Donald Trump’s Vision for US Foreign Policy: What does ‘America First’ mean?

by Jesse Sandoval (September 2016)

Rather than characterized as a poorly conceived recalibration of American foreign policy bordering on strategic recklessness, Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy statements represent a very consistent and coherent view on America’s interests overseas. Based on the totality of Mr. Trump’s statements, the vision he presents is one that is indeed a departure from the ideology of liberalism (embracing realism instead), yet is strategically sound and ultimately more stable for world affairs.

Ensuring no single power controls Eurasia

Guaranteeing control of the seas and freedom of navigation by ensuring control of the seas by enhancing the world’s preeminent navy, removing threats to freedom of navigation by regional actors, namely China in the South China Sea, Iran in the Straits of Hormuz and Russia in the Baltic and Arctic Seas.

China has over the past decade undermined regional territorial integrity by challenging the sea borders of nations along the South China Sea (namely Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan). The Obama administration has reacted to China’s island building through a combination of surveillance and naval presence. Yet China doesn’t back down. Donald J. Trump’s belief is that we’re not using all the points of leverage at our disposal to achieve the desired outcome. The strongest point of leverage is terms of trade with America. China’s economy depends far more on America than does America on China. By arguing for protectionist trade measures against China, Donald J. Trump is upping the ante, enabling us to threaten China by denying access to the American market if it continues to refute the territorial rights of its neighbors.

Ensuring no single power controls Eurasia by issuing statements against Russian incursions into Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe and viewing NATO as obsolete and in need of a redesign.

The greatest existential threats to American dominance have historically come from Eurasia, be that the British Empire, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China or any combination thereof. Indeed it is America’s fundamental interest to prevent an amalgamation of Eurasian territories under a single state – hence some of our most fundamental foreign policies involved decolonization of European empires, containment of the Soviet Union, a rapprochement with China, and so on. These policies were examples of realism at its best. 

Donald J. Trump has similarly advocated realpolitik in his approach to dealing with Russia and Europe. Mr. Trump agrees that a new policy of containment must be put into effect against Russia, so as to prevent territorial expansion westward (be that Ukraine, the Suwalki Gap or the Baltic States). The best method of checking Russian ambitions is by investing in our deterrent capabilities in Eastern Europe – through ‘trip wire’ defenses like what NATO has recently agreed to provision with the placement of four brigades in the Baltic States and Poland.

Yet Donald J. Trump has also spoken about the obsolete nature of NATO and an unwillingness to support NATO allies that have not contributed the required 2% of GDP to defense spending.  Furthermore, Mr. Trump has welcomed the gradual demise of the European Union by encouraging Brexit. How does this make any sense?

Lastly, with regards to the European Union, Donald J. Trump is again correct in encouraging a gradual demise of the political union (though not the economic union). A more federalist Europe could, in theory, become less dependent on America and more adversarial to America’s geopolitical interests in Eurasia (think of the proposed European Defense Force). Indeed, an example of this threat is Germany’s cozy relationship with Putin’s Russia, a massive geopolitical risk to the Eastern European states sandwiched in between these powers. So long as Europe fragments back into regional political alliances, America will always be needed to safeguard the interests of local actors as they balance their interests against their stronger neighbors (think of the Visegrad Four against Germany and Russia, or Greece against Turkey).

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Donald J. Trump represents a complete aberration from the liberal order that has been practiced since the end of the Cold War. And this is precisely why his strategic thinking could ensure greater stability for the world. The truth is that American foreign policy teams have over the past twenty-five years done a poor job and that’s a pretty charitable assessment. Aside from a few successes like NATO’s expansion eastward and Operation Desert Storm, the remaining landscape is dotted with failed exercises in nation building (from Afghanistan, to Haiti to Somalia), and wasteful military interventions like Operation Iraqi Freedom. America’s strongest deterrent is its unused military intervention. The more we use force, the higher the likelihood we will fail and suffer blowback. Indeed it is precisely the liberal order, advocating regime change and democratization in societies that have never had functioning democracies, which has lead to a weakening deterrent, regional instability and the election of Islamist parties in the Middle East. 

Some of our most coherent foreign policy decisions in the past seventy years were developed while using a realist paradigm, from late-stage involvement in WW2, to containment of the Soviet Union, to the creation of American-led military alliances. Indeed the finest foreign policy moments in the presidencies of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were when a realist approach was utilized to define an America first strategy, and implement it in a cold, calculated and strategic manner. Donald J. Trump will act similarly. 


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