Donald Trump’s “America First” policy is an international extension of his approach to business and personal relationships. It is narcissistic, narrow-minded, and transactional, driven by one overriding impulse: “What’s in it for me?” At the core of this worldview is a determination to defend American sovereignty against any commitments that might dilute U.S. independence or freedom of action. Absent is any conception of an international community, much less any aspiration to lead it. The president’s foreign policy abdicates America’s historical role. In an era of global challenges, it is doomed to failure.
Amid presidential tweetstorms and administration chaos, it is easy to lose sight of the core conviction that animates Trump’s foreign policy. The president believes that the liberal world order which the United States crafted no longer works for Americans. Wherever he looks, Trump sees an America hemmed in by international organizations and exploited by conniving countries seeking to hamstring its freedoms and freeload on its efforts. Placing America “first” means regaining control of U.S. sovereignty, so that the United States can once more advance its own prosperity and security.
Trump’s focus on American sovereignty was clear the day he declared his candidacy, promising to build a “great, great wall” along the nation’s border with Mexico. It was also apparent when the president quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an act that Stephen Bannon, Trump’s strategic advisor at the time, declared would “let our sovereignty come back to ourselves.” It likewise informed administration decisions to slash funding for the United Nations, place a moratorium on new multilateral treaties, threaten to ignore the World Trade Organization, and repudiate the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The apotheosis of Trump’s sovereigntism came last month, in his maiden speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The president invoked the word “sovereignty” no fewer than 21 times. It was a remarkable performance for a U.S. leader. Since 1945, Republican and Democratic presidents have championed internationalism. They have nurtured multilateral institutions out of enlightened self-interest, aware that these bodies underpin a rule-bound world order, provide material benefits to the United States, and accentuate the legitimacy of U.S. global leadership.
Trump sees the world differently, more cynically. The imperative is to screw over the other guy before he does the same to you. His diplomacy contains no idealism, no appeals to better angels of our nature. It is all about power, without purpose.
Such an approach may work in real estate. It falls short when it comes to the global agenda. There is no unilateral or bilateral solution to transnational terrorism, global financial instability, pandemic disease, international crime, or nuclear proliferation.
Trump’s error arises from a misconception. He believes that the United States necessarily sacrifices its sovereignty when it joins an international organization or treaty. He’s hardly alone. For years, John Bolton and other conservative nationalists have declared the same thing.
In truth, the U.S. decision to join an intergovernmental organization or ratify a multilateral convention, provided that it is undertaken through constitutional and democratic means, is not an abdication of sovereignty but an expression of it. What international cooperation does often require, however, is for the United States to trade off one component of sovereignty—absolute freedom of action—for another—namely, influence over its own destiny.
There may be occasions when the United States must go it alone—when it is under attack, for instance. But independent action is rarely the answer to the transnational problems that define our global age. Self-reliance sounds noble in principle. But in practice it implies an unenviable choice between acting alone, at high cost and with uncertain results, and not acting at all.
The genius of America’s post-1945 leaders was in recognizing that international institutions grounded in law could help the United States and other countries achieve ends that would otherwise exceed their grasp. This fundamental truth remains relevant in 2017. Consider peacekeeping. Today, 94,000 uniformed U.N. personnel are reducing violence and suffering in nations where the United States has humanitarian interests but is disinclined to send American troops. And for every 25 cents the United States contributes to these operations, it gets a dollar’s worth of effort, thanks to burden-sharing by UN member states.
Earlier U.S. presidents understood something else, too. The price of international cooperation is voluntary agreement to forego certain options and accept specific commitments. The Chemical Weapons Convention is one example. The Convention requires all parties to renounce an entire category of weapons in return for other parties agreeing to do the same. In ratifying the treaty in 1997, the United States also consented to open itself at any time to challenge inspections of its domestic facilities. It did so because President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Senate understood that the Convention would make the world safer—and provide a legal basis for bringing perpetrators to justice.
Narcissism rarely ends well for people. It’s unlikely to end well for America, either. Since 1945, the United States has enjoyed a sort of international halo, thanks to the attractiveness of its ideals and institutions and a broad perception that it stands for more than just its immediate, short-term interests. America’s “soft power,” as Joseph Nye of Harvard labels it, has been an essential foundation for U.S. global leadership. It is a pity that Donald Trump is willing to jettison that reputation for the art of the deal.