What Does Trump's 'America First' Mean in Practice?

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Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands, on January 29. Adam Quinn writes that under President Donald Trump the United States may continue to make a heavy footprint in the world through the deployment of its military, economic and diplomatic power. But it will radically redefine the political and ideological terms on which it does so. reuters

This article first appeared on the Chatham House site.

Incoming American presidential administrations have often secured their mandate by presenting themselves as a contrast to what went immediately before.

George W. Bush ran for office promising a renewed focus on "the national interest" after eight years of Bill Clinton's focus on "globalization" and "humanitarian intervention."

Barack Obama offered the promise of a more restrained foreign policy after the failed, costly regime-change projects into which the Bush administration jumped with both feet after 9/11. There would be no repeat on his watch, Obama reassured voters, of the costly misadventure that was Iraq after 2003.

Related: Trump Will Withdraw from NATO—Then the World

Donald Trump is in keeping with this pattern. His election has without doubt signaled a major change in the terms of the United States' engagement with the world, and one far more pronounced than we would now be discussing if Obama had been replaced by Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state.

But Trump does not promise a return to the blend of neoconservatism and liberal hawkishness that defined the Bush era, with its embrace of aggressive "democracy promotion" under the shadow of U.S. military pressure. Instead, if the evidence of the 2016 campaign is to be believed, Trump's election will mean a sharp turn toward narrow-horizoned nationalism on the part of the United States.

This is not something the world has seen from a U.S. president in generations, and certainly not since the country's emergence from World War II as a superpower.

At first glance, we might interpret Trump's approach to foreign policy as simply an intensification of Obama's deliberate effort to rein in America's overseas interventionist impulse. Over the course of his time in office, Obama withdrew entirely from the huge troop deployment he inherited in Iraq (before redeploying, in much smaller numbers, to assist in the campaign against the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS) and decreased troop numbers in Afghanistan to a small residual force, beginning in 2011.

He participated with only the greatest reluctance in the toppling of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya in 2011, and strictly limited the American role in efforts to establish a new governing authority there afterward.

Most famously, he has insisted on only a minimal U.S. military entanglement in the bloody Syrian civil war, even as it has generated hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees.

In making all these choices, Obama proudly and explicitly defined himself as resisting a Washington "foreign policy establishment" inclination toward interventionism that in the president's view was too prone to favor action without an accompanying road map to an exit, having achieved concrete goals.

When it comes to his turn away from nation-building and liberal or humanitarian intervention, President-elect Trump presents not a disavowal but an amplification of these themes.

Despite evidence to the contrary, he repeated many times during the campaign that he had been against the 2003 Iraq War even before it began.

He made a point of warmly praising President Vladimir Putin of Russia for being a "leader," and in a campaign rather short on foreign policy specifics one standout moment was the Republican platform backing away—due to the Trump team's direct intercession—from a previously firm line against Russian intervention in Ukraine.

He appeared to rule out military intervention in Syria, publicly overruling his running mate, Mike Pence, while also being supportive of Russian bombing of anti-government forces there.

He alarmed foreign policy analysts of the left and right, at home and abroad, by loudly proclaiming his impatience with the scale and proportion of America's contribution to the defense of NATO allies and, in Asia, to that of Japan, even going so far as to suggest that America's honoring of its treaty guarantees was not unconditional.

If we take candidate Trump at his word, therefore—and whether to do so or not has been the subject of much debate—the evidence is compelling that his election means the world must revisit its assumptions regarding the extent of the United States' commitment to a global military presence, and perhaps expect its threshold for intervention in others' wars to be greatly raised.

Taking all of his pronouncements together has even led some observers to read him as an "isolationist," drawing on a longer tradition, excluded from power for generations, of American politicians advocating the preservation of American security and wealth by shunning the entanglements of foreign wars and overseas alliance-making.

It may be that such warnings prove prescient. In his short political career thus far, Trump has proved sufficiently capable of defying, with political success, conventional wisdom of all kinds that little can be ruled out with total confidence.

We should be careful to note, however, that if "isolationism" is to be the framework through which we understand Trump's instincts, we must be clear that this probably does not entail a shrinking of the United States' military weight in the world, or a diminution of its appetite for economic and diplomatic confrontation.

Trump's campaign proposals would see U.S. military spending increase by an estimated $100 billion above existing budget plans, including increases in the number of troops (by tens of thousands), ships and fighter aircraft. At rallies, he pledged to cheering crowds to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS, and repeatedly proposed that the United States should simply "take the oil" of Iraq to "reimburse" itself for the costs of its wars there.

Thus he has made starkly clear his willingness to contemplate unilateral large-scale use of military force and, at least in principle, neocolonial seizure of other countries' resources.

He has made remarks about how Iranian boats approaching U.S. ships in the Gulf could be "shot out of the water." Such a hypothetical underlines the potential for even minor clashes to escalate into serious military confrontation if the American commander in chief is inclined toward bellicose prickliness rather than restraint, even if the action is not part of any larger strategic plan.

Some statements by those linked to senior positions in his incoming administration have also made apparent the grave risk of sending mixed messages even in dealings with Russia, the one country with which one might suppose the risk of conflict had been decisively lowered by Trump's election.

On the economic front, Trump accused China of currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices, declaring that "we can't continue to allow China to rape our country." He also criticized NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, for its effect on American workers.

Already his transition team has sketched plans for a radical renegotiation of America's trading relationships that if taken seriously would set the stage for retaliatory measures and perhaps even full-blown trade war.

The best interpretation of this is that Trump represents a victory for the ideology of "America First," a slogan he adopted during the campaign and with a long history of use by the anti-Semitic and xenophobic right dating back to the 1930s. Trump has been made aware of those associations but has shrugged them off.

This means that the United States may well continue to make a heavy footprint in the world through the deployment of its military, economic and diplomatic power. But it will radically redefine the political and ideological terms on which it does so.

It seems set to move away from—and perhaps deliberately seek to undermine—the structure of liberal institutions and norms so carefully cultivated by U.S. leaders over many decades as a way of moderating not just the behavior of others but also its own actions.

Such moderation, and the consensual international politics that it seeks to embed, were seen until now by presidents of both parties as essential to preserving a kind of global stability that best serves American national interests.

In its place, Trump has given every indication that his administration will embrace crude transactionalism, an unapologetic zero-sum mind-set toward competition for national benefit and unfiltered power politics. If implemented, this could represent an epochal change, not just in the presentation or effect of U.S. strategy but on its core substance.

In his time on the public stage, Donald Trump has shown himself to be unprecedentedly protean when it comes to policy positions, and it is quite clear that little if any of what he has said about foreign policy is based on deep knowledge or reflection.

It is therefore conceivable that he might revisit it as the responsibilities of the office of president make themselves felt and the institutions of government provide him with new information and advice.

For the time being, however, if we are to take his platform and public statements at face value, he has given the world every reason to be not just concerned but alarmed.

Adam Quinn is a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Birmingham.

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