Skip to main content
U.S. President Donald Trump departs after announcing his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX38LS4
Order from Chaos

Trump’s “America First” is America the Small

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal carried the first serious attempt by the Trump administration to articulate its foreign policy vision—what “America First” means, in practice, for America’s role in the world. This comes in the form of an opinion piece by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council.

I say it’s the first serious attempt, because President Trump has not thus far used his bully pulpit to make any vision statement on foreign policy, despite ample opportunity. His commencement address at the Coast Guard academy (service academies are a traditional venue for foreign policy speeches) instead devolved into carping about unfair press coverage of his presidency. His overseas trip and its crucial engagements with allies in the Middle East and Europe presented multiple platforms on which he might have articulated a vision for America’s role in the world, or at least in the regions he visited. Instead, he kept his focus firmly on what was directly in front of him, and laid out goals (“advancing prosperity, defeating the evils of terrorism, and facing the threat of an Iranian regime that is threatening the region”) notable for their abstraction more than for their marriage to any means to achieve them. Nowhere was there a discussion of America’s national interests or how they related to the interests of others.

But while President Trump blusters, the national security professionals with whom President Trump has staffed out his administration (the “adults,” as many pundits have it) are transforming their president’s loose collection of impulses and prejudices from an umbrella slogan of “America First” into a bonafide foreign policy strategy. In a recent interview for Global Politico, Susan Glasser asked NSC Communications Director Michael Anton what the “Trump Doctrine” was. Here’s his answer:

Anton: I don’t know if there’s a way you can state it, the way you could state in one sentence the Truman Doctrine or the Reagan Doctrine, or some famous doctrines of the past. His doctrine, I think, it’s still emerging, it’s still coming together, but the outlines of it were clear in the campaign. It was: there’s an approach to the use of force, there’s an approach to putting American interests first, an approach to putting especially the interest of American workers and the American economy first in trade negotiations.

All these things, I think, have a coherence that unites them, and the NSC with our interagency partners are currently in the beginning stages of working on a document that’s required by Congress, called the National Security Strategy, that when that is eventually published-probably in the fall-will be the Trump doctrine, but it won’t be a sentence. It’ll be–I don’t know how many pages, but a number of-a couple dozen pages that explain this in some detail.

[Let’s pause to note that, if Trump’s national security strategy truly and authoritatively articulates his foreign policy vision, it may be the first NSS to do that for a U.S. president in many years. These congressionally-mandated documents are usually catchalls that, by including everything, prioritize little and thus present little effective guidance to national security agencies. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama only produced four NSS documents between them over 16 years in office.]

Trump’s NSS is reportedly being drafted by Nadia Schadlow, as serious a national security mind as one could hope for. And the WSJ op-ed was co-authored by a much-ballyhooed strategic thinker, H.R. McMaster. So there’s reason to take these pieces seriously as an effort to put meat on the (very bare) bones of Trump’s approach to world affairs.

Trump is competitive, he’s transactional, he mistrusts multilateralism—these we know. What does it all add up to? According to McMaster and Cohn, a very narrow vision indeed (italics are mine):

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

At every stop in our journey, we delivered a clear message to our friends and partners: Where our interests align, we are open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities. We let adversaries know that we will not only take their measure, deter conflict through strength, and defend our interests and values, but also look for areas of common interest that allow us to work together. In short, those societies that share our interests will find no friend more steadfast than the United States. Those that choose to challenge our interests will encounter the firmest resolve.

A few things stand out about this view:

First, alliances are mere temporary alignments of interest. They have no inherent value for the United States (as for example, enhancing American power and influence by demonstrating the attractiveness of the American model); they don’t even have diffuse value (as for example, by deterring future war). And thus, alliances just don’t mean very much. Where interests align, President Trump is “open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities.” Could you imagine a more distant expression of partnership with those who fought and died alongside Americans in wars across three continents? For NATO allies, it must feel as though your spouse, waking up on your 50th wedding anniversary, suddenly announces that he’s ready to talk about whether you have enough in common to start dating.

Second, in Trump’s view of the world, nations share nothing, really, except a thirst for power and wealth. Shared values are meaningless, and the idea of shared fate (as presented by global threats like disease or climate change or even nuclear proliferation) is so foolish as not to be worth mentioning. What matters, all that matters, is the daily competition of all against all for security and resources.

As my colleague Dan Drezner pointed out, this might sound a lot like simple foreign-policy realism—that all states seek security and prosperity, and that amassing national power and wealth is the road to security and prosperity for citizens. The problem, of course, is that the world doesn’t work that way any longer—if it ever did. An entire generation of scholars and practitioners have laid out the ways in which globalized flows of information and capital, globally-linked corporations and NGOs, and globally-connected citizens make it difficult to treat “national power” as something that governments can amass and control.

Moreover, problems of the commons have always shown the limits of individual nations’ ability to protect their citizens through a competitive, go-it-alone approach to world affairs. Climate change and infectious disease aren’t stopped by walls and pay no mind to “America First.” Neither, of course, do the purveyors of jihadi ideology, not in the age of the internet. The Trump administration’s worldview seems to ignore these real dangers, and that puts Americans at risk.

Finally, this impoverished understanding of global affairs as a zero-sum competition for power and resources claims to reassert American leadership in the world even as it rejects that leadership’s basic foundation: that collective purpose and collective action can reduce costs and increase security and opportunity for like-minded nations. As David Frum notes in The Atlantic, successive American presidents built America’s global influence (or power, for you vulgar realists) on the notion that collective advancement of open markets and open societies would produce a rising tide of wealth and security that would benefit the United States along with many others. It is hard to see how a strategy rooted instead in cutthroat competition and arms’-length suspicion will somehow do better than that postwar liberal order at extending American influence, security, or prosperity.

And here, it appears, is the danger of having serious and dedicated national security professionals staffing Donald Trump’s White House: By finding viable ways to implement his expressed will, and by elevating his impulses into grand strategy, they are magnifying the impact of their impulsive, but largely incompetent, commander-in-chief. Rather than merely seeing President Trump as a capricious leader, European leaders have begun to express their conclusion that the United States is no longer trustworthy. Thus, American influence will decline, and America’s security and prosperity along with it. Get ready for America the Small.

A how-to guide for managing the end of the post-Cold War era. Read all the Order from Chaos content »

Get daily updates from Brookings