of which is “revisionist powers, such as China and Russia, that use technology, propaganda, and coercion to shape a world antithetical to our interests and values.”9 As pointed out in the Strategy, “a central continuity in history is the contest for power.” “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition has returned.” “Geopolitics is the interplay of these contests (over influence) across the globe.”10 All these expressions are consistent with Trump’s public speeches which stress that the
nation state is the primary actor responsible for addressing challenges and that countries are in a constant state of competition. They are regarded as vital elements in Trump’s foreign policy theory.
Appeals of “America First”
Trump’s diplomacy highlights linkage between “America First” and domestic interests, and it is basically driven by individual issues in a utilitarian and fragmented way. However, the implementation of Trump’s foreign policies has been lagging behind due to the slow appointment process of key administrative positions, the lack of adequate manpower for internal coordination and communication, and the frequently confusing information released from the government. Therefore, to observe and study Trump’s diplomacy, we should not be limited to rhetoric and text, but should rather focus on specific policy actions. Several appeals of the “America First” principle are evident from the prioritization and choice of new policies.
Domestic votes more important than international applause
Trump was elected to the White House because of voters’ dissatisfaction and anger over the status quo. Yet his victory did not ease the voters’ mood, and he is faced with greater pressure when running the administration. Judging from public polls, Trump has the lowest approval rating among all presidents during the same period of office, falling from 40% when he was inaugurated to 32% by the end of 2017. To attract voters, Trump has always touched upon domestic concerns when he talks about foreign and defense policies. For example, his emphasis on sovereignty and security is, to a large extent, in response to his basic nationalist appeal, which serves his image of defending national interests and protecting the American people. This is different from the principles of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as understood by the international community. However, Trump is in a disadvantageous position in external public opinion. The mainstream media almost criticizes
everything Trump proposes, and usually looks at Trump’s governing ability and performance through a negative lens.
In fact, Trump’s approval rating among his core voters has remained over 80%. His many policies, including recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, insistence on the payment by Mexico for the border walls and pursuit of a hardline trade policy in compliance with the protectionist mood, have catered to the sentiments of these voters and gained their recognition that he is keeping his campaign promises. However, his supporters form only a part of the general electorate. From a structural point of view, Trump’s placement of these partial interests above national interests and commitments to allies determines that the “America First” principle does not take into full account the overall US national interests nor its global interests.
Concrete results more important than universal morality
Trump has no intention to pursue abstract values and order, and has promised not to impose the American way of life on the world. The US State Department has adjusted its responsibilities accordingly. In a speech to the State Department employees in May 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressed that “if we condition too heavily that others adopt these values that we’ve arrived at over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”11 After the State Department’s adjustment of its responsibilities, the expenditure for democracy promotion has been cut since the work is no longer a priority.12 Because Trump pursues a resultoriented diplomacy, the connotation of “national interests” has narrowed, and diplomacy involves more business-like dealings. For example, Trump considers selling American goods and arms to the world as a way to reduce trade deficits. In addition, although both he and his administration consider
China-us competition as inevitable,13 yet for practical and profitable needs, Trump refrained from tangling with China over the sensitive issues of human rights and the South China Sea. Instead it has focused on economic and trade relations with China. Currently, the US not only looks at the trade imbalance with China from an economic standpoint, but also looks at the China-us strategic competitive relationship through a national security perspective, making the securitization trend of bilateral economic relations more significant.
It is important to note that although the Trump administration has stated that it will no longer pursue a value-based foreign policy, the value appeals in the US diplomacy are resident. In the wake of the air strike on Syria in early April 2017, the neo-conservatives, nationalists and liberals all voiced their concerns with Trump, in an attempt to push him to take bigger steps toward intervention. The constantly underlying humanitarian and geopolitical concerns tend to pave the way for Trump to tread again the path of his predecessors, who usually “find a fault in others with a bomb at hand.”
Bilateral deals more important than multilateral agreements
Trump made three overseas tours in 2017, covering the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-pacific, all featuring long stay, multiple stops but little focus on regional multilateral mechanisms. During his visits, he refrained from publicly reaffirming the joint defense commitment with the NATO allies, Japan and South Korea; on economic issues, he has become a straggler rather than the leader of the multilateral free trade system. Because of his indifference to multilateral diplomacy, Trump did not achieve any substantial progress at the NATO summit in May or the G20 summit in July 2017, and he left the East Asia Summit in November before the conclusion of the meeting. Although he has endured the alliance system and did not break off with his allies over disputes about defense expenditure sharing, Trump has pursued
a radical nationalist, selfish, and hardline diplomatic agenda, refusing to be subject to multilateral systems and favoring business-like bilateral interactions.
As far as regional strategy is concerned, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam in November 2017, Trump reiterated his desire to change multilateral and regional trade agreements into bilateral arrangements, declaring that “what we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.”14 Clearly his core concern remains preserving market competition based on bilateral arrangements. Although Trump’s Asia trip as well as the latest US National Security Strategy revived the notion of “a free and open Indopacific region,” the idea lacks specific content and is likely to be a sop to the pro-establishment camp at home and to US allies with their own geopolitical concerns in the region. Despite a recent Australian news report saying that the four Indo-pacific countries of the US, Japan, Australia and India are engaged in discussions about a substitute strategy targeting China’s Belt and Road Initiative,15 it is expected that the implementation of the Indo-pacific idea still rests on enhancing trade relations between the US and the region. On the whole, while the US is deeply suspicious of previous trade agreements, it has been slow to put forward any alternatives to replace the TPP and the NAFTA, and has failed to establish an appropriate institutional framework for the purpose of promoting fair and equal trade, which weakens the credibility of its commitment to international cooperation.
“America First” more important than international order
The American public is generally ambivalent about the US leadership in the world. There is a view that the US should relieve itself of the burden
of leading in international affairs, because its leadership role has never gained universal international support, and “new technologies (notably, e-commerce, cyberwarfare) are further redistributing power and influence,” making relevant efforts too costly.16 Dominated by depression and discontent across the society, Trump’s foreign policy as a whole has adopted a posture of contraction and even “retreat.”17 Since Trump took office, the US has withdrawn from some newlyformed or non-essential platforms, including the TPP, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the UNESCO, the UN Global Compact on Migration, and most recently the UN Human Rights Council. For the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, the G20 and other international trade and economic structures, the US has repeatedly asked these organizations or mechanisms to give up their commitment to free trade, reduce loans to middle-income countries and to cut financial support for climate change projects. In a congressional testimony in September 2017, Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs David Malpass revealed that the US would “wind down, scale back, or convert to financial plans based on restraint rather than expansion” the nearly 100 international working groups and organizations it participates in.18 In November 2017, the US vetoed the appointment of the WTO Appellate Body members, putting the global trade dispute settlement mechanism in great difficulty or even at the edge of being frozen up. At the end of December, the US announced its “historic reduction” of its traditional contribution to the UN budget for 2018-2019 fiscal year, a clear sign of its reluctance to engage in international cooperation and the settlement of global problems.
With regard to regional issues, such as the Middle East, Trump has directly stood by Israel’s side, and his Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, in discussions with Israel and Saudi Arabia, even put forward a peace program
which is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has in effect indicated America’s pullout from the Middle East peace process. In addition, Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, dredging up old issues such as Iran’s missile tests, its “support for terrorism” and its “threats to regional stability.” He tries to link the Iran nuclear issue to the whole complex of geopolitical contradictions in the region and openly supports Saudi Arabia as a major partner in combating terrorism and counterbalancing Iran. With profound changes taking place in the Middle East political landscape, Trump resumes the worn-out separatist approach of “playing one side against the other,” which shakes the US traditional role in preserving the liberal international order.
Constraints of “America First”
The Trump presidency reflects not only the profound changes and institutional difficulties in the US politics, economy and society, but also reveals the shortcomings of his leadership capabilities. Trump is heavily constrained by domestic affairs and seriously distracted by diplomacy, which, to a certain extent, has dulled the initial cutting edge of the “America First” principle.
Chaotic policy formulation
Through his frequent tweets, Trump personally holds high the “protrump” banner, and replaces substantive policy deliberation with the clamor of public opinion, thus leading to insufficient strategic thinking in policy formulation. The “America First” put forward by Trump seeks economic and trade interests but lacks global perspectives, failing to integrate “Make America Great Again” with the US global status and leadership. Since coming to power, Trump’s foreign policy has failed to prioritize the three strategic foci of the US, namely Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-pacific region. In the Asia-pacific, the administration cannot reach consensus on whether to deal with China’s rise first or focus on the North Korean nuclear threats. A large group among the political elites in the US believe that Trump’s understanding
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström addresses a press conference on the US tariffs on steel and aluminum affecting the EU at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, June 1, 2018. She warned that “the door to trade negotiations with the US is closed for the moment” and that the EU would hit back with “countermeasures.”