Reconciling Trump’s ‘America First’ Strategy With a Multipolar World

Chartering the future is a leader trying to reconcile America's national interests with America's imperial empire.

A new U.S. grand strategy toward international relations has emerged, emphasizing actors over institutions. Photo illustration by Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

Every spring, Goldman Sachs analysts, Moscow businessmen and Ivy League grads file into rooms lined with bookshelves holding titles by the likes of former Secretary of State John Kerry, retired Army General Stanley McChrystal and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Clutching brochures with a forward penned by former State Secretary Henry Kissinger, they listen to presidential advisers, military officials and Pulitzer Prize-winning academics discuss emerging geopolitical threats the United States faces, as part of Yale University’s annual Grand Strategy conference.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the event centered on terrorism. The Obama years focused on global networks and nation building following the destabilization of the Middle East. But this past March, the defining threat came from another rogue political outsider: President Donald Trump.

“He will do little to protect the international institutions we’ve built since WWII and too much in engaging us with new problems,” said Charles Kupchan, a special assistant to former President Barack Obama.

“Collective security, economic development and international justice are the three pillars of the international community,” said historian Elizabeth Borwardt. “All are now threatened under Trump.”

The message of each panelist was clear: The Trump presidency threatens both American hegemony and the liberal international order enacted through the Marshall Plan following World War II. Since the most recent Grand Strategy conference this past March, Trump has upended longstanding approaches to statecraft and diplomacy. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, undermined the State Department and only just fallen short of declaring war with North Korea on Twitter.

But from Trump’s erratic and contradictory behavior, a new U.S. grand strategy toward international relations has emerged, one that emphasizes actors over institutions. As the world power dynamic shifts back into a multipolar system reminiscent of Otto Von Bismark’s Europe, the powers of the American statesman are being heightened at the expense of American hegemony. Chartering the future is a leader trying to reconcile America’s national interests with America’s imperial empire, discovering the two are one in the same amid today’s volatile landscape.

President Donald Trump with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Having campaigned on an “America First” platform, Trump faced difficulty in staffing his administration with officials who would be committed to his nationalist grand strategy. Most high-profile diplomats and foreign policy officials subscribe to the Kissinger-style school of thought that sees a nation as the sum of its history, where the guiding principle in enacting statecraft should be to strengthen Western institutions. While Trump’s inaugural address framed foreign policy as a zero-sum trade-off between American prosperity and and the world’s stability—”We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon,” the president claimed while standing before the Capitol—the West Wing itself saw an early split between traditional statesmen and nationalists.

“What we’ve seen so far has been a continual tug-of-war for the president between the ‘America First’ true believers and the more traditionalist folk. What this has given rise to is a yo-yo effect,” Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Observer. “One week it will appear that the adults in the room have triumphed and that Trump has become normalized, as when he decided not to withdraw from NAFTA. And then you’ll have another week [where] his own instincts are winning, like when he pulled out of the Paris Accord.”

Almost a year into Trump’s presidency, the nationalist wing has been nearly purged from the White House, leaving military officials to architect statecraft promoting U.S. interests abroad, while adhering to the president’s nationalist rhetoric. Breaking with decades of foreign policy that preserved the institutions engineered by Dean Acheson and George Kennan proved impossible even for a nationalist candidate, and Trump advisers have opted for a grand strategy intended to promote American hegemony rather than isolationism. In April, Trump received bipartisan support from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other lawmakers after delivering an airstrike on a Syrian airbase. Fall’s troop surge in Afghanistan and the U.S.’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (a policy advocated by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama) further promoted a larger grand strategy committed to the liberal international order Trump decried on the campaign trail.

President Donald Trump at the G20 economic summit. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“On the security side, it’s not obvious to me that Donald Trump’s foreign policy is very different from what you would have seen in the Clinton administration,” Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, told Observer. “The president talks an ‘America’s First’ game, but on security it’s not obvious. The manifestations are mainly in rhetoric and on the economic and trade side.”

“People by and large tend to believe established policies will remain in place because the administration, despite the rhetoric, doesn’t actually have alternative policies to put in place,” explained Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College and author of The Future of War. “Take Iran, for example. Trump wants to distance himself from Obama’s policy in Iran, but he doesn’t have anything to put in place. He’s getting no support from Britain and Germany on decertification.”

But as the Trump administration commits to American hegemony and longstanding policy, the president’s rhetoric damages U.S. institutions while altering the nature of diplomacy. Frequent clashes with U.S. intelligence agencies undermine their legitimacy, while Twitter feuds with world leaders weaken his cabinet members’ bargaining power. Neither Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor the State Department have recovered since Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time” negotiating with North Korea.

President Donald Trump, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and State Secretary Rex Tillerson. BULLIT MARQUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

“When you have a president whose policy preferences vary so wildly according to his own whims and his own mood swings,” Brands said, “it induces a greater element of instability than when you have a smooth function process that is more inclusive of government institutions.”

Miscommunication between top U.S. officials creates disorder and erodes the efficiency of institutions. A pilot with a Department of Defense security contracting firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Observer that “because there’s not a concise guidance on what’s happening, a lot of the military contracting officers are being forced to shorten contracts in case the strategic policy decisions change.”

With less attention paid to post-WWII infrastructure and a looser approach to negotiating with world leaders, power brokers are assuming the responsibilities of longstanding Western institutions. An actor’s ability to immediately enact statecraft with global ramifications, such as when Trump announced plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital to Israel, is a break with a 300-year tradition toward international diplomacy.

“It seems to be the idea that international relations, whether security or economic or financial, are really matters of individual person-to-person contact,” Charles Hill, Yale University’s diplomat-in-residence, told Observer. “It’s really a case-by-case where the few leading people can handle all of this by themselves by doing one-on-one standalone arrangements with their counterparts in key power centers around the world. It’s a very different way of looking at it.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Such a dynamic has shifted the world power structure back into a multipolar system with competing powers each wielding varying degrees of influence. The problems presented by such a landscape have led to global crises over nuclear proliferation, territorial disputes and the accelerating threat of climate change. North Korea’s erratic regime has threatened the U.S. and its neighbors with nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile, China has expanded its influence over the South China Sea by negotiating with each claimant country individually rather than as a group, giving it significant bargaining power.

“Leaders, particularly in the Western world, have gotten used to the idea that where there are collective problems, the U.S. will glue together cooperative solutions among the important powers,” Posen said. “If there are four or five more equal states trying to organize that cooperation, it’s going to be more troublesome.”

But there have also been a number of times over the past 70 years in which the pillars of American foreign policy were strained. At the onset of the Nixon administration, many leaders doubted the U.S.’s commitment to Asia. Several years later, Kissinger visited China and laid the groundwork for opening up the country to trade and establishing one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.

“What we don’t know at this point is whether this starker, more zero-sum nationalism represents the wave of the future or whether it represents an electoral fluke that wouldn’t have come about absent the intervention of James Comey and other forces that gave the election to Trump,” Brands said. “If it’s an aberration, then U.S. foreign policy won’t change that much in the coming decades.

“If Trump is the new normal, then what you’re going to see is Trumpism from the left. You’ll see liberal politicians who embrace the Trump view of trade as something that enriches the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, people who critique U.S. alliances because they result in unequal burden sharing.”

Former presidential adviser Karl Rove once told The New York Times that the actors of the American empire create “new realities,” leaving outsiders “to just study what we do” as other realities form. In the Trump era, actors have upended traditional approaches to diplomacy and statecraft, forming new realities toward grand strategy and international relations. Abandoning the liberal international order, power brokers maneuver across a multipolar chessboard. As new problems arise from the game’s volatile nature, we study the seismic shifts, shaken by earthquakes.

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Reconciling Trump’s ‘America First’ Strategy With a Multipolar World