By Will Moreland
America First has arrived, and as President Donald Trump made evident in his inaugural address, “from this day forward, it's going to be only America first.” For the nation that has championed the development of a rules-based international system, one rule now prevails: take care of number one. However, rather than promote US interests, Trumpian unilateralism instead will bolster the arguments of rival powers that the United States cannot be trusted to lead. “America First” will alienate friends and strengthen adversaries, sowing doubts in the foundations of an international order that has brought both Americans and the world an unparalleled period of global peace, prosperity, and respect for human rights.
Since the Second World War, the core of US strategy has been a rule-making project. Washington has sought to fashion a series of norms and institutions to prevent the return of the runaway security and economic competition that led to multiple world wars. Based on the experiences of those conflicts, liberal principles – including the peaceful resolution of disputes, an open global economy, and human rights norms – were the underpinning of that emergent order as the type of rules that would keep the peace.
This international system, and US leadership of the system, also rested on the crucial fact that the postwar order contained a set of self-imposed constraints on US power. Without built-in restraints, US strategists recognized, the order’s legitimacy could only erode. Consequently, Washington pursued a two-track international architecture. As a wider check, the United States would adhere to the processes of universal institutions, such as the United Nations, to handle inter-state disputes. More narrowly, the United States bound itself to European and Asian allies whose counsel it would seek prior to significant decisions.
US performance within this system was imperfect, but largely successful. At times, abiding by the rules clashed with the liberal impetus behind the order, especially in the post-Cold War period. The United States was rarely alone in managing this tension. The 1998 intervention in Kosovo, for instance, divided the UN Security Council; nevertheless, when the United States acted, its allies were at its side.
Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “Unilateralism” emerged as the watchword as the United States seemed to flout not only the universal rules but also the opinions of allies. US global stature bent under the Iraq War, but did not break. Prominent allies, including Germany and France, opposed the war; however, they did not see the United States as rejecting the rules-based international order. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 UN Security Council speech was one signal that the Bush administration viewed the Iraq invasion through the framework of upholding global norms as defined by the Security Council. Allies were largely reassured that while the Bush administration may have broken the rules, it still valued the rulebook.
Nonetheless, actors already frustrated with the post-Cold War order capitalized on any lingering doubts. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in one particularly memorable instance, played heavily on these concerns at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. There he bemoaned the “almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.”
Trump’s America First vision offers such revisionist states another opportunity to paint the United States as the primary threat to a rules-based international order. America First sheds the United States’ traditionally self-imposed constraints in pursuit of the administration’s narrow definition of American interests. Trump’s aversion toward alliances enables him to shrug off allied opinions that would have given previous presidents pause, as evidenced by the recent antagonizing of longstanding partners such as Australia and Mexico. His rhetoric leaves no norm or principle above negotiation. From the "One China" policy to the international laws prohibiting the plundering of Iraqi oil, no global norm is left inviolable as everything becomes a potential bargaining chip.
Trump’s words therefore constitute a powerful tool for those in capitals like Moscow and Beijing who wish to undercut the current international system. Here, in contrast to the 2003 depictions of the Bush administration, is a truly rogue sheriff. A United States untethered from a rules-based system is a dangerous titan that must be checked, or so the argument will go.
Today, with those same rivals more powerful than they were in 2003, states may prove more willing to hedge against Washington. Some, like the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, may even openly denounce the United States despite an alliance of over sixty years. Brazen defections, though, will not emerge across the board. From the Baltics to Japan, many US partners fear Russian and Chinese aggression more than American unpredictability. However, faith in US leadership of a liberal, rules-based international order will wane.
With that will come an unraveling. Human rights violations will increase as regimes like that of Duterte no longer feel bound to Washington. Economic nationalism will spur protectionist policies that pave the path to trade wars. Security will crumble as nations turn to self-help to check the revisionist tendencies that resurface with a vengeance as order erodes.
Instability will flourish, for Americans and the world. As nations rush to protect themselves, it is too early to say how this great shuffling will end; but it will be a volatile and chaotic conclusion to the relatively peaceful times we have known.
Will Moreland is the International Order Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He also works at a leading Washington DC think tank on issues of American strategy and the liberal international order. Will earned his MSFS from Georgetown University in 2015.