What if the implementation of the tenets of America First onto US foreign policy was for real? What if Donald Trump had been consistent on telling Americans and the world, that he was serious on taking the US out of the liberal order? and, ultimately on bringing the US status down from being the centerpiece of the liberal order to a simple superpower?
Since 2017, it seems that Trump and his advisors/implementers have been working on cutting all the strings attached around the US in terms of commitments, engagements, responsibilities and duties to transform the US from the ‘indispensable’ power into a simple sovereign power. After years of trying to grasp the logic of Trump’s foreign policy, it appears to be the most likely hypothesis at this point of time.
For two years, foreign policy experts and American allies have been trying to understand the logic of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. And based on the structures, heritage, norms and values of the post-World War two order, Trump’s decisions are incomprehensible. For instance, the departure of the US from the Paris climate deal, the different rounds of tariffs and quotas (washing machines, solar panels, aluminum and steel, and potentially car tariffs), the withdrawal from the Iran deal, the visceral despite for the European Union and deep support for Brexit, the departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the lingering NAFTA talks, and lately the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem are all a direct affront to the trust of allies. These radical shifts are not increasing American security, not advancing American interests and undermining global security.
What does that tell us? Donald Trump wants nothing to do with the liberal order and believes that the US can be better off alone dealing on bilateral basis and imposing its weight and will onto others. Trump and his administration may appear to see a success in this approach considering the limited response by the Europeans (still at awe by the permanent affront of the liberal order), and a mild reaction by China (so far).
Donald Trump believes, as a large segment of the American electorate, that the US has no business in playing the role of the world policeman. The international institutions, designed post-1945s, making the liberal order are in fact limiting the American sovereignty and national interests. The multilateral system orchestrated via the United Nations system, the World Trade Organization, and the multitude of regimes undermines the way the US can act. In December, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, wrote “these omissions [of the liberal elements in Trump’s NSS] undercut global perceptions of American leadership; worse, they hinder our ability to rally the world to our cause when blithely dismiss the aspirations of others.” Barry Posen summarizes it into the argument that Trump’s grand strategy is “primacy without a purpose.”
This approach and shaping of American foreign policy are extremely dangerous for the US and the world at large. Donald Trump inherited a strong economy and a relatively stable global order. The US is not involved in any major crises, at the exception of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Donald Trump did not have to save the American and world economy the way his predecessor needed to respond. These domestic and geopolitical realities have in fact created an illusion for this administration that has not proven itself in addressing any critical crises. The Trump administration feels almighty when it has in simple terms only been in cruise-control mode. Most of the crises faced by the Trump administration are in fact self-inflicted, as proven by the sudden cancellation by Donald Trump of the upcoming Singapore summit between the US and North Korea.
If Donald Trump continues on this trend and truly takes the US out of the order designed by the Americans and Europeans post-1945, he will not only launch the US into a motion of de-credibility of the US, weaken the liberal order, and simply downgrade the US into a regular superpower. Here are the dangers of such trend: first, history has taught us that multipolarity is greatly instable. The probability of war at a regional and global scale would increase. Second, the challenges ahead are becoming more global and complex to solve than ever before. The case of climate change, nuclear and chemical proliferation, free-trade, pandemics, mass migration, and stability of the financial system all require a network of institutions and regimes as a platform of discussion and interaction among states. These multilateral platforms permit to align interests, deepen cooperation and coordination and design mechanisms to implement and enforce agreements and policies. One country, as economically and militarily powerful as the US today, cannot solve any of these issues alone. Third, in his quest to greatness (almost like Don Quixote) Donald Trump will simply undermine the status, influence and power of the US and downgrade it to a superpower. Ironically, a long-term decline in influence and power will require the US to increase its alliances to balance its progressive global decline. That is the story of past hegemons. Fourth, this abrasive style may alienate once and for all American allies. The comments by President Donald Tusk at the recent EU summit in Bulgaria speak volume about the state of transatlantic relations. He said “We are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration. Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, some could even think, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’”
The US foreign policy under this Trumpian paradigm is due to a lack of understanding of the past 70 years and world history, the arrogance of inheritance of such power, and ideology. Furthermore, the Republican establishment in power and control of the Congress (House and Senate) seems to agree with the current direction of US foreign policy considering the lack of opposition (at the exception of Senator McCain). The decline of the US has been projected for quite sometime and it certainly won’t occur overnight. However, the trends these last years of this administration confirm to American allies and the world that analyzing Trump’s foreign policy decisions based on past paradigms will lead to more confusion than understanding. Trump’s America first is for real and could have lasting negative impacts on the US, world affairs and global security.