How ‘America first’ affects global politics

By Wu Zhenglong Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/7 20:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

With "America first" as his guiding principle, the Trump administration's political achievements in the past half year have not only altered Washington's political ecology, but also disrupted the balance in world politics and the global governance system. Some Western media see Trump's election as an event as significant as the breakdown of the Soviet Union. That is of course an exaggeration, but as time passes people will start to realize the far-reaching effects of Trump's time in office are not to be underestimated.

The blunt slogan "America first" can be understood more clearly after listening to explanations by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. They explain it means that the world is an arena for competition among countries, non-governmental forces and companies, rather than a global society. In other words, "America first" is the law of the jungle, a zero-sum game where the winner takes all.

Trump moved to the White House feeling indignation and discontent against the outside world. In his inaugural address, he complained that for many decades, the US has "enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military." He vowed to change this.

America's allies took the brunt, and serious cracks started to appear. Trump has been blurting out comments on issues directly related to American interests, such as trade and defense spending. He accused Germany, Japan and South Korea of rigging their exchange rates to get unfair trading advantages against the US. He accused NATO members of free riding and hurting American taxpayers' interests, and demanded they fulfill a pledge to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense this year. Trump also urged South Korea to hold negotiations to revise the US-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA), put pressure on Japan to re-start US-Japan FTA negotiations, decided to re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, and threatened to impose high import taxes to safeguard the interests of particular American industries.

Trump talked without censoring himself when it came to immigration and EU integration. He criticized Germany's refugee policy a "catastrophic mistake," hailed Brexit "a great thing," and supported forces that opposed European integration in the French election. What's worse, Trump started an ugly battle of words against Germany, ignoring diplomatic etiquette, and called the EU "a vehicle for Germany" and Germany "very bad."

In a new round of sanctions against Russia, the US has targeted Russian individuals and entities and expanded the scope of the sanctions to include European companies doing deals with Russia, making way for American energy products to enter the European market, causing strong discontent and aversion.

The past half year under the "America first" policy has left the US in self-isolation. Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, claiming the decisions would avoid harm to the American economy, prevent job losses and maintain competitiveness. At the recent G7 and G20 summits, the US neither accepted mainstream opinions nor participated in global governance systems trying to tackle issues like climate change and anti-protectionism, leaving it in unprecedented isolation since the end of WWII.

The "America first" policy is proof of America's drop in international status and national strength. No pain, no gain. Now the US refuses to shoulder international responsibilities and plans to dramatically cut foreign assistance. Trump is trying to sustain voters' support in the short run by fulfilling campaign promises. In the long run, however, America's global influence will be dampened, damaging its credibility, voice and dominant role in global governance. The botched mediation in countries cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar shows that the magic of America's words is starting to wear off.

Birds tend to scatter and find their own trees. A capricious US that always puts its own interests first has triggered discontent and opposition among allies, and they have started to rethink relations with the US. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it is now time Germany and Europe take "destiny into our own hands" and downgraded the US from "friend" to "partner" in her campaign program.

Canadian state leaders also said that Canada should find its own clear and independent path because the US is no longer reliable. Japan has been busy without saying much. It promoted the TPP in the absence of the US, declared a FTA agreement with the EU and warmed up toward China to put pressure on the US and win more room for diplomatic maneuvering. Australia, France and Mexico are also re-evaluating their relations with the US and positions in the world.

In a word, the tectonic plates of global politics are loosening and the possibility of them drifting apart cannot be ruled out. This is an era of opportunities as well as crisis. We should ride the tide and have plans for this changing situation.

The author is a former Chinese diplomat. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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