“America First” Internationalism

World leaders at the 43rd G7 Summit. From left, Donald Tusk, Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Paolo Gentiloni, Emmanuel Macron, Abe Shinzo, Theresa May, Jean-Claude Junker


Professor Mori Satoru assesses the Trump administration’s engagement with the world to date.


Many around the world worried that the Trump administration might dramatically deviate from the traditional pattern of US foreign engagement often referred to as liberal internationalism. The notion of “America First” fueled this concern and invited a lot of speculation and skepticism. However, now that Mr. Trump has completed a diplomatic tour in the Middle East and Europe, one should take a look at what the administration has done so far, and calmly assess changes and continuity in US policy and approaches toward international affairs.

The most conspicuous policy change has appeared in the area of trade. The Trump administration emphasizes “fair” trade suggesting that trade in the past has been unfair. Several multilateral finance/economy ministers’ meetings have refrained from inserting the language of fighting protectionism in their joint statements. The Trump administration apparently agreed to include this language in the latest Taormina G7 communiqué which is a positive development. However, it has also been reported that the phrase “all forms of” which originally preceded the term “protectionism” was dropped, and the communiqué stated that the G7 would “push for the removal of all trade-distorting practices.”

The Trump administration with its trade team starting up would likely pursue bilateral trade negotiations to remove “trade-distorting practices” that were explicitly mentioned in the G7 communiqué. At the Japan-US Economic Dialogue held on April 18, Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro and Vice President Pence agreed to work on three tracks: (1) common strategy on trade and investment rules and issues, (2) cooperation in economic and structural policies, and (3) sectoral cooperation. We have yet to see how the Dialogue will unfold in the coming months; especially how the Trump administration would form its approach toward Japan in the sectoral cooperation talks.

The United States and China, on the other hand, have moved quickly to agree on four policy dialogue mechanisms including the US-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue which rolled out initial actions of the so-called 100 Day Plan on May 11. Among the ten paragraphs of the joint release, measures to meet US requests — such as China facilitating procedures to allow the import of US biotech products, China providing full market access to US electronic payment services, China allowing wholly foreign-owned financial services firms in China to provide credit rating services, and the United States granting LNG export to China, etc. — seem to lay the ground work for expanding US exports to China. The fact that the Trump administration is pursuing negotiations without initiating a trade war with China is positive and welcomed by many other states. Nevertheless, the initial actions suggest that the Trump administration is mostly focused on curbing US trade deficits with China rather than redressing China’s problematic economic practices. We have yet to see how subsequent actions on US-China trade will evolve. In any case, we are likely to see tougher bilateral economic negotiations with the United States, but the US pursuit of “fair” trade is something that we have seen before, so we should not overreact. We should remain quietly vigilant to see whether US efforts to generate leverage over trade negotiations will remain in compliance with existing international economic rules and norms.

In the area of security, major changes in the approach of managing the security of the Middle East and US relations with Russia initially appeared to be imminent. We have yet to see how the Trump administration will handle its policy toward Iran, but the 110 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and stronger support to Israel demonstrate that the Trump administration could gradually shift from a reassurance-based approach of the Obama era toward a more deterrence-based approach. Since the G7 called upon Russia and Iran to cooperate on the issue of Syria, change in US Iran policy might not be dramatic but more incremental. The Trump administration’s intended rapprochement toward Russia has faced considerable difficulty due to a number of factors including domestic scandals and problems. Many experts have wondered why Mr. Trump was eager to strengthen his relationship with Mr. Putin, and there has been much speculation about his motives. US policy toward Russia has probably been the murkiest, and remains most unpredictable.

Apart from trade, Iran and Russia, we are witnessing continuities in US foreign policy with reinvigorated effort to pursue long-known US objectives. For example, Mr. Trump tried to garner support for the effort to defeat international terrorism when he called upon leaders from the Arab and Islamic world at Saudi Arabia and leaders of NATO countries at Brussels. He expressed his intention to engage in the Middle East peace process. Calling upon NATO states to increase their defense budget to meet the 2% of GDP target level was a US position that predates the Trump administration. Progress was made as NATO members agreed to develop annual national plans that would show how they intend to meet pledges made in 2014. He also worked to strengthen support for stricter implementation of UN Security Council resolutions relating to North Korea. A more assertive approach toward North Korea has become apparent, but the objective is not to cause regime change but to compel China to work on North Korea, and North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs unconditionally.

Overall, the Trump administration so far has changed its approach in the areas of trade, and possibly Iran, but in most other areas, it is pursuing the same goals with more assertive approaches. At this point, it is difficult to argue that the Trump administration is abandoning traditional patterns of US foreign engagement. If one were to characterize the Obama administration’s approach toward international security affairs as one based on restraint, the Trump administration appears to be taking an approach of assertiveness in certain issue areas. The question is what will happen once it becomes apparent that these approaches do not deliver desired results? How patient will Mr. Trump be before he decides to change course on some of the above issues? What would an alternative approach look like? Whether the Trump administration will adhere to existing international rules and norms after its initial attempt to advance its causes will be the true test of liberal internationalism in the United States. The fact that Mr. Trump does not talk much about international order and norms — probably the most significant change signified by the “America First” approach — could be said to be the biggest source of concern.

Note: This article was written on May 29.


MORI Satoru is a professor at Hosei University.



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