Obama legacy suffers to boost ‘America First’

By Sun Chenghao Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/21 18:48:39

Occupying an anti-establishment and anti-globalization position, US President Donald Trump put forward "America First" as the overarching guideline and organizing principle for his foreign policy in the very early stage of his tenure, placing a higher priority on American security and economic interests above all else. His approaches to dealing with major powers and global governance in 2017 reflect both change and continuity in US foreign policy under the "America First" doctrine with Trump's characteristics.

First and foremost, the administration has taken key steps to safeguard homeland security, prevent terrorist attacks, push forward immigration controls and border security via executive action, and formulate the counter-IS strategy and the new Afghanistan strategy - this did not reverse former president Barack Obama's policy, but made tactical changes by giving the military greater authority and keeping a strategic ambiguity over when and how to withdraw those boots on the ground.

Second, Trump attached more importance than his predecessor on coercive economic diplomacy to "benefit the American people." Economic security is national security. In the past year, the administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal and other multilateral mechanisms, which was described succinctly as the "Withdrawal Doctrine" by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and forced Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement in pursuit of so-called reciprocity and fixing trade imbalances.

Third, "ABO" (Anything but Obama) is Trump's creed to get the US back on the right track by slashing at Obama's legacy. Trump not only intends to roll back Obama's progressive foreign policy, but also insists on seeking narrowly-defined national interests at the expense of the liberal world order the US had championed during the past seven decades.

On the one hand, Trump is determined to dismantle Obama's diplomatic legacy like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the TPP. On the other hand, he would like to challenge the traditional thoughts on transatlantic relations, US-Russia relations, human rights and democracy by requiring new burden-sharing arrangements with allies and partners, showing an irresolute commitment to NATO, supporting Brexit and keeping an ambiguous attitude on both European integration and Russian affairs.

Fourth, "principled realism" has become the official thinking behind US foreign policy and national security strategy. Trump announced "a principled realism" rooted in common values, shared interests and common sense during his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia. After that, H.R. McMaster, the president's national security advisor, and Gary Cohen, director of the National Economic Council, together wrote two articles published in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to further explain the contents of "principled realism" and Trump's vision for US foreign policy. In December, "principled realism" became an official expression in Trump's first National Security Strategy report.

Through the prism of "principled realism," Trump's worldview combines both the Reagan Doctrine and Jacksonian populist nationalism (named after 19th-century president Andrew Jackson), which hold that the US is engaged in a competitive world and has to seek and protect national interests in the safest and most economical way. Therefore, the US strategic vision has become mired in narrowly-defined interests and is neglecting its role in international order and values.

Fifth, continuity is still there in Trump's foreign policy. Constrained by the resistance of the established domestic power and the unwritten rules of major power relations, Trump has to gradually put back to a traditional track to deal with other major powers.

Trump was eager to restart US-Russia relations at the very beginning, but shackled by domestic and international factors, this restart has basically failed. Transatlantic relations have returned to stability after the initial "Trump shocks," thanks to the frequent high-level visits and meetings between the two sides. The US-China relationship is also back on track after a brief period of turbulence because of Trump's earlier comments on the one-China principle. The presidential summits and the four comprehensive dialogues have acted as strategic stabilizers in the bilateral relationship.

The most revolutionary part of Trump's foreign policy in the past year is his retreat from global governance, multilateral regimes, institutions and agreements. The negative effects are more than clear. It will undermine the US' soft power, strategic credibility and Obama's past efforts to enhance US leadership in the arena, and even challenge the liberal world order established after 1945.

The strategies of "America First," shifting more burdens to allies and partners, concentrating on self-development and ignoring public goods provision, might bring immediate and tangible benefits to the US, but will inflict fundamental harm on the country and the world at large in the long run. If the Trump administration cannot strike a balance between "America First" and American responsibility, "Make America Great Again" will just become an empty slogan.

The author is an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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