Trump’s ‘America First’ on the World’s Stage
By Oliver Fisk
It’s common nowadays for American political and foreign policy ‘experts’ to weigh in on China’s mercurial rise as a political and economic power. Perhaps understandably, considering the position from which they are being stated, these commentaries tend to be quick to praise American hegemony and are no less prompt to denounce the potential of a world forged in the Chinese image.
It is equally common that in response, members of the American and global public challenge whether or not the world’s development under American primacy has been perfectly, or even predominantly advantageous. To these dissenting voices, I would address the following paragraph.
The history of American power should not be painted in broad strokes of perfection. No, our performance on the world’s stage has not lived up to the principles of liberal democracy that should be at the heart of American Governance. However, from the Marshall Plan rebuilding a broken Europe in the aftermath of the world’s most devastating conflict, to repiecing together Germany after the Soviet Union’s collapse, all that America has done right in the world should not be forgotten. That the United States helped put the final pieces of peace into the Northern Irish and brought an end to the Balkan chaos by facilitating the Dayton Accords, should not be forgotten. To invoke some Churchillian inspiration, even if the United States isn’t the best global superpower, it’s better than all the other ones who have held power from time to time.
There are no significant nations, who can alternatively be the torchbearers around the world for freedom and liberty, equality and justice- in aggregate the underpinnings of a liberal democracy- neither throughout history, or indeed today. This point can’t be stated enough: for all its faults, the world’s existence is better because of, not in spite of, American influence. With that in mind then, let us investigate American leadership in the world today during the era of Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy and within the context of a rising Chinese challenge.
At first, it did not seem entirely the case that Trump happily surrender away to his nation’s rivals American influence in the world. In his inaugural address, Trump spoke of his hopes that America could “shine as an example for everyone to follow,'' a notion seemingly broad, vague, and hopeful enough to unite a country. In the same speech however, Trump started to sow his soon-to-be fruitless seeds of foreign policy, speaking of a “new vision to govern [the] land”, “to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power”, declaring that it was time to put “America First”. In fairness, his election had its roots in a significant portion of the country’s population being plagued by an unshakeable feeling of dissatisfaction, exclusion, and alienation of the modern, globalized, and (American-built) economy. It’s all too common that political commentators amalgamate the entire Republican party into one mass of white-supremacists and ultra-nationalists, but within the murky coalition there existed, and still does today, a group of disaffected American citizens. Trump was to be their savior, he was to rebuild the country and make the world work again in the States’ favor.
How has he done then? In short, while trying to look after the interests of his own country, Trump has curbed the United States’ leadership on the world stage. A lot of Americans have been and still are today happy with this exchange, for why should the US have to be the world’s policeman, fireman, judge, and juror all the time? Unfortunately, this line of thinking fails to reflect upon a rather crucial point: when the United States redirects its focus from the outside towards itself, it creates a vacuum. This vacuum is not simply left untouched until the next President again decides to play a part on the international stage, the space is filled with enthusiasm by Russia and China- America’s two biggest geostrategic rivals. Herein lies the crux of the issue, the pattern either undetected on account of a over-inflated sense of American exceptionalism, or simply ignored by the Trump administration. Irrespective of whether the providing hands are American, there are countless countries around the world who need investment, political support, military partnerships, and trading alliances. There are countless countries whose worlds keeps spinning and whose shows carry on all the same when the US departs from center-stage. There are countless countries who will and have looked elsewhere to fill the void.
If the US wanted to take the recently defeated Soviet bear’s cave and enter international hibernation in the years immediately following the Cold War, perhaps the world would have gotten along fine. Nowadays though, there are other options. Sorry Francis Fukuyama, history isn’t dead, American exceptionalism is. The US cannot expect to unload a barrage of tariffs on its allies, quite literally leave them for dead in battle, stop paying attention to entire regions, or pull out of trade treaties and expect there to be no residual consequences.
Trump has gone after the nations formerly closest to the United States in trade negotiations, and garnered much applause among his supporters for his occupying of a rather tough, unbending stance. Unsurprisingly though, the threads of diplomatic goodwill have indeed snapped. When Chinese government-backed tech firms started to enter into European 5G markets, panic ensued stateside. The CIA and State Department promulgated the idea that it was a matter of supreme strategic importance that companies like Huawei not be allowed in. Whether or not there was reason for concern vis-a-vis Huawei remains up for debate, but what certainly should scare Americans is how the American protestations fell on resoundingly deaf ears and that the European markets were rendered open to Chinese company.
In an effort to untangle the United States from lengthy wars throughout the Middle East, Trump recently withdrew soldiers from Syria, thereby condemning the region’s Kurdish forces to bear the full brunt of Turkish aggression and brutality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, rather than face almost certain elimination, the Kurds have turned to the welcoming embrace of Vladimir Putin and his favored Assad regime in Syria. The American ally, with whom the fight against ISIS was (resoundingly) won and without whom the victory would not have been possible, has turned to Putin. Comparatively, the American soldiers have turned to head home, taking with them all likelihoods of securing local ground support in the region again, should any future conflicts arise. After all, why would countries help support the States in any offensive with the knowledge of the Kurdish experience- that their backs would always be exposed to the daggers of Trumpian caprice.
When South Korea and Japan spent the summer grappling at each other’s throats, embroiled in a heated trade war, Trump let it be, probably assuming that by virtue of a stroke of good luck or good fortune, his country’s two closest asian allies would somehow fix the situation. He would have been right, to be fair, if the economic conflict had not been resolved by China. The two (incredibly strategically important) countries with whom the United States is supposed to cooperate and coordinate an intelligent policy against China were helped by the very subject thereof. China diffused the diplomatic tensions and then signed a trilateral trade agreement to crown off the proceedings.
In these three examples alone we can point to three vitally geostrategic regions in which the United States’ intelligence, military, and economic influence has waned by ceding leadership to Russia and China. Such a sequence of events begs the question- for a policy predicted to bring about “so much winning”, “enough to make America greater than ever before”, why has ‘America First’ involved such an unnerving amount of loss?
Now more than ever, the United States needs to reclaim its role as an active global leader. Authoritarian countries of the world did not sit back only to drown in the wave of democracy that broke out over the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, China and Russia are looking to export, and submerge the globe in, their own autocratic model of governance. We would do well to note that they’ve been successful: democracy and democratic rights have declined for 13 years in a row.
Yet still, political participation around the world is growing, and with a glance at the protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador, and Chile, to name a few, it is clear that across all corners of the world there still exists a fundamental desire for accountable and responsible governance, impervious to the plagues of corruption. There is a fertile ground in which the United States can sow new the new seeds of a global democratic future by encouraging greater political party responsiveness, better citizen representation, involvement of women and children.
Though the blame accumulated over the last three years must indeed be placed at the doors of the Oval Office, Donald Trump can still adjust his administration's course, it is far from too late. A change in foreign policy strategy would require a loss of only pride, when there is a whole world to win. By remaining on the international fence however, Trump only collects splinters. America’s best interests are served when the country plays an active, energetic role on the world’s stage and it is not through the punitive treatment of American allies or turning a hostile face to the world that the US will remain the global hegemon of the 21st century. To construct a democratic, stable, free, and fair world, America can not rely on a strategy of isolated hustle and bustle, however passionate it may be. American brick needs the mortar of its friends around the world. Irrespective of whoever wins the Presidency in 2020, they must realize that when America ‘comes first,’ the country’s best interests come last. When America ‘comes first,’ its strategic aims are harder to accomplish, they find little help from historic allies, and they, indeed, fail.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.