'America first' is quickly turning into America alone

If order and alliances really are burdensome, then Trump is on the right track. But if he is wrong, the implications of his foreign policy could be disastrous, writes Hussein Ibish

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in support of Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., and GOP Senate candidate Matt Rosendale at the Four Seasons Arena at Montana ExpoPark, Thursday, July 5, 2018, in Great Falls, Mont.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Last week, Americans celebrated their Independence Day more unsure of, and divided over, their international role than at any time since before the Second World War. President Donald Trump has upended US foreign policy at least as much as domestic politics.

He claims his "America First" approach is making the country stronger and re-establishing US leadership. A year and a half into his presidency, is that being vindicated?

As I've noted on these pages, Mr Trump took pains to market himself as a "dealmaker", but hasn't made any noteworthy deals – either at home or abroad. Instead, he's been an aggressive deal-breaker, an anarchist who prefers chaos and disruption over any predictable, systematic order.

I've also argued that Mr Trump's idiosyncratic views on trade explain his broader international attitudes, especially his hostility towards multilateralism and preference for bilateral relations. He believes the US squanders competitive advantage in multilateral arrangements by allowing others to combine their strengths rather than each dealing with Washington individually.

Mr Trump rejects the consensus of all his presidential predecessors since the 1940s, Republican and Democrat alike, by regarding the international alliances and "rules-based order” Washington built over decades as an obstacle to, rather than a vehicle of, American power.

He claims he alone is right and the whole foreign policy establishment have been not merely wrong, but methodically self-defeating.

The president first trashed agreements that were concluded, but not yet enacted, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Agreement. Now he's considering scrapping established ones like the North American Free Trade Agreement and even leaving the World Trade Organisation.

Mr Trump insists he can make "better deals" with other countries individually instead, but, other than South Korea, none seem interested.

Moreover, he has launched a massive trade war with China.

Strong measures to address China's protectionist and mercantilist policies and theft of intellectual property are overdue. But there’s every indication this trade war could harm the US more than China. And by simultaneously launching inexplicable trade battles with America's closest partners – Canada, Mexico and European countries – Mr Trump has foreclosed a potentially united front against China’s predatory conduct.

No Western countries have sided with Beijing against Washington – yet. But China clearly sees an opportunity quickly opening.

There’s certainly no reason to think China will emerge the big loser and every reason to fear Mr Trump is playing into Beijing’s hands. And if his consistent overtures to Russia are aimed at fostering an anti-Chinese alliance with Moscow, there's no sign of that either.

What is certain is that his rhetoric has deeply undermined Nato's unity and viability, and, combined with his denunciations of the European Union, seriously jeopardised the entire Atlantic alliance.

Russia’s grandest strategic aims are being realised without Moscow lifting a finger.


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Despite constant administration disavowals, “America First” is quickly turning into America alone.

Since the 1940s, most Republicans and Democrats agreed Washington should avoid acting as a predatory power and, as far as possible, prove a trustworthy friend. Mr Trump clearly thinks that was idiotic and counterproductive.

Canada, Europe and other nominal allies are discovering how a predatory United States, acting as a revisionist power, rather than a stabilising one, behaves.

But how about smaller and more adversarial states?

One of the biggest challenges they have posed recently is the threat of nuclear proliferation by Iran and North Korea. Two of Mr Trump's most important initiatives sought to tackle this. The results thus far seem dismal.

Iran, which did not develop nuclear weapons, is facing a "maximum pressure" campaign and massive financial warfare. North Korea, which did develop them, is getting praise and major concessions, apparently gratis.

So, the only logical conclusion is that North Korea was wise to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles at all costs, while Iran made a mistake by agreeing to mothball most of its programme in 2015.

Rewarding North Korea for having successfully proliferated, and punishing Iran for having hesitated, obviously creates an incentive structure that encourages nuclear proliferation.

But it's possible, as his approach to nonproliferation suggests, that we’re reading too much into all this. Perhaps Mr Trump doesn't have any coherent foreign policy but simply does whatever he thinks makes him look good to his political base at any given moment.

If that’s true, then his bullying stances aren’t about achieving any specific results but are merely bluster designed to make him look “tough”.

If so, his foreign policy is simply another instance of Mr Trump's political weaponisation of jingoistic symbols like the national anthem, US flag, immigration, border security, and so on, and his "America First" agenda is essentially another expression of American white nationalism, rather than statecraft or anything genuinely patriotic.

Is Mr Trump’s disruption unleashing US power and asserting strength and leadership? Or is it recklessly squandering an invaluable legacy of wise restraint and generally good judgement?

If Mr Trump and his core supporters are right that rules are for suckers, order is illusory, alliances are burdensome and there are no real partners, only rivals and competitors, he's obviously on the correct track.

But if virtually everyone else is right that stability and order are in the US interest and partnerships are helpful, his presidency is a disaster.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington