PRESIDENT DONALD JOHN TRUMP’S “AMERICA FIRST” POLICY constitutes the core of his administration’s domestic and foreign policy. It is not an original formulation. Many other U.S. presidents have also ranked the wellbeing of Americans uppermost in their policies, but without damaging American domestic and global interests. Trump’s interpretation of those policies, however, is dangerously different from that of his predecessors, and he is exposing his nation to significant risks.
President Richard Nixon with U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division troops during his visit to Dian, South Vietnam on July 30, 1969. Photo (number WHPO 1631-03) by the courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California.
Is the Trump administration really putting America first? The question not only throws international relations into turmoil, but it also marks a disjuncture, or a rupture, in world affairs. On the one hand, there are deep divisions within the American foreign policy elite, and among the American people, over the muddled proposition that Trump is putting America first. And on the other hand, many people abroad believe that the policy does not benefit the United States.
The Trump strategy demonstrably diminishes U.S. influence abroad as its undisguised protectionism threatens the health of the American economy because of the U.S. withdrawal from a global free trading pact, his initiation of import tariffs on foreign steel and aluminium in March 2018, his imposition of tariffs worth $ 50 billion on Chinese imports in the same month (provoking Beijing to announce $ 3 billion in reciprocal tariffs on U.S. imports), and his frequent warnings to allies abroad that he would engage them in trade wars.
The Trump policy wilts under the weight of the evidence, as the president’s America First manifesto is not supported by facts. The White House has declared in a statement that it is “committed to a foreign policy focused on American interests and American national security,” and that its “peace through strength” strategy “will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.”
Trump’s constant recanting of his statements has created an impression abroad that the Trump administration is not a reliable ally, and that it cannot be counted on as a guarantor of global peace the way previous U.S. presidents have been. Trump no more characterises Japan as a stealer of American jobs, and he has retracted his statement that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was “obsolete.”
To which of the three main groups of American foreign policymakers does the present administration belong? First are the Realists who believe that the United States must remain the leading actor on the global stage buffeted by the geopolitical typhoons of an anarchic world. In order to maintain U.S. status, the Realists prioritise the U.S. national interest and geopolitical forces, and they measure the soundness of policy by an “ends-means” calculation dating back to the Cold War, as they downplay, or even ignore, economic and cultural influences.
The evidence shows that the Trump administration does not belong in this group of Realist policymakers who have advised leaders such as Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, both of whom had aimed to secure U.S. global dominance through diplomatic and military interventions abroad.
A second group of policymakers, who see themselves as Progressive, concentrate on economic issues, explaining that foreign policy arises from domestic economic pressures. As a result, they are antagonistic towards the Realists.
Trump appears to be a Progressive only superficially as he has linked foreign policy to domestic issues, but he does not fit here either because he has not tackled economic issues head on. He has placed himself outside this group with his promise to launch the biggest U.S. military build-up ever, even though Pentagon officials have clarified that the military is already the most powerful in the world.
The third group observes the influence of international developments on American policy, and the consequences of those influences on U.S. policymaking. It is more reactive, being a cautious and rigorous observer of the world. The Trump administration seems to belong in the third group. But it suffers from a limitation owing to its unfamiliarity with important areas in Asia.
The idea of putting America first is neither new, nor unique. U.S. presidents have traditionally adopted an America First policy, without using that precise slogan, through the five periods of U.S. engagement with the world—the foundations of U.S. diplomacy from 1776-1826, continental expansion (1826-1898) as the European settlers moved westwards towards the California coast, its arrival as a world power (1898-1950), Cold War supremacy (1950-1991), and the emergence of new Asian economies as challengers to American power (1991 to the present).
Trump’s America First slogan may, eventually, remain a slogan. The economic troubles of the U.S. cannot be solved by his prescription of more protectionism, or by anti-globalisation. He has repudiated the policies of past American presidents by advocating both political and economic isolation.
Isolationism can acquire a dangerous momentum when it captures the popular imagination—and it will do so—as Trump has wrongly attributed the economic problems facing the American people to the U.S. international economic treaties. American free trade deals have not resulted in loss of jobs, rather, these losses are caused by the constant outflow of American investments to countries where wages are low. These U.S. investments did not go overseas because of the free trade pacts. The investment capital would have taken flight even in the absence of such pacts because American corporate managers have always sought to build factories in countries where the wage bill is cheap.
Trump’s threats to renegotiate America’s defense treaties with Japan and South Korea, and his use of hostile language, had intimidated and alienated the two closest U.S. allies in East Asia, and he is potentially jeopardising America’s strategic interests in the region. From time to time, U.S. presidents have asked their allies abroad to bear a larger share of their defense burden, under longstanding Republican policy.
President Richard Nixon had articulated the Nixon Doctrine in 1969, declaring that henceforth America’s allies would be expected to defend themselves, but the United States would still honour its treaty commitments and provide military and economic aid if requested. Nixon’s policy was reasonable as the United States was facing a massive financial crisis because the intervention in Vietnam had cost more than the two world wars combined, and would force the country off the gold standard just two years later, marking the end of the Bretton Woods system.
In contrast, under Trump the United States does not face a comparable financial crisis, which renders his policy dangerous because any U.S. reduction in commitment to defend its East Asian allies would cede strategic space to America’s rivals, China and Russia. The security of East Asia in the post-Second World War and the Korean War period was overseen by two key alliances, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty of 1951, and the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953.
The surprising offer by the North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, in March 2018, to denuclearise his country may only partially be attributed to the stiff economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration because both sides, the north and the south, have made several abortive efforts toward peace talks in the past, and an eventual breakthrough was always expected. Diplomacy, however, does not consist of tweets, and it is yet to be seen just how far the Trump administration is able to take the negotiations further. During talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2018, Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his willingness to meet with Trump. It is clear, though, that for talks to progress in any meaningful way, the United States must provide security guarantees to North Korea, and in return Kim will have to offer concessions.
Trump’s commitment to Asia is wavering at a time when many Southeast Asian countries are worried about China’s claims in the South China Sea, and Russia is challenging the United States in several areas globally. He is reducing the U.S. relationship with Japan and South Korea to a business deal, which will potentially destabilise the entire Asian region. He believes that both of these allies do not pay enough for the U.S. defense shield, and that U.S. defense treaties with both countries are unfair. He argues: “If Japan gets attacked, we have to go to their defense and start World War III. If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything.” He ignores the fact that Japan pays over US$ 2 billion annually to meet the cost of maintaining 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan. He does not mention the strong U.S.-Japan security relationship that has provided region-wide stability and economic prosperity. He also avoids citing the important fact that the United States is capable of projecting power in the Indo-Pacific because the presence of U.S. troops in Japan allows it to react rapidly to regional crises.
There is another danger. Trump’s anti-Japan policy could actually push Japan to increase the size of its military, and it may even consider developing nuclear weapons, which would certainly destabilise the region. He employs the same flawed policy stick to criticise the U.S. defense agreement with South Korea, where more than 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed. “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?” he asks. “When will they start to pay us?” He ignores the fact that South Korea does pay—a little less than half the cost of the U.S. troop presence. Most recently, Seoul’s share of the contribution was US$ 861 million. But its contribution should not be measured in dollars because together the allies provide the stability needed for the region to flourish. But Trump persists: “I would want South Korea to pay us a lot of money.”
Considered one of America’s most crucial alliances, the treaty with South Korea not only serves as deterrent to a North Korean attack on South Korea, but also provides a continental base for U.S. military forces to confront China and Russia, and serves as a forward position to defend Japan. As America’s East Asian allies see it, the Trump policy amounts to a betrayal, signalling the lack of U.S. commitment to remain engaged in Asia.
If Trump takes it to an extreme, he could end up reviving the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which denoted that the U.S. was so exhausted after fighting a long war in Vietnam that it deliberately avoided involvement in major foreign interventions for nearly two decades. President George H.W. Bush proclaimed an end to the syndrome in his victory speech following the 1991 Persian Gulf War: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” He signalled that the United States was resuming its global policeman role.
All of this is not a new Trump Doctrine, if it can be called that. It formed part of the thinking of the U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Nixon Doctrine. Although Eisenhower never abandoned U.S. allies, he did not want American troops dying in foreign lands. And so, in the early 1950s, General Eisenhower articulated a key principle of what later became the Nixon Doctrine: “If there must be a war there in Asia, let it be Asians against Asians.”
But the Trump Doctrine is badly conceived in contrast to the Nixon Doctrine. This is because while Trump strikes at the heart of the U.S. alliance system in East Asia, Nixon did not go quite so far. Under the Nixon Doctrine, the Nixon administration implemented the policy of Vietnamization, which was aimed at gradually withdrawing American troops and leaving the government of South Vietnam with the burden of fighting the war.
Nixon was driven by an entirely different motive from that of Trump. Nixon was not thinking about saving a little money by shifting the burden of defense to the allies. He was pressured to implement Vietnamization only after other components of his strategy failed to produce victory in Vietnam, and as members of his own administration and the public demanded that he withdraw American troops more rapidly.
Trump should realise that the United States is actually benefiting from its military presence in Japan and South Korea, both by maintaining its global hegemony and regional economic prosperity. The gains made by Washington from its military presence in East Asia far outweigh the perceived losses.
Isolationism extracted a large price in the past, resulting not only in U.S. Congress’ rejection of U.S. membership in the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations) after the First World War because of the worries that the League would draw America into unnecessary European conflicts, but also in trade protectionism.
It was alarming that Washington did nothing to prevent or repel the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and subsequent push to gain control over larger parts of Northeast China in 1931. All that the Chinese-speaking president, Herbert Hoover, who learned the language when he was a young engineer working in China, and his secretary of state, Henry Stimson, did was to announce the Stimson Doctrine which stated that the United States would not recognise the territory gained by aggression and in violation of international agreements. Under the Stimson Doctrine, Washington took no action in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and the Spanish Civil War the following year.
An isolationist U.S. Congress restrained the country under its Neutrality Laws from participating in foreign wars. The country remained isolationist until it was jolted into action following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The United States then began participating in the Second World War.
Henry Luce featured on the cover of a biography by historian Alan Brinkley.
Some of the credit for pulling the U.S. out of its isolationist slumber must go to Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines. One of the most influential voices of his time, Luce presented a vision of the United States as a global leader with the power to transform the world in his editorial “The American Century,” published in Life in February 1941. Trump and his entourage should read the editorial carefully because it sets out the reasons why America must engage globally. Luce advised his country to play a leadership role by replacing Britain as the world leader because the latter’s empire was declining, and to completely transform the system of international relations and diplomacy by promoting “American principles” of freedom and democracy abroad.
Americans need to remain engaged in Europe and in other parts of the world. They should discard Trump’s threat to use the nuclear bomb in Europe, or his advice to Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons to take on North Korea because it would lead to dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is wrong of the Trump administration to retreat into their shell of “triumphant nationalism” at this critical juncture because isolation can cause irreparable damage to world stability and prosperity. It sends a message to U.S. rivals that the United States is not committed to protecting its—and its allies’—strategic interests globally. It will embolden rival powers to look for opportunities to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. retreat.
The Trump election campaign’s “Peace with Strength” slogan is also borrowed from the “Peace with Honour” policy of Nixon who used the phrase to describe the Paris Peace Accord to end the Vietnam War in January 1973.
Trump had earlier declared: “I’m going to make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody—absolutely nobody—is gonna mess with us.” It is a matter of deep concern to the Trump team that the U.S. Defense Department budget has fallen by about 15 percent over the last five years since the winding down of U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars. The Trump military revival seeks to raise the number of active army troops from 475,000 to 540,000, increasing Marine Corps battalions from 24 to 36, expanding the naval fleet from a proposed 280 to 350, and adding about 1,200 new Air Force fighter aircraft. He also plans to modernise U.S. missile defense, nuclear arsenal, and cyber security. Trump intends to finance the military expansion by asking Congress to lift spending caps required under the Budget Control Act of 2011. Lifting the caps is expected to add about US$ 450 billion to the federal deficit over the next ten years, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The current risks to the United States stem from Trump’s 2018 budget which requests US$ 25.6 billion in funding for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, a US$ 10.1 billion or 28 percent reduction in funds for diplomacy over the previous year. The budget fulfills Trump’s pledge to stop payments to the United Nations’ climate change programmes. It reduces the U.S. contribution to the UN, and for multilateral development banks such as the World Bank.
The evidence does not support the White House statement on “America First,” which declares: “In pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy.”America First aims to use Trump’s “lifetime of negotiating experience” in his interactions with trading partners. It declares: “With tough and fair agreements, international trade can be used to grow our economy, return millions of jobs to America’s shores, and revitalize our nation’s suffering communities.” It further proclaims: “This strategy starts by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and making certain that any new trade deals are in the interests of American workers.” Moreover, the president would withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, if the treaty partners refuse a renegotiation that gives American workers a fair deal. The policy warns of future unilateral action: “The President will direct the Commerce Secretary to identify all trade violations and to use every tool at the federal government’s disposal to end these abuses.”
It is unlikely that these policies will create jobs—well-paying and permanent employment—that the president has promised. America First breaches the basic principle of U.S. foreign policymaking that a sound foreign policy must sensibly address the concerns of Americans; otherwise it would diminish the nation both at home and abroad.
 “America First Foreign Policy,” White House, https://kr.usembassy.gov/america-first-foreign-policy/
 America in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations since 1941, ed. Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 Robert S. Litwak, Détente and the Nixon Doctrine: American Foreign Policy and the Pursuit of Stability, 1969-1976 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
 Michael T. Klare, Beyond the Vietnam Syndrome: U.S. Interventionism in the 1980s (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1981).
 Richard Nixon, “U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s: A New Strategy for Peace,” (Report to the Congress by Richard Nixon, February 18, 1970,) 6.
 John Milton Cooper, Jr., Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
 David F. Schmitz, Henry L. Stimson: The First Wise Man (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001).
 Robert E. Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, Time and the American Crusade in Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).