Trade and Globalisation


America first

26 Jul 2016 - 12:25

Donald Trump is coarse and blunt enough to make gaffes every day, so there is still the possibility of the ultimate banana skin. While until recently Trump scored gaffes in domestic issues, since the Fox interview in April and the New York Times piece mid-July, also his foreign policy cred becomes much more clear. He summarises this snappily as America first. And the rest is primarily concerned with money. He recently tried to corner Saudi Arabia: if he were to become president, the Saudi kingdom would have to dig deep into its pockets to pay for the fight that America is fighting against IS, or it would have to provide its own ground troops.

Japan and South Korea can also look forward to a bill for American protection; and they will have to make their own nuclear weapons if they want to keep North Korea and China at bay. Trump believes that the way in which they currently 'pretend to defend' them assumes that they are in control and are keeping a lid on the number of nuclear powers world-wide, but that is too expensive. And these two countries will have to acquire the nuclear weapons anyway, just to be sure. 

Trump-style foreign policy is simple: each favour comes at a heavy price, the US in effect becoming a security firm for hire. All treaties with foreign countries will have to be overhauled and many will fall by the wayside, because a lot of them are too much of a burden for America. The main issue as far as we are concerned is that Trump has had more than enough of NATO. He thinks that the world's strongest alliance is 'unfair': he calls almost all America's European allies parasites. What he wants to replace it with is not all that clear, except that he really believes in his 'America first' slogan and that he might like to swap NATO for a counter-terrorism alliance with countries that are prepared to pay for it.

Not that I want to disclose everything, says Trump; unpredictability is precisely an American president's trump card. For a president who has already let us know that he intends to build a wall along the Rio Grande (at Mexico's expense) and wants to suspend immigration for Muslims, this is a cryptic statement that has incited rage; it seems a display of total ignorance rather than finely-honed strategic insight.

Trump's world is run through with petty paranoia, denial of fact and small-minded recrimination aimed at friend and foe alike, having fleeced and ripped off the US for many, many years. You could call that the less-polished variant of the widely-held opinion that a leader is always expected to have something extra, and that the leader's followers benefit from that. But that is off-set by the fact that the fruits of leadership are generally overlooked by Trump and his cohorts. In fact, since the Second World War, the US has signed security pacts with 69 countries. These treaties created a network that spans five continents, affects a quarter of the world's population and covers 75% of the world's economic output. America has 800 military bases or aid points in around 80 countries, an unparalleled intelligence position and a leading role in foreign policy.

A study by Michael Beckley in International Security shows that this has not exactly been a millstone around the US's neck: in the last 65 years, the US has been dragged to the brink of war perhaps five times. All I can add is that Trump stands for a lot of noise, a tight rein on the controls but, more than anything, America First.

(This is a slightly updated version from a column by Ko Colijn in the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland, April 28 2016.)