America First: Where to Go From Here

by Jose Ovalle
Staff Writer

In my last article, I wrote about how the current administration’s’ abdication of leadership internationally has given rivals like China space to move in on former American strongholds. However, Donald Trump’s America First doctrine is not strictly isolationism, nor is it unilateralism. This makes things more complicated, and in an increasingly multipolar era, more dangerous. 

In this current administration, no two instances of international relations are handled the same way. Take American and Russian relations for instance. Much has been said about Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. In speeches and interviews, Donald Trump has spoken highly of Putin, saying things like, “He says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him” and “He’s done an amazing job, he’s put himself in the forefront of the world as a leader”. Donald Trump’s rhetoric has caused much concern on both sides of the aisle and has propelled claims of Russian collusion.

However, the President’s actions paint a different, more complicated, picture of the current relationship with Russia. Since being elected President, Donald Trump has pursued an aggressive anti-Russian policy abroad. In Ukraine, the United States began to supply lethal military aid to the country in 2017 to counter Russian efforts in the region. In addition, the President authorized increasingly punitive sanctions, required Russian propaganda outlets Sputnik and RT news to register as Russian agents, and (due to looser rules of engagement) killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Syria last year. So then, these actions seem to point that, regardless of whatever the President says about about Putin; the United States is willing and able to counter Russian aggression wherever it peers its head. But if this is the case, why is the President refusing to protect future elections and debating pulling out of NATO? 

Moreover, the United States abandoning the TPP, threatening to withdraw from NATO, and pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan bulks the claims that Donald Trump’s America first policy is isolationist in nature. Rivals have seized on this definition of America First to enact their opposing policy goals. However, after the Russians sent “two military planes full of troops and equipment to Venezuela” National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton stated that the Monroe Doctrine, “Is alive and well” and the United States would do whatever it can to counter foreign interests in Latin America. Yet, foreign interests have been increasing in Latin America for years with relative impunity. So which is it? Seeking to define American foreign policy is a study of paradoxes.

If you are confused, reader, you are not alone. Administration officials have also clashed with each other and the President on just what America’s international interests are. For example, when former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that the United States would be installing further sanctions on Russia as a result of their support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow countered her two days later stating there would be no further sanctions and insinuated that Haley was mistaken. To which she replied, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused”.

In addition, multiple instances of officials directly defying or ignoring Donald Trump’s orders have been leaked to the press. During his tenure, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to work with other departments if it meant escalating precarious situations. Examples of this include Mattis returning blank pages when being asked to provide options to counter Iranian meddling and preventing generals from meeting with the President. Regarding instances of officials directly ignoring Trump’s requests, a former official stated, “we prevented a lot of bad things from happening.”

With different policy pronouncements coming out of different executive departments and the Trump administration itself going back and forth on its own policies, something needs to change. The Trump administration needs to develop a coherent foreign policy for rational choices to be made in pursuit of a stated goal. America First, as outlined beforehand, is neither coherent nor particularly well thought out. It needs to be. 

A coherent foreign policy, according to former CIA chief David Petraeus, is important because “it marshals and employs all available tools, leveraging all instruments of national power exercised by United States government departments and agencies and, to the extent possible, reinforced by the actions of allied and partner governments, international and non-government organizations, and private sector entities in pursuit of America’s policy objectives”.

Basically, a policy whose moving parts logically support and reinforce each other to attain a goal is desirable because it will enable every facet of the government to support the means to attain it. If a goal is rationally obtained, and clearly agreed on; the chances of paradoxical strategic moves will be mitigated. For illustration, if the goal was to push back foreign influence on democratic elections- domestic agencies would work to strengthen voting procedures, relationships abroad would be cultivated in order for the flow of information between allies to gain intel on meddling efforts, and rhetoric coming from the executive branch would be affirming of allies while strong against global opponents. In this scenario, all fronts would be invested in reaching the strategic objective of attaining electoral integrity. 

This article is not a call for either isolationism or interventionism. That is a debate left for another series of articles. Rather, this is a call for the pursuit of political strategy from the White House that does not confuse our allies or give the wrong signals to enemies. Currently, our associates abroad are not sure when to believe the President and his officials, and are debating on striking it out alone. If American policy continues to be left up to whichever actor has the presidents ear at the moment, how other heads of state treat him personally, or who is paying NATO what; we may find ourselves with less influence, less friends, and less recourse to influence change. And if we want that, if we want 1920’s style isolationism, let us do so boldly and without oscillation. 

“Eagle Statue Side”

America First: Confounding Variables 

In the previous two posts, I have written about how “America First” is setting up an abdication of global leadership while also confusing our allies abroad and at home. In this article, I will be writing about how the nature of our system leaves us disadvantaged against our rising global rivals.

Our system is a representative Republic. We have checks and balances, term limits, and politicians subject to the will of the people. While not perfect, it works well. However, our competitors do not function within the same limits. Vladimir Putin has been steering Russia for 20 years, the span of four different United States presidents. The Chinese governing body has been in power since 1949. The house of Saud since the early 1930’s and Ayatollah Khameini in Iran since 1979.

Due to the long lasting nature of many of these global powers, foreign governments are able to define a policy goal and commit to its long game. For example, The Chinese Belt and Road initiative was established in 2013, and while it is currently reaching 62 percent of the world’s population, its aim is to be much bigger. The plans that have been set in place demand around $26 trillion of infrastructure upgrades and include leases in foreign ports for up to 99 years. These lofty demands and trade requirements assert that the net benefits of the Belt and Road initiative will take years, if not decades, to be realized. However, as the Communist Party of China shows no sign of losing its grip on power, there is very little to no threat of the plan being cut short. This reduction of risk allows China to commit to a trade deal of such magnitude. 

The United States, on the other hand, cannot commit to initiatives as credibly as other non democratic nations can. This is the Republican party sending Iran a letter warning that any nuclear deal with Obama would be scrapped if they won the Presidential election in 2016.  On top of that, the actions of American Presidents are impeded by the actions of previous presidents and affect the actions of future ones. For instance, in 2003, under Bush, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi engaged in talks that led to the disarmament of the Libyan nuclear program. The talks were deemed successful because they made a former state sponsor of terror into an American ally in the war on terror and lifted United Nations sanctions against Libya. At the time, Bush promised Libya a “secure and respected place” among the international community and later mentioned that he anticipated “other leaders will find an example” in Qaddafi’s actions. Eight years later, Qaddafi was dead, and Libya devolved into the civil war that is still going on today. NATO aided Libyan rebels in their uprising and participated in bombing Libyan forces. After Qaddafi’s death, the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton succinctly stated, “We came, we saw, he died”.

Why was the death of a dictator bad? The merits of Qaddafi’s death can be debated ad nauseum; but the fact is that the reversal of policy goals between President’s that led to the murder of a head of state in the streets sent a message to the rest of the world. According to the Atlantic, “Putin is said to have watched the video of Qaddafi’s lynching over and over, obsessively. He feared the Americans would come for him next”. It is not too much of a leap to believe this event, among others, influences Putin’s decisions to counter American actions abroad. Moreover, North Korea has cited Libya as reason for not giving up its nukes, stating “The Qaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after… giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.” Every President from then on has and will have to deal with these repercussions. Conversely, one can expect that the stability amongst allies that has been eroded due to the current presidents incendiary statements will make it very difficult for the next President, be it in 2020 or 2024, to restore trust.

This is not a novel occurrence. However, developing problems do have the opportunity to make our weakness in contrast to non democracies even more pronounced. The United States is now so divided that the American people are not even sure who our rivals are. Where there was once a consensus among parties, be it the Axis in the 40’s or the Soviet Union in the Cold War; political parties now have a preferred boogeyman. For the Republicans, it is China. China is targeted with tariffs and aggressive actions while the now President called for Russian assistance in finding Hillary Clintons’ “30,000 deleted emails” during his political campaign. Republican approval ratings of Putin have quadrupled since 2014.

For the Democrats, it is Russia. Russia is accused of collusion while former Presidential nominees posit scenarios in which the Chinese intervene in finding Trump’s tax returns and the current front runner asserts that China is “not competition for us.” The ability to maintain or build upon previous progress will be even more difficult than it already is if there is no consensus between camps. It is important to note that so far this is only in rhetoric; the Republicans and Democrats are still rather bipartisan in terms of policy action.

Time will only tell if the increasing polarization in the United States will truly affect American foreign policy enough so that every four or eight years there is a switch of enemies and allies. In the meantime, the best possible answer to the problems outlined above is to have a coherent and rational foreign policy built on precedent, one administration at a time.

Photos courtesy of:

Alan Light

Jono Haysom

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