Trump’s case for America First must refute internationalism’s root strategic assumptions and transform the nation’s definition of foreign-policy success.
IT’S INCREASINGLY OBVIOUS that Donald Trump is talking a much better America First foreign policy game than he’s playing.
Like his campaign and his inaugural address, his presidency so far has featured plenty of rhetoric lambasting the “globalism” of his predecessors, and threatening a decisive break with their diplomatic approach. Some important policy decisions do seem consistent with the inward-looking America First approach that was taken by the United States before Pearl Harbor, and that was marked by the grim, classically realist view that all the world’s countries are condemned to struggle for power and wealth, and that allies are much less long-lasting than interests. The leading examples are Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear deal; his crackdowns on illegal immigration and on refugee admissions from allegedly dangerous countries; and his relative indifference to human rights abuses abroad.
But in security affairs, the president has also reaffirmed America’s major European and Asian alliance commitments—including the nuclear risk they create. He has continued a Middle East policy that assumes Washington can use military force skillfully enough, and is supported by reliable regional partners, to end the Islamic terrorist threat to the region’s stability and to the United States. Trump and senior aides have repeatedly endorsed the standard globalist view that the nation’s security and prosperity depend critically on maintaining its “global leadership.”
Economically, his administration has signaled considerable willingness to grant U.S.-based businesses trade protection, and has certainly rattled Canada, Mexico and many American companies by playing hardball on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. But he’s so far refrained from imposing or supporting sweeping tariffs (e.g., to punish China for currency manipulation or intellectual property theft, or to discourage production offshoring via the border adjustment levy included in the Republican House’s original version of the recently passed tax bill). He’s worked strictly, though aggressively, within the existing U.S. trade law system to deal with most corporate complaints. And his aides speak of reforming, not leaving, the World Trade Organization (WTO).