President Donald Trump and his stewardship of the US power is fueling a great deal of uncertainty for Americans as well as foreigners who are affected by the policies of the Superpower. Where US allies fear Trump‘s questionable commitment to them, international rivals, such as Russia, see the election of Donald Trump as an opportunity to neutralize American opposition. Absent a strong foreign policy background, Trump’s promise to shake up US foreign policy, including the finances of NATO, will be a source of uncertainty until the Trump Administration starts implementing policy. That said, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy vision is not as bleak as allies fear or as promising as rivals hope.
If Mr. Trump steams ahead with his pledge to renegotiate NAFTA and abandon TPP, which will serve as a key benchmark of whether the Washington outsider will reform America’s political system or simply shift public policy from the priorities of Left-wing special interest groups to the priorities of Right-wing special interests, his foreign policy will be far more economic in nature than his predecessor. In turn, the uncertainty inspired by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric will help afford the US greater leverage in any negotiations. Instead of assuring allies of US support, which US Presidents traditionally do when relations are strained by shifts in leadership and policies, Trump appears more inclined to seek assurances from allies that they support US interests and objectives.
At odds over the Ukraine Crisis and the Syrian Civil War, Russian President Vladimir Putin has wasted no time in courting the favor of President Trump. As Mr. Trump has pledged to force NATO allies to contribute more to their security, the unfolding Putin-Trump relationship only drives fears of a less protective America and a more domineering Russia. It is, however, important to recognize Republicans tend to be far more dedicated war hawks than Democrats while the Trump Administration appears to be shifting far more to the Right with an increasing number of establishment Republicans in his Administration. Consequently, the Trump Administration is far more likely to find itself at odds with confrontational foreign leaders.
Recalling President Obama’s reset with Russia, Iran, Myanmar, and Cuba, it appears Trump’s foreign policy approach includes similar resets with allies and rivals alike. Just as the seizure of Crimea forced the Obama Administration to eventually confront Russia, Trump and Putin will likely find themselves at odds over Russian aggression after their honeymoon ends. That is unless Vladimir Putin changes his approach to foreign policy and abandons his antagonistic ways. Given that Putin’s domineering personality compels him to win at all costs and by whatever means necessary, he is not likely to learn when to yield. Given Trump’s reactive personality, Putin’s efforts to manipulate will eventually force Mr. Trump to react very badly.
To understand Trump’s broader foreign policy approach, it is important to understand American views on foreign policy. The American People struggle to see the benefits of globalization and an internationalist agenda, which is why Donald Trump’s demands for US allies to pay more to support the US military resonate among Americans. Despite targeting Japan and South Korea, Trump's past comments addressed overall military spending by allied nations as compared to US spending. US partners help alleviate the US military budget, but US military infrastructure is sized to help shield our allies from threats and maintain global stability. Instead of US allies fully funding their own security needs, the US is subsidizing the majority of their security and not charging them for that service.
The American People also distrust international governing bodies. The European Union, for example, is a threat to democracy, despite European views that support open borders in order to foster free and open societies. The reason Americans hold this view is that distance creates a lack of access to representation. That is, the more layers of government that exist, the less responsive governments become to the needs of individuals and individual communities. In providing for the common defense and economic welfare of EU members, indirectly chosen officials of EU institutions are rapidly superseding the authority and influence of democratically elected national leaders of EU countries.
Furthermore, the US is not immune to international trends of democratization and resovereignization. In the post Cold War era, the US was the hegemonic power of a monopolar world. Relative US power and influence has waned with the strengthening of the multipolar democratizing International Community of democratizing nation-states. Democratization means all governments must be increasingly responsive to the needs and wants of their Peoples in order to maintain stability and sustain peace, but it also means the International Community as a collective must represent the views and address the interests of individual nations as near equals.
The prosperity of the Twentieth Century was made possible thanks to US global ambitions for a world made safe for democracy and the willingness of most nations within the International Community to cooperate on global security, to pursue internationally brokered diplomatic engagement, instead of armed conflict, and to build the global economy. The internationalist mindset that embraced global governance was the fruit of a new world order where strong and weak nations alike enjoyed equal sovereign rights. Strong nation benefited from the stability of a successful International Community and weaker nations were protected from their stronger revivals.
Not only did US leadership in global governance establish standards for the rights of nations and Peoples, the US served as a symbol of hope and offered its strength to empower the weak. Although US foreign policy has long toggled back and forth between engagement and disengagement, the internationalists of the world now fear that America’s newfound “nationalistic” impulses mean the US is turning inward away from its internationalist ideals to become more of a self-serving traditional state like Russia or China. While the US is poised for a massive correction in its policies to better assert the interests of its People, the reality is that America has always been a traditional state.
Under resovereignization and the democratization of the International Community, the US is not an unquestioned hegemonic dictator of global affairs. It is one nation among many that must express and address the interests of its Peoples while balancing those national interests with the interests of other nations and Peoples. Not only must countries pursue their own national interests, they must act as coequal partners with the United States and take on greater responsibility in maintaining the International Community. Just as the governments of the Middle East are learning to provide for their own regional security, the rest of the world must take on more responsibility in global affairs.
This is the realization of the internationalist dream. Unfortunately, people and countries do not just react; they tend to overreact. Instead of rebalancing US relationships with allies to better serve our own and mutual interests, we tend to either over engage or completely disengage from the world. This is why policymakers should proactively push a recalibration of diplomatic engagement, trade relations, and military cooperation instead of allowing civil discontent to push governments to the extremes, which is harmful to all parties. To avoid US disengagement and an abusive pursuit of its interests, America must be able to properly recalibrate and assert its interests. This is, hopefully, what Trump’s “America First” vision will help do.
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