Living in Trump’s World: The Global Reaction to ‘America First’
Give Donald Trump credit for one thing: He is reshaping the way other states interact with America and with one another. The president’s rhetoric — and to a lesser but still noteworthy extent, his policies — have constituted a marked break with the post-World War II tradition in American foreign policy. Trump’s America First worldview often rejects the idea that the United States can best protect its own interests by underwriting a broader global order in which like-minded states can thrive, and instead advances a more zero-sum approach to global affairs. And while the president’s policies have so far been less extreme than his ideas, his administration has nonetheless retreated from global leadership on issues from trade to climate change, cast doubt on the U.S. commitment to NATO and other alliances, and managed—largely through Trump’s own behavior — to disrupt relationships with countries from Mexico to Australia and beyond. All this has had a remarkably negative effect on global public opinion of the United States. It is also causing governments around the world to react to a new era in American statecraft.
This should not be surprising. The fact that America wields such immense global power has long meant other states must adapt to shifts, whether real or perceived, in U.S. behavior. During the post-Vietnam years, widespread perceptions of American retrenchment influenced the behavior of allies, adversaries, and non-aligned countries alike. After 9/11, perceptions of American “unilateralism” and unchecked “hegemony” elicited an array of global responses. And as Trump shakes up American policy, he is also shaking up the policies of countries around the globe.
That disruption is particularly pronounced because it is occurring at a time when American global leadership is already in question. For the first 15 years after the Cold War, the world had to cope with unrivaled and rising American power — the “unipolar moment.” Since the mid-2000s, however, America’s relative power is widely seen to have declined, due to the rise or resurgence of rivals such as China and Russia, the effects and aftermath of the Great Recession, and other factors. Under President Barack Obama, perceptions of American decline and geopolitical disinterest were already scrambling the geopolitical calculus of countries that had traditionally welcomed U.S. leadership, and also of those that had traditionally resented it. Today, these perceptions are being combined with a widespread sense that Washington is shifting to a more parochial, narrowly nationalistic posture. That combination is making the resulting changes in global behavior more pronounced.
These global responses, however, are neither as uniform nor as straightforward as one might expect. Policy responses to Trump’s America First agenda can be separated into two baskets: those by countries that mostly decry Trump’s rhetoric and policies as a crisis of American global leadership, and those by countries that mostly welcome those rhetoric and policies as an opportunity. Within those baskets, there are a total of nine analytically distinct — yet not mutually exclusive — approaches.
These approaches run the gamut from resistance to appeasement to exploitation, and have varying prospects for the states pursuing them and varying implications for U.S. global interests. Some of these behaviors are relatively new; others existed prior to Trump and have simply been accentuated by his agenda. Yet all of these behaviors are shifting the relationship between the United States and the world, and all of them will affect the contours of the international environment. Both the prevalence and the effectiveness of these behaviors, in turn, will be affected by how Trump and his ever-shifting cast of advisers chart America’s course during the remainder of his presidency, and by how permanent the changes Trump has already made turn out to be.
|Basket 1: America First as Crisis
|Basket 2: America First as Opportunity
|America First as a Model
|Hugging and Appeasing
|Exploiting the Vaccuum
|Resisting the Rogue Superpower
|Hijacking America First
|Hedging Their Bets
|Defying America First
|Riding Out the Storm
The First Basket: America First as a Crisis
Since World War II, and particularly since the Cold War, most states — treaty allies, geopolitical partners, and others — have cut an implicit bargain with the United States. These countries accepted an unbalanced power distribution that had America at the top and allowed it to enjoy the influence, prestige, and other privileges that came with being number one. In exchange, the United States provided leadership in addressing the most critical global challenges, anchored a global economy that spread prosperity far and wide, and served as the primary security provider in regions from Western Europe to East Asia and beyond. To be sure, many countries still complained about American hubris and occasional overreach, but they mostly accepted American dominance and activism because those qualities underpinned a broader global order in which they could flourish.
Over the past decade, many of these countries were thus concerned by signs that America’s relative power and its appetite for global engagement might be diminishing. Since January 2017, they have been even more unsettled by Trump’s foreign policy agenda. To cope with unwelcome changes in American diplomacy, these countries have adopted one or more of the following approaches.
Some of Washington’s most powerful allies have responded to Trump’s rise by seeking to fill the vacuum in global leadership. Countries in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific increased military spending to create more capacity to defend themselves and project power globally; they have pursued greater multilateral defense cooperation in hopes of shoring up stable and open regional orders. In the realm of international trade, they have responded to Trump’s policies by pursuing ambitious international agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership-11 deal and the envisioned E.U.-Japanese trade agreement, meant to deepen globalization even as Washington retreats into protectionism.
The goal of these initiatives is to extend the lifespan of the global order that America created — to pick up some of the geopolitical slack that Washington is now seen to have created as well. As Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland explained, “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership” requires that Canada play a greater role in “the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”
In some ways, this approach is the ultimate testament to the U.S.-led international order because it demonstrates how devoted so many countries are to that order. Doing more to sustain that order is thus an attractive option for states that do not wish to see it simply crumble. It also appeals to them because playing a greater leadership role may allow them to make that order even more conducive to their own interests. If Japan, rather than the United States, spearheads efforts to integrate the economies of the Asia-Pacific, then Japan will be able to structure those efforts in ways that better benefit its own economy.
It is unlikely, however, that the allies will be able to fully compensate for declining American engagement in the global arena, because it is simply beyond their material power capacity to do so. Even in 2016, after a period of prolonged defense austerity, the United States spent as much on defense as the next eight countries combined. And even if America’s allies could theoretically pick up all the geopolitical slack, the fact remains that U.S. leadership has historically proven so crucial precisely because its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific have rarely been able to act effectively on matters of global security without Washington mustering the coalition and solving the collective-action problems.
Journalists may now be calling Germany “the leader of the free world,” but Berlin has never led on any issue requiring military commitments and has had only marginally more success on diplomatic initiatives, such as the Minsk II process aimed at stabilizing Ukraine. “We need the military power of the United States,” Germany’s Angela Merkel has admitted. Greater allied activism can thus serve as a partial holding action, but it can’t achieve much more than that.
From the U.S. perspective, moreover, these efforts are only partly welcome. On the positive side, this approach could lead to better burden-sharing. On the negative side, this approach is likely to produce policies that are less favorable to American interests than they would be if U.S. diplomats were in the room and shaping the outcome. Whatever is produced by the remaining parties to TPP-11, for instance, will not be anywhere near as beneficial to American exporters as was the original TPP that Trump rejected. If the United States insists on discarding some of the burdens of global leadership, it will lose some of the benefits as well.
Hugging and Appeasing
If many U.S. allies have been alarmed by the rise of America First, many have also responded by seeking even closer relations with the current administration. This approach has a distinguished pedigree. As far back as Winston Churchill, the British saw value in drawing close to the U.S. president so as to whisper in the ear and perhaps put a hand on the wheel and a foot on the brake. Particularly since January 2017, U.S. partners have employed such personal diplomacy in hopes of influencing the direction of American policy. They have also offered targeted concessions to appease a potentially hostile superpower.
The United Kingdom under Prime Minister Theresa May has sought, unevenly and with mixed success, to pursue this approach. May walked hand-in-hand with Trump during her early visit to Washington in hopes of winning a bilateral trade deal that would bring a post-Brexit United Kingdom even further into the U.S. orbit. Japan has taken a similar tack, building on strong personal ties forged out of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s and Trump’s shared love of golf as a way of maintaining stability in the bilateral relationship. Likewise, virtually every U.S. ally and partner has sought to develop close relationships with Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other top presidential advisers in hopes of purchasing some protection against volatile American behavior.
Indeed, hugging has often been accompanied by appeasing: the offering of concessions, whether real or symbolic, to soothe Trump’s grievances. Numerous European countries have trumpeted increases in defense spending or additional contributions to the counter-ISIL campaign in hopes of easing concerns about unequal burden-sharing. Japan and other nations have touted new investments in the United States and allowed the president to take the credit. South Korea agreed to accept additional auto imports from the United States and limit its steel exports to America in hopes of averting punitive tariffs.
As these examples indicate, hugging and appeasing offer relatively low-cost ways for allies to moderate unwelcome shifts in America’s global posture. Indeed, if foreign observers are correct to perceive that this president is particularly susceptible to symbolic concessions and personal flattery, hugging and appeasing may deliver outsized benefits. This approach has the added advantage of avoiding diplomatic contretemps and keeping one’s powder dry for those issues where a confrontation might be unavoidable. There may be benefits for the United States, too. If one values the postwar tradition of American global engagement, then foreign diplomatic approaches that incentivize the current administration to minimize departures from that tradition are all to the good.
Yet hugging and appeasing will not work forever if America First is truly as erratic or parochial as it sometimes seems. South Korea has learned this the hard way: Efforts to cultivate close relations with the Trump administration have not protected Seoul from threats to tear up the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement, demands that it pay more for American military protection, or accusations of being soft on North Korea. Similarly, early European concessions on defense spending did not prevent the president from refusing to endorse NATO’s Article 5 at the Brussels summit in May 2017.
Moreover, the closer the allies hug, the higher the likelihood that they will be metaphorically standing next to America when the president sends a provocative tweet or does something deeply unpopular with their own voters. In those moments, the price paid with domestic audiences and political opponents for trying and failing to coopt the United States may be higher than if one had never tried at all. May’s experience seems to bear this out. Her trip to Washington in early 2017 did not deliver progress toward a bilateral trade agreement. It did, however, leave her facing intense political criticism when the Trump administration introduced its first effort to ban immigration and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries while May was on her way back from Washington.
Resisting the Rogue Superpower
Some traditional partners, particularly those that have been targeted with what they consider to be hostile economic or rhetorical gambits, have been explicit in rebuking or resisting the United States. Such behavior also has a long pedigree, and was called — somewhat controversially — “soft balancing” during the first 15 years of unipolarity. Yet it is becoming more common in the Trump era. This approach concedes that the U.S. administration has the capacity to renegotiate old deals and thus accepts some geostrategic disruption as inevitable. At the same time, this approach involves openly decrying that disruption as a way of winning political points at home, obtaining maximal bargaining leverage with Washington, and perhaps even shaming the administration into adjusting its behavior.
Mexico, the state most targeted by Trump’s campaign rhetoric in 2016, has visibly has followed this approach. Shortly after the election, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that his country would not pay for any border wall and would drive a hard bargain in any renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Other states have since followed this example. Germany’s Merkel won headlines around the world for announcing that she “deplored” the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris accords on climate change, while Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all publicly declared their opposition to terminating the Iran nuclear deal. France’s Emmanuel Macron initially positioned himself as a geopolitical foil to America First, resisting the president physically in their famous handshake for the ages. More recently, Trump’s steep tariffs on steel and aluminum may push to push the states most affected — Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and Japan — to more openly resist U.S. policy unless they are exempted from those tariffs (as it appears at least some may be).
Resistance has symbolic appeal, positioning the leaders involved as simultaneously principled — because they are defending longstanding Western values — and pragmatic — because they are refusing to make concessions to what their publics deem unreasonable demands from the United States. Countries that are targeted with particularly inflammatory rhetoric will find it hard to resist engaging in a tit-for-tat response, even if they have no desire to escalate to an outright confrontation. And given how broadly unpopular the current U.S. president is internationally, the temptation to win political advantage by confronting him is strong in many countries.
Yet resistance is nonetheless a dangerous strategy for the nations pursuing it. It invites conflict with the world’s most powerful country and risks provoking an administration that often seems more emboldened than chastened by foreign criticism. Media reports indicate, for instance, that before Trump announced his attention to withdraw from the Paris accords, international criticism anticipating the withdrawal may have actually reinforced his willingness to take that step. Similarly, after European Union officials criticized Trump’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs in March 2018, the president responded by threatening to impose “a Tax on their Cars.” One Canadian official close to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked, “Lots of people have tried to condemn this guy. It doesn’t work.”
Hedging Their Bets
For some states, the perceived decline in American global engagement calls for a hedging response. Hedging involves taking steps to mitigate the downside of adverse geopolitical developments, while simultaneously keeping open lines of action that make sense if the downside does not arise. For U.S. allies and partners, hedging involves steps to draw closer to other powerful patrons that might take America’s place, or to alternative partners that might offset a decline in U.S. engagement and support.
Hedging is hardly unique to the Trump era: Under Obama, President Rodrigo Duterte had been drawing closer to China, reportedly out of both deep-seated anti-Americanism and fears that Washington could no longer restrain Beijing. Yet the desire to preserve tactical freedom of maneuver — the chief advantage of the hedging strategy — is also evident elsewhere, and in many cases it is closely pegged to the developments U.S. allies and partners are perceiving in American policy under Trump.
The Australian government issued a foreign policy white paper explicitly calling for deeper engagement with “like-minded” states (middle powers such as Japan, India, South Korea, and Indonesia) in response to uncertainties about America’s willingness to continue to shoulder its global role. Mexico is seeking alternative trade partners such as China, Brazil, and Argentina as insurance against the potential loss of preferred access to the U.S. market should NAFTA collapse. Efforts to strengthen European defense cooperation, and to deepen existing partnerships between key European nations such as France and Germany, also qualify as behaviors meant to hedge against American decline or withdrawal. As German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel observed at the February 2018 Munich Conference, Europe needed a common “power project” lest it become “a vegetarian with a lot of problems in a world of carnivores.”
Hedging could theoretically have some advantages for the United States, if it leads to behavior — greater multilateral security cooperation among democracies in the Asia-Pacific, for instance — that Washington has long considered desirable in its own right. The downsides are that hedging may also weaken U.S. influence with key partners or undermine America’s preferred institutions and relationships. Some U.S. officials reportedly fear, for instance, that greater European defense cooperation could weaken NATO or needlessly duplicate its functions.
For foreign states, too, hedging can be a risky approach. Although it may bring benefits in the form of new or deepened geopolitical partnerships, it also risks further attenuating relations with the United States — which is, after all, their security partner of first resort. States like Australia will therefore pursue hedging carefully to avoid antagonizing America. Alternatively, for geographically exposed countries, hedging may be a risky and uncertain gamble that one can purchase greater security through accommodation of a stronger rival like China or Russia than through closer cooperation with the United States. Where this gamble seems unlikely to pay off (e.g., for the Baltic countries) even nations whose security would be most compromised by American withdrawal are likely to pursue hedging only very reluctantly and as a last resort.
Riding Out the Storm
For traditional allies and partners, the most prevalent response to the America First agenda is simply keeping their heads down — neither explicitly challenging nor openly embracing the shift. This might be considered the default response. Only when the pressures are great or the interests particularly compelling will a state opt for one of the other responses and, even then, those states might shift back to the default when circumstances allow.
Germany, for instance, seems to oscillate between tentative efforts to compensate for American parochialism, to hedge against American withdrawal, and even to confront the rogue superpower, on the one hand, and more prevalent, if muted, efforts to “ride out the storm” on the other. Germany’s goal, notes Jana Puglierin of the German Council on Foreign Relations, is to “survive this period without totally losing the United States.” Indeed, the vast majority of U.S. allies and partners are seeking to preserve areas of longstanding cooperation with Washington — and to avoid becoming targets of the president.
They key premise of this approach is that, even under Trump, U.S. policy remains “normal enough” that the costs of disrupting the relationship far outweigh the benefits. States that see the current changes in U.S. policy as temporary, or that simply lack the power to shift the American trajectory meaningfully, will find this approach especially attractive. The disadvantage, however, is that if the shift in the American trajectory is enduring, then this approach only delays the inevitable adjustments these states will eventually need to make. Moreover, if the Trump administration “takes an interest” in these countries and focuses unwanted attention on them — as has happened to countries from South Korea to Sweden — hiding will not be a viable option.
The Second Basket: America First as an Opportunity
For most countries, the shift in U.S. policy represents a crisis to be managed. Yet for others — particularly, but not exclusively, revisionist powers and authoritarian countries — the emergence of America First represents a moment of opportunity, to be exploited through one or more of the following strategies.
America First as a Model
Some states respond to America First by saying, “Me First, Too.” These states are usually ruled by leaders who share a populist, anti-globalist, and politically illiberal perspective. They have therefore adopted language similar to that of the president, while seeking to exploit aspects of the America First model that align with their own interests. Interestingly, the most prominent examples of this approach are NATO treaty allies — albeit those who are, in one way or another, black sheep at the moment.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban was the first leader to openly embrace Trump during his presidential campaign, and followed up with an enthusiastic response in 2017. “We have received permission from … the highest position in the world so we can now also put ourselves in first place,” Orban said. Poland, which won an early presidential trip, has likewise courted Trump by echoing America First rhetoric and developing close official ties. Turkey’s early stance also included elements of this approach, premised on perceived similarities in the rhetoric and public posture of Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the Asia-Pacific, similar dynamics are present in the U.S.-Philippines relationship, where Duterte has seen the rise of a president less interested in human rights and political freedoms as a welcome relief from the “meddling” of previous years.
Indeed, from the perspective of Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines alike, a chief benefit of the America First model is precisely that it downgrades liberal political values, while also weakening institutions — such as the European Union — traditionally associated therewith. Authoritarian leaders in these and other countries have even appropriated aspects of Trump’s rhetoric — particularly his disparagement of the news media and his use of the term “fake news” — as a way of associating themselves with the United States even as they crack down on the institutions of democracy.
Embracing America First in this way is thus an attractive option for states that see the rise of parochial populism and illiberal rule as the wave of the future, one they can ride to their own advantage. From an American perspective, adroit diplomacy could leverage this populist wave to forge new coalitions of the willing, albeit for very narrow purposes and structured in a highly transactional fashion, although doing so would require continuing tradeoffs against other longstanding U.S. goals such as the promotion of liberal values.
To date, however, few such collaborations — even of a transactional nature — are visible. Poland has arguably reaped some dividends by investing in Trump and the America First model, but both Turkey and Hungary have been vocal about their disappointment in the returns they have received. Trump has not yet visited Hungary or invited Orban to the White House; Ankara continues to seethe at U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria. Put another way, it turns out that when an America First policy meets a “Turkey First” policy, the result is a confrontation as sharp as any the Trump administration has experienced thus far. And Hungary probably has to offer more than the sincere flattery of imitation to bridge the parochial chasm caused by U.S. attention diverted away from Eastern Europe. Illiberal states disappointed by the Trump administration’s response may consider tilting toward illiberal U.S. adversaries. Both Turkey and the Philippines have tried something like this by reaching out to Russia and China, respectively. The disaffected states may have limited options, however, given the constraints imposed by geography and the dangers inherent in aligning with other great-power patrons.
Exploiting the Vacuum
Some states have long opposed key U.S. policies and see in Trump’s presidency a chance to reshape the global order. Russia and China fall into this category. Even prior to Trump’s presidency, U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations had markedly deteriorated and these revisionist powers were widely seen to be on the march. Since 2017, however, these countries have been exploiting Trump’s apparent disdain for the U.S.-led international order to pursue their agendas more aggressively.
Within this category, there is an important tonal distinction between states that have openly sought to cover their activities by flattering the Trump administration (China) and others that have not (Russia). Such nuances aside, in both cases the basic pattern of hostile states seeking to exploit a perceived vacuum is obvious. Under the Obama administration, Russia had already defeated a decades-long U.S. effort to keep it from playing a major political-military role in the Middle East. Under the Trump administration, Russia has further exploited U.S. policy confusion and diplomatic enfeeblement to make deeper inroads with key players such as Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, and to cement its role as the dominant player in shaping Syria’s future. Looking beyond Syria, Russia has taken advantage of these same dynamics to extend its regional influence and make itself a potential spoiler on virtually every policy priority the United States has in the region. Finally, in the United States as well as Europe, Moscow has gained additional advantage from the slow American response to electoral interference and other forms of Russian information warfare.
China has been following a similar playbook. It has long been exploiting perceived American decline to push for primacy in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and other areas along its periphery. Following Trump’s election, China doubled down on this project, moving quickly to replace the United States as the world’s rhetorical leader on issues of climate change, trade, and globalization. Beijing’s claims to leadership of an open international economy are rather fanciful, given its highly protectionist and mercantilist policies. But China has nonetheless exploited U.S. withdrawal from TPP to push alternative arrangements — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Project and the Belt and Road Initiative — meant to draw its neighbors more tightly into the Chinese economic orbit. China has also scored symbolic victories by contrasting its own supposedly stable and responsible leadership, along with its rhetorical defense of multilateralism, to the more erratic and unilateral policies of the Trump administration. As Xi Jinping declared in October 2017, China is now ready to “take center stage in the world” and act as an alternative to U.S. hegemony and leadership.
There are no near-term advantages for the United States in this category, but the states that pursue it clearly perceive benefits of their own. Indeed, the likely near-term consequence of this approach will be a further diminution of American leadership, expansion of the influence of dangerous revisionist powers, and erosion of the international order. Over the medium and long-term, the consequences could be dangerous for everyone. It is conceivable that a premature push for global leadership or greater influence by Russia or China could eventually trigger a sharper backlash by America or other nations that are threatened thereby. In fact, the dynamics we are seeing today have sometimes triggered war. For example, Germany’s bid for European mastery and world power during the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped destabilize continental politics and bring on World War I. Even if such a worst-case outcome is unlikely today, the precedent is ominous. It indicates that the probable result of this behavior will be sharper international tensions and a higher likelihood of conflict.
Hijacking America First
There is an analytically distinct type of exploitation that is best considered “hijacking.” Hijacking is similar to hugging in that the goal is to influence U.S. policy by drawing closer to the Trump administration. The difference is that it is undertaken by states that are more enthused than concerned by the shift in American statecraft. Under this approach, the state warmly and wholeheartedly embraces America’s new role and orientation. Yet it uses this warmth and flattery to extract policy concessions that are favorable to the state in question, and not necessarily to the United States.
Hijacking has so far been predominantly a Middle Eastern affair. Saudi Arabia gave Trump a hero’s welcome on his inaugural foreign trip. Yet the Saudis — and particularly Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — appear to have used the resulting good feelings to secure greater support for the ongoing intervention in Yemen, to launch a bold but counter-productive showdown with Qatar, and perhaps even to shove aside internal rivals such as former Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. U.S.-Israeli relations are equally warm, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided the diplomatic rows he regularly waged with the Obama administration. Yet Israel appears to have used that improved climate to secure a long-desired public announcement that the U.S. embassy will move to Jerusalem, with no corresponding concession.
Given the potential to extract significant concessions from the United States, this approach brings significant advantages for opportunistic foreign powers. The cost-benefit analysis is likely to be particularly attractive in those few countries where the public views Trump more favorably than his predecessor (namely, Israel), or where public opinion simply is not a salient factor in day-to-day decision-making (such as Saudi Arabia).
For the United States, by contrast, the chief advantage of this approach is the opportunity to bask in the sunshine of improving relations and public expressions of mutual regard. The chief disadvantages are the absence of any material benefit, at least so far, on other relevant policy issues, or the possibility that Washington may find itself supporting unwise or destabilizing policies. This approach is based, after all, on a bet that the agenda of an administration widely seen as lacking diplomatic experience and sophistication can be hijacked to serve other countries’ ends. If that wager pays off, the consequences will be quite negative for the United States.
Defying America First
A final — and least innovative — response to America First is the continued defiance of longstanding adversaries. North Korea and Iran are radical dictatorships that have long contested U.S. power and the American-led international order. What has changed, perhaps, is that they appear to assess that the shift toward America First is isolating the United States and thereby creating new diplomatic advantages for U.S. adversaries. Iran’s leaders — particularly hard-liners — have boasted that they would welcome America tearing up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action since it would free them up to respond in kind (or, at least, cause a crisis in U.S.-European relations that Tehran could exploit). Similarly, North Korea has seemed to enjoy the tit-for-tat exchange of diplomatic insults with Trump, and sought to exploit potential cleavages between the United States and South Korea, most notably by pursuing the “Olympic Détente” with Seoul and then (reportedly) announcing its willingness to suspend nuclear and missile tests.
Like Tehran, Pyongyang may be calculating that it will be easier to drive wedges between Washington and its allies in the age of America First. This strategy offers few obvious advantages to the United States, and it provides clear benefits to American rivals — to the extent they can get away with it. It is possible, however, that states seeking to defy Washington could overplay their hand, provoking a sharper American or international response than they anticipated.
Over a year into Trump’s presidency, the basic patterns of the world’s response are coming into sharper focus. Some countries are seeking to minimize or compensate for the effects of an America First agenda; others are seeking to make the most of them. Yet governments around the world are adjusting in some way or another, which is itself a testament to just how disruptive Trump’s presidency has already been.
Some of the strategies that foreign actors are pursuing do have potential benefits for the United States, particularly insofar as they lead to greater and perhaps more equitable efforts to sustain the post-World War II international order. Yet there are inherent limits to allied efforts to pick up the geopolitical slack that the United States is creating, and America’s own interests will not be as well served by those efforts as they would be by deeper U.S. engagement to shape key negotiations and outcomes. Other strategies, such as hijacking and exploiting the vacuum, are far more dangerous for the United States and the broader global order. Overall, it thus appears that the liabilities of these patterns of global adjustment significantly outweigh the benefits from a U.S. perspective. To put it more sharply, it is surely troubling that many democracies and longtime U.S. partners are scrambling to mitigate the effects of America First, while a number of revisionist or authoritarian powers look to take advantage.
Global adjustment to America First is a process, however, and one that has not reached its conclusion. Rather, in a climate of great geopolitical uncertainty, most states appear to be feeling their way and hedging their bets across a range of responses because they are unsure of which is optimal. Germany, for example, has pursued all five of the responses undertaken by states that are mostly discomfited by Trump’s approach. Many other states have pursued a similarly diverse range of options as they try to discern where, precisely, Trump’s America is headed.
This uncertainty leads to a further point, which is that the current instability in U.S. policy could easily shift the patterns of response we have described. Although the America First label and much of the president’s rhetoric has remained relatively consistent, there have been significant debates within the administration on what it means in practice on any given policy dispute. The outcomes of those disputes, in turn, seem to be heavily dependent on the rising and declining influence of key personnel, which has itself been an especially fluid variable in this administration. As a result, the first 14 months of Trump’s presidency saw an often-unpredictable cycle in which periods of relative normality in U.S. policy would be followed by periods of greater disruption, and vice-versa. The 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy provided a measure of conceptual clarity amid the resulting confusion, but the distance between those documents and the president’s rhetoric raised further questions about the administration’s intentions and policies. In short, if global reactions to Trump’s presidency reflect global assessments of where that presidency is headed, then continued volatility in U.S. policy so far is likely to cause continued volatility in patterns of global response.
This point seems especially pertinent in early 2018, as the administration undergoes significant internal upheaval that may have equally significant implications for U.S. policy. The departure of relatively moderate advisers such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster will probably not lead policy to fully catch up with the president’s “America First” rhetoric on more enduring issues such as U.S. alliances. But it may help policy catch up with rhetoric on the Iran nuclear deal and the ongoing nuclear crisis with North Korea, two issues on which both Pompeo and Bolton have staked out hawkish views. More broadly, it may accentuate the more abrasive, unilateral aspects of Trump’s diplomacy. Should this happen, it could further incentivize hedging or even resistance by some U.S. allies and partners, while also sharpening confrontations with Tehran and Pyongyang.
This relates to a final point, which is that international responses to America First will depend heavily on how lasting other countries assume that shift to be. If international observers conclude that America First is here to stay, then some approaches — hedging, exploiting the vacuum, America First as a model — will become more appealing, while others — riding out the storm, hugging and appeasing — will seem less feasible. If, however, states conclude that America First is more the aberration than the norm, they will be cautious about pursuing strategies that carry great risk should U.S. policy “snap back” in the foreseeable future. In this, as in so many areas, the effects of the Trump era will be determined by how long that era ends up lasting.
Hal Brands is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and author, most recently, of American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump (2018). Peter Feaver is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University.