America first! Trump’s foreign policy

On the one hand, the Trump administration aims at strengthening the US economy and armed forces; on the other, it intends to turn its back on the rest of the world.

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
10 March 2018

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the United States, Jan. 30, 2018. Yin Bogu/Press Associaition. All rights reserved.The future of USA foreign policy has been recently outlined in the ‘National Security Strategy’ (18 December 2017) and, if very briefly, in President Trump’s ‘State of the Union’ speech (30 January). Those who expect a lot of ‘fire and fury’ might and will be disappointed. The US will dedicate less time, energy, and money to the rest of the world and concentrate on domestic affairs, regardless of ‘The Donald’s blunders and whims.

The key objectives are clear: on the one hand, the Trump administration aims at strengthening the US economy and armed forces; on the other, it intends to turn its back on the rest of the world, unless vital American interests are at stake. Now America really comes first.

The Trump administration’s doctrine can be understood as protectionist and nationalist. Protectionist ideas have raised a lot of controversies but they are far from new in US history and aim at rebuilding a strong industrial base, especially at a time of competition from emerging economies and on the verge of a ‘fourth’ industrial revolution.

Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, is a champion of protectionism, particularly in relation to China and Europe. While such positions remain economically and politically questionable, they have a clear goal: help America re-industrialise by changing trade deals with its competitors (China, Russia, but also Germany). Trump and his clique imagine a world of more-or-less hostile blocs in which the USA wants to sit on top. Sadly, rising nationalisms in countries like China, Russia, India, Turkey (but also Japan and Germany – ‘Alternative for Germany’ has 94 seats in the Bundestag) seem to vindicate Trump’s realism and confrontational posture. Let us hope this will not be the case.

Both economic and strategic reasons suggest that Trump’s main foreign policy focus will be East Asia, and in particular China. For a long time the latter has been the target of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on issues such as intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, export subsidies, and in general unfair trade practices.

China is catching up also in strategic sectors like Artificial Intelligence and has vastly invested in the US economy in recent years ($ 117 billion in the past five years, according to some estimates). But who would win a possible trade war? After all, China holds a large share of US public debt and lots of American companies that do business there would oppose restrictions in trade and investments. Moreover, the USA is not innocent with regard to export subsidies: for years there have been complaints about support to farmers and aircraft producers (e.g. in the Boeing vs Airbus dispute) – a support which has given the US advantages over both developed and developing countries.   

In strategic terms, the Trump administration has made efforts to revive the Quadrilateral Alliance (USA - India - Australia - Japan) to contain Beijing’s ambitions, but little has been achieved so far. Australia is a leading Chinese trade partner and India co-operates with Beijing on initiatives such as the BRICS group or the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). Why would they choose to confront China?

Even Duterte’s Philippines, a traditional Washington ally, has opened a door to more co-operation with Beijing. Sending an aircraft carrier to neighboring Vietnam, as the USA has pledged to do in the near future, looks more like a performance or a (relative) show of strength than a sign of bellicose intentions. China is a ‘rival’, as Trump called it in the ‘State of the Union’ speech, but a confrontation, if there will be one, might take place only on trade-related issues.  Even at the WTO level, where it is possible to raise complaints and start procedures against unfair trade practices, there have been 39 disputes against China – not really much in comparison with the 84 against the EU or 135 against the USA…

East Asia will be a difficult terrain, but US diplomacy won’t have an easier life in the Middle East. Here Washington has to deal with another ‘out of area’ power, Russia, which under Putin has surprisingly punched above its weight in the region. It’s no coincidence Russia is another ‘rival’, if we trust the language used by Trump himself. After all, Moscow has managed to avoid Assad’s fall in Syria, keep traditionally good relations with Iran, accommodate Erdogan’s erratic Turkey, and strongly improve ties with oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

The USA, for its part, has re-affirmed a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, which should be approached in far more critical terms (let us not forget the issue of Wahhabism), alienated a part of the Arab world after Trump’s declarations on Jerusalem, and been unable to control an ever more unpredictable Turkey, which should probably consider whether it wants to remain under the NATO umbrella or go its own way. The problems between Washington and Ankara have been recognised by the usually cautious Secretary of State Tillerson in his recent and rather inconclusive visit to Turkey.

What will happen to US relations with Europe? The National Security Strategy makes it clear that EU countries will have to spend more on defence. On the whole the EU will be less and less important, unless Europeans truly attempt to take responsibility for their lives and politics. Institutional cosmetics in Brussels won’t be enough. States like Britain, France, or even Germany will be less and less influential and in a highly competitive world will have to struggle to defend what survives of their ‘social models’, with dire consequences in their domestic affairs.

Left to their own national devices, some EU countries might degenerate into semi-authoritarianism, confusion, or anti-European policies; the elections in Italy and Hungary constitute a potential watershed moment.

After all, the USA still has the primacy in technology, finance, and the military. This administration feels the pressure of ‘rival’ powers and intends to concentrate on strengthening US leadership without facing them head-on. There won’t be any generosity towards the rest of the democratic world. If we believe in our value as citizens we have to be aware that the world will increasingly be squeezed in a ‘battle’ among rivals, and act accordingly, starting by showing commitment to democratic institutions and casting our vote in all forthcoming elections.

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