Trump presidency: America First or America Alone?
The new president may find his goals are out of reach for an isolationist superpower
by: Philip Stephens
“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” So Henry Temple, the third Viscount Palmerston, described British foreign policy in 1848, at the height of its imperial pomp. “England is a power sufficiently strong, sufficiently powerful to steer her own course.”
It is more than fanciful to imagine US president-elect Donald Trump taking his cue from the 19th century British statesman. Palmerston’s style does not quite fit the social media age. But those struggling to make sense of the blizzard of tweets that describe Mr Trump’s worldview will not miss the shared insouciance. Forget historic entanglements, alliances and enmities: after Mr Trump’s inauguration next week, the world’s most powerful nation will make its own rules. America First looks a lot like America Alone.
That, anyway, is the plan. The present open global economic system was designed by the US, but Mr Trump intends to make his own rules, starting with the repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, and the imposition of hefty duties on Chinese imports. Forget, too, nostalgia for the old geopolitical order — all that stuff about shared values and democracy. This president-elect is happy to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin against both the departing President Barack Obama and the Republican foreign policy establishment.
Mr Trump has likewise used his Twitter account to question four decades of US engagement with Beijing by challenging the One China policy towards Taiwan. Do not expect consistency. In one breath he promises US disengagement from the violent chaos of the Middle East and, in the next, the creation of “safe zones” in Syria — a policy he has previously said would lead to a third world war.
Those looking for a grand design will be disappointed. Mr Trump prefers dealmaking to strategic thinking. His Make America Great Again prospectus is a jumble of instincts, prejudices and impulses. Among the ingredients: economic nationalism, antipathy to “globalism”, hostility towards immigrants, a relentless focus on Islamist extremism and a transactional, zero-sum view of great power relations. Add to this mix palpable disdain for the Nato alliance and equivocation about security guarantees for East Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea.
For all that, the tension between disavowal of international leadership and the promised restoration of US power and prestige — bellicose isolationism, you might call it — has caught the national mood. The legacy of the wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan has drained popular support for foreign adventurism. The Pew Research Center recorded in June that nearly six out of 10 Americans want the US “to deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems the best they can”. Yet the same opinion poll shows a majority still wanting the US to retain its global primacy.
The visceral fear harboured by America’s allies is that Mr Trump’s presidency draws a line under the US-led international liberal order. Beyond raising the protectionist flag, he has promised to renounce America’s climate obligations. He could strike a deal with Mr Putin over the heads of Europe and disavow the international nuclear agreement with Iran. Europeans are appalled at his proposals to build a wall against Mexican immigrants and shut the US border to Muslims, but the strategic concern is the isolationist swagger — the implicit rejection of the US role in the international system that has underpinned the west. The history that haunts them is that of the 1930s, when a self-absorbed America stood by as Europe fell to fascism and war.
Of course, allies are already making their accommodations with the new regime. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe was first to grab an audience with the president-elect. Mr Abe welcomes the tougher line against Beijing — and also frets about a weaker commitment to Japan’s security. Theresa May’s British government, in the throes of detaching itself from its own continent, is still more neuralgic than is usual about clinging on to something resembling a “special relationship”. Such ties are no substitute for the systemic and institutional co-operation that marked out the post-1945 settlement. Without US leadership the very concept of “the west” begins to lose its meaning.
Mathew Burrows, a former counsellor at the National Intelligence Council and now a director at the Washington-based think-tank the Atlantic Council, puts it succinctly: “Pax Americana no longer pays. Instead, Mr Trump believes that the US is self-reliant enough to slough off the rules-based order even if others are hurt by the loss of US leadership.”
As Mr Burrows points out, America’s allies have already concluded that Mr Trump is neither predictable nor reliable. China’s determination to translate its economic power into geopolitical clout is unlikely to be dented by the president-elect’s provocative tweets. Mr Putin doubtless thinks that he will get the better of the inexperienced Mr Trump.
“We have to see how much of it is put into practice,” one senior European diplomat says of the new president’s pronouncements, “but it is fairly clear that Trump is closing the door on US global leadership”. Another senior European policymaker remarks: “We will all strike our bilateral deals with the new administration, but it’s foolish to pretend there will be a transatlantic meeting of minds.” Mr Trump scorns multilateralism. In Europe it is a religion.
The pendulum theory
At this point, an optimist (though there are precious few of them around these days) would note that America’s interest in the world has waxed and waned from the time of the founding fathers. The pendulum has swung between isolationism and exceptionalism and from unilateralism to multilateral engagement. Mr Trump wants Europe to sort out its own problems. George Washington made a similar point in his farewell address when the first US president observed that Europe’s “frequent controversies” were “foreign to our concerns”.
A quarter of a century later President James Monroe abandoned isolationism in favour of staking out the new republic’s claim to suzerainty over the entire western hemisphere. By the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt was launching America’s own imperial adventures. And after the second world war, Washington learned the lesson of the 1930s by designing a new, US-led global order.
More recently, President George W Bush started out by repudiating the Kyoto climate change agreement and the 1971 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, he scorned rules-based multilateralism in favour of dividing the world between those “with us or against us” in the fight against Islamist terrorism. If others wanted to sign up to a coalition of the willing, then fine, but the US would not be constrained by institutions such as Nato. As Mr Bush declared in Palmerstonian tones in his State of the Union address on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others.”
As things turned out, America’s unipolar moment was gone almost as quickly as it arrived. The neoconservative dream of democratising the Middle East was lost to the bloody chaos of Iraq and discontent at home at the huge cost in blood and treasure. Mr Bush spent much of his second term seeking to rebuild the bridges with allies that he had blown up during the first. Nato was invited into Afghanistan, while Germany and France were forgiven for their opposition to the Iraq invasion.
What was true for Mr Bush, the optimist narrative runs, will be more so for Mr Trump. The global power balance has tilted towards a rising, more assertive China and a belligerent Russia. There are some geopolitical facts the new president cannot deny.
Beguiling though the idea may seem to a dealmaker, detaching America’s national interests from its international commitments and alliances is impossible. Economic interdependence cannot be wished away and, as Mr Bush discovered in Iraq, military might has its own limits. Nor does retrenchment offer a viable alternative to engagement. Wherever it looks, the US has national interests to be promoted and protected, whether economic and commercial or geopolitical and military.
Mr Obama’s response has been a middle way, marrying realism to internationalism and recasting the US role as that of a convening power. Sometimes it has worked — witness the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change agreement. Defending his inaction in Syria, the president told The Atlantic magazine: “We’ve got to be hard-headed at the same time as we are big-hearted . . . there are going to be times where the best we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible.” His critics would charge that Mr Obama allowed creditable caution to drift into debilitating paralysis.
In any event, supporters of the pendulum theory have a point. It is quite possible to imagine a Trump presidency that starts out with a unilateralist swagger being conditioned over time by the realities of great power rivalry and economic interdependence.
The new president will discover soon enough that the US needs help in the fight against Isis and that American businesses would be among the biggest losers from a drift back into global protectionism. It is equally likely that the president-elect’s infatuation with Mr Putin will last no longer than similar attempts by both Mr Bush and Mr Obama to reset relations with Moscow.
No substitute for allies
The mistake, though, would be to think that the past can be recovered — that after a few tumultuous and dangerous years of isolationism the Pax Americana can simply be reinstated “as was”. The world has changed. American power is contested — and not only by China. There has been a corresponding shift in the nation’s domestic politics. The open global trading system once meant the expansion of US power: new markets for Ford, IBM and the rest.
Now it is more often seen as the enemy of American jobs. Great power rivalries have sharpened. Globalisation, invented in the US in the pursuit of American interests, now bestows its benefits on China and other geopolitical challengers.
At the end of next week Mr Trump will become the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. By most calculations, the US military will be unmatched for decades to come. But primacy is not the same as hegemony. The new president will find that most of his goals are out of reach of an America acting alone. Deals are no substitute for allies, and angry tweets will not restore US power and prestige. Palmerston was right that nothing in geopolitics is forever. But even in all its pomp, the British empire needed friends in the pursuit of its interests.
On the evidence thus far Mr Trump has neither the mindset nor temperament to recognise such constraints. The immediate dangers — of a miscalculation that leads to confrontation with China in the western Pacific, a “deal” that encourages Mr Putin’s revanchism in eastern Europe, or a clash with Iran — are clear enough. The long-term threat is that Mr Trump’s presidency sees a Pax Americana that has sustained relative peace and stability for the past 70 years dissolve into a return to the Hobbesian world of great power conflict.