What Do America's Allies Think of 'America First'?

Airmen hold the American flag before the Las Vegas Bowl. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The Trump administration is still trying to define what "America First" means for U.S. citizens and U.S. allies.

In the midst of increasing uncertainty over the strategic direction of the United States, President Donald J. Trump added a new wrinkle when he announced that Washington would be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord that was signed by over 190 nations in 2015. Predictably, international and domestic reaction was swift and vocal. European leaders expressed their disappointment and dismay, while the response at home only intensified the already-toxic political climate. When considered in isolation, leaving a nonbinding climate-change agreement is hardly the apocalyptic game changer that some alarmists have depicted. However, Trump’s Rose Garden announcement is the latest episode in a series of events that raises concerns about the continuation of the American-led international system that has served as the foundation for security and stability since the end of World War II.

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump said, “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” His speech alarmed many global leaders that are trying to understand the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn recently coauthored Wall Street Journal op-ed, where they argued, “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” The zero-sum nature of this passage implies that alliances and partnerships are transactional and ever-changing as circumstances and interests dictate. Such insights from the Trump administration’s brain trust help clarify the strategic thinking behind an ‘America First’ foreign policy that narrows and prioritizes U.S. national security and economic interests above other considerations.

Trump’s withdrawal announcement was scheduled for the week after returning from his first overseas trip, where he addressed the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh and declared that the United States would adopt a “Principled Realism” based on common interests. In contrast to President Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, Trump avoided the sensitive issues of human rights and the promotion of democracy in his address. Unsurprisingly, his speech found a warm and receptive audience at the summit, where many countries are unable (or unwilling) to embrace U.S. or Western values but do share common economic and security interests. “Principled Realism” may also explain Trump’s decision to meet with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, despite domestic and international criticism regarding alleged human-rights abuses and authoritarianism.

After telling Arab leaders that “we are not here to lecture,” Trump took the opposite approach a few days later at the NATO summit where he publicly called on member states to contribute their “fair share” and “meet their financial obligations.” He (correctly) pointed out that only five of the now twenty-nine nations within the alliance—Montenegro is the newest NATO member—meet the goal of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Although widely anticipated, Trump did not explicitly reaffirm America’s commitment to Article 5 of the treaty, whereby an attack against one allied state is an attack against all allied states. Charles Krauthammer lamented Trump’s omission because it risks undermining strategic deterrence in Europe. He argued that “if you’re going to berate, at least reassure as well. Especially given rising Russian threats and aggression.”

Trump’s visit fueled concerns that he is undertaking a fundamental realignment of American foreign policy where the United States is more comfortable working with autocrats than with its “traditional” allies and partners, while questioning the benefits of multilateralism. Leaders on the continent are scrambling to respond to this abrupt change in U.S. strategic direction and its implications for regional security and stability. After the G-7 summit in Italy, German chancellor Angela Merkel told a crowd at an election rally in Munich that “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent” and “we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands” to “fight for our own future and destiny.”