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Trump’s foreign policy: America First, not America Only

Trump’s foreign policy is not a threat to America’s place in the world, but it might be a threat to the current establishment.

Trump’s foreign policy: America First, not America Only
Published 17 Nov 2016   Follow @crispinrovere

My last piece responded to Kaplan and Walt to explain why Trump is a Nixon-Kissinger realist. This post, part one of two-part series, explores what Trump will seek to achieve in foreign policy more broadly. Part two will focus on how this relates to matters of importance to Australia: trade, China, domestic opinion, and bilateral relations with Washington.

Like pundits in other areas, in the last week foreign policy specialists have made some dire predictions about a Trump presidency. Many suggest the President-elect’s foreign policy will be somewhere between catastrophic and apocalyptic.

The response should be: 'compared to what? Has American foreign policy been effective over the past 20 years?' And here a disclaimer: it was on this issue that I entered the campaign on Trump’s behalf, arguing in the National Interest that Hillary Clinton was the worst ever secretary of state.

But it’s more than just Clinton: the entire US foreign policy establishment has been an ignominious disgrace. The Iraq War cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives; Libya is a failed state; Assad still controls Syria; Iraq has been taken over by ISIS and Iran; the Russian reset has collapsed; North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has expanded and diversified; China has taken over the South China Sea; the pivot to Asia has stalled and the Filipino president has defected to Beijing. Everything the current US foreign policy establishment has touched has been a total failure and consequently America’s decline in the world has been accelerated well beyond structural trends. As Trump says, had they done nothing at all America would be in far better shape.

Given these unforced calamities it’s hard to escape the conclusion that antagonism towards Trump is driven as much by a fear of accountability as any genuine concern regarding his worldview. In short, Trump’s foreign policy is not a threat to America’s place in the world, but it might be a threat to the current establishment. As Trump says:

I have to look for talented experts with new approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.

Thus, anyone who believes that Trump’s advisers will 'moderate' him are kidding themselves. Trump’s advisers are not there to manage Trump, but to help him.

Now to the issues:


Trump clearly wants to improve relations with Russia. A grand bargain with the Russian Federation could well be Trump’s signature foreign policy. This could even be radical enough to include the complete dissolution of NATO, replacing it with a new security apparatus focused on terrorism that includes Russia as a member.

Trump would ask for a lot in return, including: sustained cooperation in the Middle East; security guarantees for the Baltic states; and, most importantly, a strategic realignment away from Beijing and towards Washington, one that helps bring India into the tent as well.

Despite the requisite concessions, the opportunity to preside over the destruction of NATO must surely be too much for Putin to resist. Unilateral withdrawal from Crimea might be a bridge too far for the Russian populace, but at the very least a Crimean referendum administered by international observers could help settle that question democratically.

Such a bargain would be very ambitious, but probably not more so than Nixon’s bargain with China in 1972. If successful, it would shift the global balance of power decisively in America’s favour.


Part two in this series will cover this in more detail. In brief, Trump views China as America’s principal economic and strategic rival. Accordingly, ceding Asia to China is not on Trump’s agenda, even if the overall composition of America’s military presence in the region changes. To the contrary, Trump has committed to building up America’s navy to 350 ships, and Trump’s realist instincts will likely drive him to continue viewing China as a peer competitor for the US. In summary, a Trump presidency will be characterised by a continued deepening of strategic competition with China, and if Beijing is unwilling to make concessions on issues like trade and currency exchange then these tensions will deepen.

Middle East

In the Middle East, Trump’s policy can be summarised in one word: stability. He will not have any patience for exporting democracy or ‘nation building’. Accordingly, Trump will accept Assad in Syria and work positively with Russia against ISIS.

Likewise, Trump will want to be pragmatic when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal. This may prove difficult as he is deeply critical of how it was negotiated, and powerful voices are already urging him to tear it up. Nevertheless, Trump may prove hesitant to do this given the deal postpones the issue until after his own term of office. Instead, Trump may prefer using the deal as leverage with Tehran in other areas such as dealing with ISIS, stabilising Iraq, and ensuring Israel’s security.


Allies are going to have to pay up. European nations contribute too little to their defence and millions of American taxpayers are fed up with footing the bill. As President Trump becomes increasingly preoccupied with a rising China, European allies will either spend more or find themselves abandoned. Trump clearly does not interpret NATO’s article V to mean unfettered freeloading. Of course, if the aforementioned bargain with Russia is achieved, this could prove a moot point.

In Northeast Asia the situation is different, as underlying strategic trends will likely force a repositioning of American forces regardless of what allies are prepared to pay. This is especially true given China’s expansion and the threat posed to US forces located in the first island chain. This does mean, however, an increased probability that Japan and South Korea will re-examine their nuclear options. Nevertheless, given the increasing sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and China’s ongoing military expansion, this is an acceleration of an existing trend rather than a dramatic new change in direction.

In summary, Trump’s foreign policy is America First, not America Only. It reflects Trump’s worldview that the US is a nation state governed by interests, and that globalism has undermined national strength and the wellbeing of a majority of citizens. This worldview will drive Trump’s foreign policy, and if properly supported a Trump administration may restore coherency to American grand strategy – something that’s been sorely lacking in recent years.

Photo courtesy of US Department of Defense