Trump Age: The implications of adopting an America First Policy Approach [ii]

  • By defencematters

With Trump’s victory the US’s standing has already been damaged because it is no longer seen as a dependable or predictable partner.

In the second part of our series, (you can read the first part here), Dr. Matthew Burrows, director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative, after the Trump victory, discusses the implications of adopting an America First policy approach for the climate change, the European security, Middle East as well as the future standing of US in the Pacific in the absence of TPP. He concludes that in the new multipolar predicament to remain “first among equals, the US needs to be willing to help out and partner with other countries, including Russia and China, recognising US power is necessary but not sufficient.”

By Dr Matthew Burrows

The Trump presidency potentially turns the US into a revisionist power, no longer wanting to manage the multilateralist system that it established and nakedly pursuing its own interests whatever the impact on its allies and partners. That doesn’t mean the US will be isolationist or even less interventionist so long as it serves US interests. The change comes with an “attitude” on the part of Trump that the rest of the world owes the US. Pax Americana no longer pays. Instead Trump believes that the U.S. is self-reliant enough that it can slough off the rules-based order even if others are hurt by a loss of US leadership.

Most of what Trump has stated during the campaign would break apart the international system, but US presidencies are not just a matter of intentions or even electoral mandates. FDR was elected in 1938, promising to keep America out of war while George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 to reduce US commitments abroad. Both ended up expanding the US’s global role. In any international crisis, Trump may quickly find that the US needs to strengthen its ties with its allies as well as try to cooperate with Russia and China. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who himself came to power as a result of the 1956 Suez Crisis responded to a journalist’s question about “what is most likely to blow governments off course,” was "events, my dear boy, events.[1]" That seems as true today for Trump as it did back in Macmillan’s time.

Whether it was Clinton or Trump who were elected, the US is up against strong headwinds—namely a more assertive Russia and China and a growing multipolar world. Trump still has the potential to prove that only the US can put together global coalitions that can tackle big global challenges. But, if he shows by disinterest or through failed policies that the US won’t or can’t be a problem-solver, then he will accelerate the US’s relative decline.

 Costs of an “America First” policy would vary

The extent of the long term damage depends on how much china Trump breaks. With Trump’s victory the US’s standing has already been damaged because it is no longer seen as a dependable or predictable partner. Across the world in circles friendly to the US and even in those less friendly, people are scratching their heads wondering how US voters could have elected Trump.

But the damage to the US reputation could be far more extensive and long lasting if he rescinds US participation in the climate agreement, tears up NAFTA or tries to overturn the Iran nuclear arms agreement. The Iranians could decide to abrogate their treaty obligations and restart production. Israel may call for military solution to end the Iranian program and Saudi Arabia could explore its own nuclear arms development. A much more unstable, proliferated Middle East would result with the US as seen as again the key culprit.

Ending NAFTA may not have quite the same global repercussions, but it would undermine the attractiveness of negotiating trade agreements with the US by anyone. For Latin Americans, NAFTA has been a symbol of the US commitment to the region. Combined with the likely deportations of illegal immigrants, recent improvements in the US image would be set back a generation or two.

Countries around the world are used to the US not implementing climate change agreements they sign up to so the immediate impacts may be less than in the above cases. The Bush (’43) Administration walked away from the Kyoto Agreement after taking office in 2001. China would be highly offended by Trump reversing course and others would worry about the US defection encouraging other drop-outs. Scientists believe that we are rapidly moving beyond the point of no return, when much higher temperatures are inevitable and increasingly damaging. For future generations, the Trump Administration would go down in the history as endangering the whole planet, putting short term interests ahead of everybody else’s for generations on end.

It Depends on Whether and How Ties with Russia Are Eased

If Trump lowers the tensions with Moscow, that would be a good thing, but only if he does not severely damage transatlantic ties. Washington and Moscow have a long history in negotiating with one another over the heads of the US’s European allies. Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik in 1987 with even the US President’s advisers unsure of what Reagan might say or concede to his Soviet counterpart. If Trump forces the Europeans to manage more their own security, that would be to the long term good of all of NATO. Already, defence budgets are slated to go up in a number of NATO countries—Trump’s disregard for NATO appears to have achieved what former Defence Secretary Robert Gates sought to do, but failed with his harsh rhetoric towards US’s NATO allies before leaving office in 2011.

However, reducing US troop rotations in Eastern Europe, for example, without equal or more concessions on the Russian side would signal a wholly new US stance of no longer seeing European security as central to the US’s. Eliminating sanctions without getting a permanent settlement on Ukraine in which Russia respects that country’s sovereignty would also be damaging to transatlantic ties. Putin may surprise Trump on being a more difficult negotiator and not put the premium on better ties with the US that Trump assumes. Ukraine is a much bigger concern for Putin and a divided Ukraine may suit his interests more than reconciliation with Washington.

Rudderless in Asia

Eliminating US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems almost a given now. Trump has vowed to remove US participation on the day he is installed in office. If he reverses course, it could be an early sign that he is having second thoughts about not honouring US commitments in Asia. TPP doesn’t involve huge economic costs as it isn’t in operation. But a US exit would be seen as undercutting Washington’s credibility with its Asian partners. Without some effort to renegotiate or reconstitute another free trade agreement, Trump’s renunciation of TPP could be a turning point for US standing in Asia. China would benefit from the US’s loss.

But if Trump wants to stick it to the US’s Asian partners, he also is taking a harsh stance against China. The US’s and China’s economies are so intertwined, however. If he slaps on tariffs across the board on Chinese imports (not just on steel products), Beijing will retaliate, hurting US exports to and investments in China. Such drastic steps have the potential to escalate. China may take more provocative action in the South China Sea. A US response would require working once again with the US’s traditional allies in Asia.   Making an inveterate foe of China increases the chance of outright conflict, which would put a definitive end to globalisation and cast a pall over all our futures.

A harsh policy on China would present a break with all past US presidencies from Nixon through Obama. Those presidencies sought cooperation over conflict despite China’s rise as a peer competitor to the US. History is replete with rivalries—such as the Anglo-German one before World War I and Franco-British competition and conflicts all through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. US presidencies up to now have prided themselves on not repeating the past. Trump doesn’t seem to understand what is at stake and could set a precedent that confirms to the Chinese that Washington is bent on stopping China’s rise.

Middle East will be Trump’s biggest test

Cooperation with Russia on eliminating the ISIS threat could also ease tensions with Moscow, but for there to be peace in the Middle East, the US would need to be much more engaged economically, militarily and diplomatically. The US is critical to a long-term settlement. If Trump doesn’t step up to that role — beyond stamping out ISIS — the Middle East doesn’t have a chance of being peaceful in the foreseeable future. Even if Trump would see a US interest in a long-term commitment, there’s no guarantee of a quick turnaround. Civil wars are notoriously difficult to stop and oftentimes requires huge outside intervention which a Clinton presidency would also have shrunk from. But, if Trump turns his back, he will ensure continued turmoil, including no end to the terrorist threat even if ISIS is destroyed. For the rest of the world, disengagement from the Middle East would be confirmation that the US had chosen a new path for itself--no longer interested in trying to manage the global order.

Trump’s Chance to Carve Out a New US Role

Most presidents have difficulty learning how to manage the US’s foreign affairs. One remembers JFK’s difficult first year, leading Khrushchev to believe that the US would acquiesce to a permanent division. Some scholars blame Kennedy for the 1961 Berlin crisis.

Trump has less government experience even if he has mastered the art of the deal. Too much interest in better Russian ties, for example, could send a message of weakness to a tactically astute Putin. An early failure could tarnish his standing at home as well as abroad. Soured Sino-US ties would have even longer repercussions. A failed Trump presidency—however satisfying to those who campaigned against him—could endanger the US’s long term standing.

The US is no longer the unipolar power it was after the end of the Cold War. Even before Trump’s election, the US was being tested by Russia, China and the Middle East and many commentators warned of growing US weakness under the Obama Administration. Scholars decades away in the future may see more continuity than change with a Trump electoral victory. US clout was already receding, for example, in the Middle East with the Obama Administration reluctant to get too involved in ending the Syrian civil war.

The US has been in relative decline for at least a decade and there is little any president could do to turn back the clock. That said, if Trump finds a way to work with others—not just allies, but also Russia and China to solve the big problems—then he can show that the US remains “first among equals.”

To be “first among equals,” the US needs to be willing to help out and partner with other countries, including Russia and China, recognising US power is “necessary but not sufficient.” Others need a say. Finding a way to develop solutions with others to global challenges in an increasingly diverse world, not turning one’s back should be the goal that the Trump presidency sets its mind to.

Dr. Matthew Burrows is the director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, which received widespread recognition and praise in the international media and among academics and think tanks.

[1] It has yet to established when and where Macmillan actually said those words even if the quotation is in common usage, Wikiquotes