How President Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy plays out on the world’s stage
By Oliver Fisk
At its most fundamental level, the American world order is under genuine threat in the 21st century. At least that’s what the United States’ top domestic and foreign policy ‘experts’ would have you believe. While Washington is more divided than ever, political pundits and politicians from the Left and Right alike have been caught up in the new trend: firmly remarking upon mercurial nature of China as a global political and economic power, quickly reiterating the benefits of American hegemony, before no-less rapidly decrying the potential image of a world shaped by China.
These well-intentioned comments are then, in turn, challenged by members of the American and global public who question the world’s development under American primacy. It is admittedly difficult to repudiate the the counter-argument that tends to employ staples of American foreign policy missteps and mistakes, mentioning the US’ cursed wars in Iraq and Vietnam, its imposition of ruthless dictators across the Western hemisphere, and its failure to halt sooner or, indeed, prevent genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia.
Nevertheless, we should be very slow to forget all that America has genuinely done right as the ‘leader of the free world’. We should remember that The Marshall Plan rebuilt a broken Europe in the aftermath of the world’s most devastating war and the key American hand in the peaceful unification of Germany thirty years years ago. We should remember how the United States put to the final pieces of the Northern Irish peace process into place, and how the US’ facilitation of the Dayton Accords brought an end to the bloody Bosnian War. Certainly, the history of American hegemonic power cannot be painted in broad strokes of perfection and even more certain still, the United States has not been the best global superpower. Still, we must remember that it has performed better than all other countries who have held global primacy throughout history.
No other country, from a position of global leadership, has been as significant of a torchbearer of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice? I am neither naive or patriotic enough to pretend that the United States’ support of liberal democracy cleans the stains out of its well-worn past, but this point cannot be stated enough: For all of the US’ faults, the world’s existence is better because, and not in spite of its influence. It is upon this premise that we must turn to investigate the nature of the United State’s leadership in the world today during the era of President Trump’s America First’ strategy and within the contentious context created by China’s rise.
At first, it did not seem entirely the case that a President Donald Trump would happily cede America’s influence and power to its nation’s rivals. 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, Trump won in 2016 because a significant portion of the country’s population felt genuinely dissatisfied with, alienated by, and excluded from the modern American socioeconomic configuration. While the Republican Party is commonly amalgamated into an incoherent mass of white supremacy and ultra-nationalism, it is worth remembering that some Trump voters were simply disaffected Americans who wanted the economic world to work in their favour again. Trump was to be their saviour, he was to rebuild the country and ring in a new era of American greatness.
Unfortunately for all Americans, President Trump has neglected global responsibilities in an effort to prioritise American citizens. Trump has resigned the US from its duties as fireman, policeman, judge, juror, and executioner on the world stage, and has been met with indulgent applause from his supporters for doing so. The blind led by the blindingly orange Trump are failing to see a crucial point - when the United States redirects its focus from the outside towards itself, it creates a vacuum. This vacuum does not remain undisturbed until another President decides to play a part on the international stage, but rather it is filled enthusiastically by America’s two greatest geostrategic rivals, Russia and China.
Lying at the heart of the question of who will reign as global power during the 21st century is a crucial pattern either undetected on account of an over-inflated sense of American exceptionalism, or simply ignored by the Trump administration. There are countless countries around the world who need investment, political support, military partnerships, and trading alliances. There are countless countries whose worlds keep spinning and whose shows don’t stop even when the US departs from centre-stage. There are countless countries who are happy to look elsewhere to fill the void of leadership. In the years immediately succeeding the collapse of the Soviet bear and the end of the Cold War, the United States could have the hibernated in a nice cave of isolation after all.
The US might have been able to enter international hibernation after the end of the Cold War, it could have slept in a cave of isolation without fear of challenge from a Soviet bear. This simply is no longer the case. When the US withdraws from multilateralism, its former partners now have viable alternatives. Sorry Francis Fukuyama, history isn’t dead, American exceptionalism is. The US cannot expect to unload a barrage of tariffs on its allies, leave them to die in battle, stop paying attention to entire regions, or pull out of trade treaties and expect there to be no residual consequences.
In a tough, unbending stance Trump turned his attention to even the countries formerly closest to Trump in trade negotiations. As an unsurprising consequence, Trump’s brittleness snapped the threads of diplomatic goodwill that had tied the US to its allies. Last year, Chinese government-backed tech firms started to enter into and compete within the European 5G markets, which caused pandemonium stateside. The CIA and State Department made America’s position clear- Huawei posed a significant threat to global strategic security and could not be allowed lay the digital infrastructure of the future. Whether or not Huawei’s pervasiveness is a genuine cause for concern can be debated, but inarguably alarming is the helpless manner in which thunderously loud American protestations fell on resoundingly deaf ears. We appealed to our allies, and in response they opened their markets to the Chinese Company.
In an effort to untangle the United States from lengthy wars throughout the Middle East, Trump withdrew soldiers from Syria, thereby condemning the region’s Kurdish forces to bear the full brunt of Turkish aggression and brutality.Rather than face almost certain elimination, the Kurds turned to the welcoming embrace of Vladimir Putin and his favoured Assad regime in Syria, again to fill the void. The Kurds, an American ally, with whom the fight against ISIS was won and without whom the victory would not have been possible, turned to Putin. Instead of continuing the country’s support, the American soldiers were ordered home. When American soldiers left, they took with them the future likelihood of securing local ground support in the region again. Should a conflict arise in the future, there is little reason for would-be allies to support the US in a military engagement with the knowledge of the Kurdish experience- that even the closest of strategic allies risks finding itself the victim of American caprice.
We can also see the pattern repeat itself in East Asia. When South Korea and Japan spent the summer grappling at each other’s throats, embroiled in a heated trade war, Trump stood back. Perhaps he hoped that luck would resolve the dispute between his country’s two closest regional allies, or, more likely than not, the President didn’t feel the situation was worth his time. Unfortunately, General Secretary Xi Jinping did not stand as idly by. China diffused the diplomatic tensions and subsequently signed into effect a trilateral trade agreement. No, South Korea and Japan have not formed an alliance with China in lieu of an American one. Still, it is significant that the two countries upon whom the US is most reliant to coordinate regional defence policy are happy to turn to a Chinese alternative in the absence of American leadership.
Sorry Francis Fukuyama, history isn’t dead, American exceptionalism is.
These are just three cases of countless more in which China and Russia have gained intelligence, military, and economic influence at the American expense. Before the United States surrenders its position further to its rivals, let us ask the question: for a policy predicted to bring about “so much winning”, “enough to make America greater than ever before”, why has the ‘America First’ plan involved such an unnerving amount of loss?
It is more incumbent upon the United States than ever to reclaim its role as an active global leader. Authoritarian countries 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, and today the changing political tides threaten the liberal world order. China and Russia export their autocratic models of governance to the rest of the world, while democracy and democratic rights have declined for thirteen consecutive years.
Still, political participation is on the rise. A glance at the protest movements of Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador, and Chile, reveals that in every corner and continent of the world there is still a fundamentally-held desire for accountable and responsible governance. There is still a fertile ground in which the United States can sow the new seeds of a global democratic future by encouraging greater political party responsiveness, better citizen representation, and involvement of women and children within the political process.
Though the blame accumulated over the last three years must be placed at the doors to the Oval Office, Donald Trump can still adjust his administration’s course. A change in foreign policy strategy would require a loss of only pride, while there is a whole world to win. However, if Trump continues to sit on the international fence, he will only have splinters to show for.
America’s best interests are served when the country plays an active, energetic role on the world’s stage. If the United States wishes to remain the global hegemon of the 21st century, it cannot afford to treat its allies punitively or turn a hostile face to the world. American brick requires the supplemental mortar of its friends to rebuild a stable, free, fair, and democratic world. Whoever wins the election in 2020 must realise that when America is put first, the country’s best interests come last. If America is ‘first’, its strategic aims are harder to accomplish, its historic allies look elsewhere, and its era of hegemony comes to an unceremonial and unequivocal end.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.