Why, when Trump says 'America First,' much of the world worries

No one has ever expected the US not to put its own interests first. But many see Trump's apparent zero-sum foreign policy as threatening a system that has served the US well.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press
President Donald Trump signs an executive order Monday to withdraw the US from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact agreed to under the Obama administration in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

The gloves are off. And the world cannot say it wasn’t warned.

“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power,” President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural speech Friday. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

That strident proclamation alarmed enemies and friends alike. “I think we have to prepare for a rough ride,” German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned after hearing the speech.

But just what Mr. Trump’s vision entails is far from clear in Europe and elsewhere around the globe, where governments have become accustomed to the United States as the driving force behind the post World War II liberal international order.

It is not as if the rest of the world has ever expected American governments not to put American interests first. Sometimes they have done so brutally and selfishly. But as a general rule over the past seven decades, Washington has been guided by enlightened self interest in world affairs. That is now in doubt.

The US-led order has rested on many foundations – a complex web of norms, treaties, and institutions ranging from the United Nations and the World Bank to nuclear non-proliferation, international accounting standards, and the Geneva Conventions.

Chief among them is an open, rules-based free trade system governed by the World Trade Organization and regional trade treaties. On Monday, Trump pulled the US out of the brand new Trans Pacific Partnership, an Asian trade deal, and he says he is considering scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

On the military front, the order is underpinned by military alliances such as NATO, which Trump has described as “obsolete,” and by pledges to defend Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea. The new president has suggested he might not honor those pledges unless their governments pay more, converting security from a matter of principle into a more transactional issue.

Underlying the international order is the notion that a state’s territorial integrity is inviolable – a principle that Washington has often breached. But Trump’s apparent willingness to overlook Russia’s occupation and annexation of the Crimea and its sponsorship of a low-intensity separatist war in Ukraine is especially worrying to Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump appear to share a worldview based on narrow national interests and spheres of interest.

That marks a radical shift from the attitude that US presidents from Harry Truman onward have taken, seeking out common interests they shared with allies and with rivals, from trade to arms control treaties. A policy – whether it be aimed at slowing climate change or strengthening democratic government in developing nations – could be good for America and good for the world.

The view was that a free and prosperous world helped bolster a free and prosperous America.

But to many outside the United States, on the strength of his inaugural speech, Trump seems to be offering a zero-sum game. He described a threatening world “stealing our companies and destroying our jobs” and pledging to defend America from such “ravages.” If America is to win, the rest of the world will have to lose.

That is not how the US achieved its current world dominance, points out Henning Riecke, head of the transatlantic program at the German Council on Foreign Affairs in Berlin. And if Trump hopes to strike better trade deals than his predecessors, he says “for trade, you need a rules-based international order.”

Trump may have scoffed during the campaign at the shape of that order, “but in the end, American interests are very well defined along those very established and successful lines,” Mr. Riecke says. “America can do some bullying … but it won’t achieve its goals … if people see America as an enemy.”

Warnings from abroad

Nowhere is a government readier to recall American bullying than in China, where the Communist party rallies nationalist fervor with memories of how US and other foreign troops invaded an enfeebled imperial China and humiliated it.

China is most threatened by Trump’s blunt “buy American, hire American” policy; the US is Beijing’s biggest export market. But today, China can fight back. Washington and Beijing should not try to force each other into submission, argued an editorial Saturday in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist party’s mouthpiece. Instead, they should seek “win-win” cooperation.

“Protectionism only stirs up retaliation,” warned a commentary published by the state-run Xinhua news agency. “It is highly hoped that the Trump administration could take the interests of its country and the world as a whole into account.”

The Iranian government is also threatening to strike back if Trump scraps the year-old deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in return for easing sanctions – Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.

“We can very easily snap back and go back … not only to where we were, but a much higher positions technologically speaking,” the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Canada’s CBC News. “I don’t want to see that day … but we are prepared.”

Washington’s European allies are concerned, too, and casting about for alternative leadership should Washington ignore them.

In an interview last week with the British newspaper The Times, Trump showed a casual disregard for the European Union, saying, “I don’t really care whether it is separate or together,” praising Britain’s decision to leave the union as “a great thing,” and predicting that other members would follow London’s example.

Such a perspective might not come as a surprise. But common interests are the founding raison d’être of the European Union, and Trump’s inaugural speech was a sobering experience for Europeans.

“Every American president since World War II was very focused on America’s allies and on building and shoring up the alliance framework,” says Xenia Wickett, head of the US and the Americas program at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “This president has made it abundantly clear that this is just not a priority for him.”

That puts the onus of leadership on Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. “People are looking to Germany when problems arise,” says Riecke, the strategic analyst. “There is a growing understanding that we cannot just sit on our hands.”

Seeing benefits

Some US allies are hoping to benefit from Trump’s stark view of US national interests. In Israel on Sunday, Jerusalem’s municipal government approved the construction of 566 new homes on occupied Palestinian land that had been delayed in the face of international opposition last month, led by the United States.

“The rules of the game have changed with Donald Trump’s arrival,” Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman told the French news agency AFP. “We no longer have our hands tied as in the time of Barack Obama.”

Britain too is seeking advantage from Trump’s presence in the White House. When Prime Minister Theresa May visits Washington later this week she will be angling for a generous trade deal with the United States once her country has left the European Union.

But with Trump priding himself on his hard-nosed “America first” attitude, Ms. Wickett says, “I don’t see any reason why he would give the UK something he refuses to give anyone else.”

Sara Miller Llana in Paris, Michael Holtz in Beijing, Scott Peterson in Istanbul, and Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.

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