President Trump’s unique approach to diplomacy has come into much sharper focus in the last few weeks. It is something less than a coherent strategic framework but something more than a series of random, impulsive actions.
It is a half-formed, ill thought-out view that the United States must always aggressively assert its parochial self-interest or risk becoming a victim of persecution in a heartless, Darwinian world where every nation is out for itself.
Trump calls it “America First.”
A more accurate label would be “America Over All.”
Trump’s world is a dog-eat-dog place, desperately in need of a master. Only the United States has earned the right to lead the pack. If the rest of the world is smart, it will follow. Otherwise, we’ll walk away and fend for ourselves.
Last week, in an astonishing display of candor, two senior administration officials articulated Trump’s commitment to America Over All.
Trump’s appointed Director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, and his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster co-authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that caused jaws to drop from Washington D.C. to Berlin to Beijing.
While giving lip service to the notion that “America First does not mean America alone,” Cohn and McMaster made it clear that “America First” means that while the United States may be willing to cooperate with other nations, Trump’s version of cooperation requires recognizing America as the first among non-equals.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Cohn and McMaster:
The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
Trumpworld recognizes no global community. The world is “an arena,” a virtual Colosseum where national gladiators “engage and compete for advantage.” We are the “unmatched” big dog in the arena of “elemental” international affairs. We “embrace” our position of dominance.
We assert leadership in the world not to promote freedom or democracy, but to strengthen ourselves: “We have a vital interest in taking the lead internationally to advance American military, political and economic strength.”
The Cohn/McMaster op-ed is not an outlier. It is of a piece with Trump’s signature brand of hyper-nationalism.
Listen to EPA chief Scott Pruitt tell the White House press corps about how we have nothing to learn from others about climate change. Rather, the world must learn from America “why we do it better here.” Our only responsibility to other nations is to “help them learn from us.”
The problem here is not Trump’s view that men and nations are naturally self-interested. There’s nothing new or radical about that viewpoint.
The social philosophy articulated in the 17th Century by Thomas Hobbes, which retains much of its relevance today, was largely based on his view that man, left alone and uncontrolled in a State of Nature, is hard-wired to act in accordance with his short-term self-interest.
More recently, Henry Kissinger shaped an entire foreign policy, sometimes successfully, on the notion that nations will act predictably in accordance with their own perceived self-interest.
The problem with Trump is that his “solution” for navigating a brutal Hobbesian world goes against everything we have learned, often at great sacrifice, about building societies that suppress our worst instincts in service of a greater good.
Trump’s solution to the “arena” in which nations compete for advantage is to win the competition. Period.
In other words, Trump embraces the Hobbesian state of nature. He is not looking for a way to overcome it to create a better society. He is looking to come out on top.
This is a fundamental and highly dangerous departure from the way political thinkers have for centuries attempted to cope with the brutal side of human nature.
Hobbes recognized that although man is naturally self-interested, he is also rational, and therefore capable of understanding the need to yield a measure of his personal sovereignty to create a more cooperative society that better serves the greater good.
This is the “social contract” at the core of a civil society.
Kissinger, love him or hate him, offered a more pragmatic, real-world application of the social contract to diplomatic relationships. Kissinger, the ultimate realist, understood that nations, like human beings, are wired to act in their perceived self-interest. His solution was to identify the interests that likely motivate our allies and adversaries alike, and then shape policy to accommodate whatever common ground he could find. He could thus champion Nixon’s diplomacy with China despite our fundamental opposition to their form of government.
Trump’s America Over All doctrine is a sharp and dangerous break with the model of the social contract and realpolitik. It is bound to fail, and perhaps lead to disastrous consequences, because it serves only narrow, short-term perceived interests, rather than more abiding long-term interests.
Trump’s approach is on full display in his antipathy to global agreements and institutions, and his strong preference to deal with nations on a one-on-one basis.
Why one-on-one? Because the United States’ leverage in dealing with any single nation is far greater than in dealing with a larger entity that has more equal bargaining power. America can make “better deals” negotiating with individual nations than with united blocs.
Look at his approach to the EU. Trump’s gleeful embrace of Brexit, and his open rooting for others to leave the EU, make perfect sense from a short-term, transactional perspective of American interests. Why have a single strong trading partner when you can have 28 weak ones?
Trump is right, of course, in believing that on any given transaction the United States will have a short-term advantage dealing with small, relatively weak individual nations, rather than a strong European alliance.
But do the short-term transactional benefits of a slightly “better deal” outweigh the long-term strategic benefits of a strong, united Europe that can work with us to combat terrorism, Russian aggression, or Chinese ambition?
Not even close.
While “Divide and Conquer” may be a sound strategy for dealing with adversaries, it is self-defeating when applied to allies, whose support and cooperation we need to help forge a better, safer, more prosperous world.
Since the end of World War II, modern day variations of the social contract have converted Europe from a battlefield of warring national tribes into a stable, mostly peaceful trading partner and ally. Do we really want to reverse this progress? All for the sake of increasing our short-term, transactional negotiating leverage?
Same with NATO. In Trump’s view, our NATO allies don’t have the right to depend on the United States’ commitment to a joint defense unless they pay up, and maybe not even then. Here’s Secretary of Defense Mattis, the supposedly sane and wise voice in the Trump administration, admonishing our NATO allies: “If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.”
And just like that, our previously unconditional commitment to defend our allies becomes conditional.
Trump’s view of NATO is reminiscent of what Republicans used to say about people they branded as “welfare queens.” To him, our NATO allies are freeloaders who live too easily in the safe zone under America’s protective umbrella. Trump’s answer? Threaten to remove the umbrella.
Yes, of course the United States would save some money in the short term if it could bully its NATO allies into contributing more. But is that worth raising doubts among our European allies that the United States will honor its defense commitments?
Same with climate change. Yes, reneging on a pledge to reduce emissions may save a few jobs in dying industries over the short term. But is that worth announcing to the world that the United States isn’t willing to work with them to combat climate change? Is it worth creating doubt among both our allies and our adversaries that they can enter agreements with the United States that will survive beyond the next election?
Will any of this help us put together the next international “coalition of the willing” when we desperately need one?
Sadly, the damage Trump has wreaked with his America Over All policy will almost certainly be long-lasting. Sure, a successor might undo most or all of Trump’s transactional decisions.
But the next president will not be able to fully restore the world’s trust in America’s decency, steadfastness, and leadership.
The United States has shown the world that it can elect a President Trump. The suspicion will linger long after Trump is out of office that the American public might someday elect another Trump, or somebody equally boorish, ignorant of history, and clueless about the ways of the world.
It will be a long time before the world looks at the United States, or accepts its leadership, in the same way it did before the Trump presidency.
The aura of “it can’t happen there” is gone.
Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilipRotner.