The Weakness of America First

If we’re just for ourselves, why should anyone else cooperate with us?

The news these last two weeks has been full of foreign policy. The trade war with China has heated up. Conflict with Iran seems closer than ever to a shooting war.

It’s easy to get lost in the details of either story and miss the larger picture: These are both countries that President Obama tried to deal with by forming a broad alliance based on principles. But Trump tore up those agreements and processes in favor of going it alone as part of his “America First” vision.

In both cases, Trump’s approach has put the United States in a far weaker position.

China. On trade, American policy for decades has revolved around establishing “rules of the road”: principles of fair trade that large coalitions of nations could agree to, establishing a club that rogue nations might want to join badly enough to change their behavior. You can argue with the content of any particular agreement — maybe you have a different vision of fair trade and want different rules — but the principle is sound.

Trump has taken a different approach: The United States is bigger than the other kids on the playground, so we’ll make them play a game that we win. Our size advantage is bigger when we deal with other nations one-by-one, so that’s how we’ll do it.

It hasn’t worked. Sovereign nations don’t like to be dictated to, and a foreign leader can gain political support by resisting our domination, even if there’s an economic price to pay.

We should have learned this lesson from Cuba. We are much, much bigger than Cuba, and we threw the biggest economic punch we have: a complete embargo. Cuba is probably considerably poorer than it would be if it had been trading with America these last 57 years. But that economic blow did not destabilize the Castro government or make it do what we wanted.

A more recent signal is that Friday the Trump administration punted on its tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum, getting little more than a return to the status quo ante. No major economy is more dependent on the American market than Canada is. If we can’t use that advantage to push Canada around, what countries can we expect to yield to this approach?

Not China, apparently. China’s economy will be equal to ours in a few years, if it isn’t already. (Roughly, China has four times as many people at a quarter our standard of living. Catching up is easier than leading, though, so their economy is growing much faster than ours. The question is when their economy will pass ours, not whether.) China’s economy is more dependent on exports than ours is, so a tariff war strikes harder there. But I suspect their government is less vulnerable to popular discontent than ours, which points the other way.

So Trump’s tariff threats have not brought the Chinese to their knees. And since that’s the only card he knows how to play, he has to keep raising the stakes, assessing larger and larger tariffs on more and more Chinese goods. Meanwhile, Chinese reprisals are hitting America farmers hard, and government bailouts are a poor substitute for a fair price on soybeans.

In addition to just wanting to export more and import less, the US has legitimate issues with China: protecting intellectual property, mainly, and perhaps also an artificially low valuation of China’s currency. But those are rules-of-the-road issues. Wouldn’t it make more sense to form a club that obeyed those rules, and make it so attractive that China would change its behavior in order to join?

That was the whole idea behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled the plug on. I know lots of people had lots of complaints with various features of the TPP, but the general strategy was correct: Don’t negotiate with China one-on-one, negotiate as part of a trade alliance that also includes Japan, Canada, Singapore, and a bunch of other nations.

Iran. The other big foreign-policy story of recent weeks has been the increased tensions with Iran, which led to this Trump tweet on Sunday:

If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!

This resembles his fire-and-fury threat against North Korea, which has led neither to fire and fury nor to any substantive concessions from the Kim regime. The Hill sums up recent escalations:

In recent weeks, the U.S. has deployed a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf in response to what national security adviser John Bolton said were aggressive moves by Iran in the region. On Wednesday, the State Department pulled all nonemergency personnel from Iraq, citing possible threats from sectarian militias with ties to Iran.

We’ve also made noises about sending 120,000 troops to the area, and have been ratcheting up pressure on Iran’s economy, trying to choke off its oil exports. (Iran’s biggest customer is China, by the way. What if China strikes back against Trump’s tariffs with something more than just reprisal tariffs?)

Many have compared this increasing pressure to the build-up to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002-2003, but one feature of President Bush’s strategy is missing: our allies. The British, for example, don’t seem to be on board.

The top British general in the US-led coalition against Isis has said there is no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria, directly contradicting US assertions used to justify a military buildup in the region.

Iran is roughly three times the size of Iraq, so a reasonable guess would be that war with Iran would be three times as nasty. Wouldn’t it be nice to confront Iran with a coalition of powerful nations rather than stand alone against them?

Guess what? Obama did precisely that, and Trump tore it up.

The Iran nuclear agreement included not just us and them, but also the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, and France, plus the EU. Those countries were all committed to re-establishing economic sanctions if Iran violated the terms of the agreement, which so far it seems not to have done. (Though it has announced that it may start enriching uranium again, given that it’s getting so little benefit out of the deal now that Trump has unilaterally imposed new sanctions.)

If that deal unravels, and if the other parties to the deal blame the US (as they clearly should), then we’ll be in a far worse position than we were before the deal was signed: Iran will be on course for a nuclear weapon again, and we’ll be on our own trying to stop them.

America First means America Alone. The United States is strongest when it stands for something more than just its own interests. If it stands for human rights, for mutual security, for a fair system of international trade, for nuclear non-proliferation, and for a multi-national approach to global challenges like climate change, then the US can lead a broad coalition and get things done.

What’s more, a principle-based approach is a bigger political threat to governments that oppose us. Imagine you’re a citizen of China or Iran. President Obama was asking your country to become a responsible member of the community of nations. But Trump just wants to push your country around and gain an advantage over you. When your own government starts asking you to make sacrifices, aren’t you more likely to make them willingly against Trump?

If we have no vision of a just world order, but are just out to win for ourselves, why should anyone cooperate with us? Why should traditional allies like Canada or the UK support us? Why should dissident elements in Iran or China put pressure on their leaders to make a deal with us?

America First means America Alone, facing rivals who are internally united against us. Far from being “great again”, Trump’s America is considerably weaker than America has been in our lifetimes.

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  • nicknielsensc  On May 20, 2019 at 10:25 pm

    This outlook on Asian countries and economies is something to consider:

  • Dale Moses  On May 21, 2019 at 3:30 am

    Worse, now that we have shown we will blow up prior administration deals at a moments notice (for all of Bush IIs faults he didnt overturn prior foreign policy agreements, only domesitc agreements) how does anyone trust Democrats to make deals?

  • Lou Doench  On May 22, 2019 at 7:56 am

    The TPP boondoggle is yet another area where “some of us” on the left were happy to provide stones for Trump to pick up and throw at HRC during the general election. Trump’s Fox News level childish understanding of international trade was echoed on the left by Stein voters and Sandernistas who either through ignorance or willful obtuseness turned a relatively innocuous international trade agreement into a boogeyman for all people.

    • jh  On May 24, 2019 at 7:37 pm

      And that was the problem I found so frustrating. Purity politics in the left is so high that it virtually guarantees that a conservative wins. A house divided will lose. Sure, we should hold our left leaders accountable but the left’s myopic vision means that they didn’t understand that they were giving ammunition to the right. Even now, the left doesn’t understand how to play the game.

      If I were on the left, I would be maintaining a consistent front and focusing all on the left to attack their enemy. Use right wing talking points. Ask why states don’t get to keep their federal tax dollars in state. Talk about why we should be listening to states who are 50th in education. Ask why government is so big and then… promptly cut the defense budget and destroy FEMA on the national level because that’s socialism. (Just cutting the state federal taxes will deeply impact welfare states and cause issues. It’s the same as finally living on your own and realizing that bills got to be paid and you can’t just fool around anymore because mommy and daddy aren’t going to be there.)

      And attack attack and attack. I don’t care if a republican is innocent. (that is an impossibility. Republicans are, by definition, criminals. Give me the money and the power and I’ll find enough dirt to throw all of them into jail.) Smear smear smear. Benghazi worked to the point that even liberals were stupid enough to fall for it and think that Hillary lied more than Trump. (and think about it. If I were as investigated as Hillary, I’d be in jail. Being “exonerated” by the mere fact of Bengazi 1-8 (I lost track) which was run by her enemies = she ain’t guilty.)

      Also – I still think congress should be investigating pundits. Losers like Hannity and Alex Jones need to explain their “knowledge of the deep state”. Maybe it’s because I like asian cultures more… but there’s something to be said about being not being a bull in a china shop like a typical american yokel and being offensive without looking like you are giving offense. Sure, conservative media will attack. But they are a lost cause. The point is that there is already a war. The conservatives have been attacking American democracy and liberals for thirty years. Liberals better start fighting back or else, it’s Americastan.


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