Comment: Trump’s ‘America First’ pledge won little for his base

On trade and national security, Trump has failed to deliver even for those who most support him.

By Daniel W. Drezner / Special to The Washington Post

It is not hard to find arguments out there that President Trump’s first-term foreign policy was an omnishambles, but perhaps observers are using the wrong metrics. Most U.S. foreign policy analysts assesses whether a president’s actions advance the national interest. Trump’s foreign policy increasingly seems as if it is aimed to advance the partisan interest.

In this vein, it is worth asking whether Trump’s “America First” approach to international affairs has delivered anything to the only Americans he cares about: his base. Obviously, it’s not great for the rest of the country if Trump’s foreign policy only benefits his supporters, but at least that would make some kind of Machiavellian political sense.

This is where things get extremely weird, however: Even by Trump’s own blinkered criteria, his foreign policy has mostly been a disaster for his base.

Let’s start with foreign economic policy, because this is the arena where Trump repeatedly stressed he would deliver for a white working class ostensibly devastated by globalization. And while the economy’s overall performance under Trump was never as great as advertised, surely his foreign economic policies have benefited his supporters, right?

Wrong. Even before the pandemic, Trump’s misguided trade wars put the manufacturing sector into a recession and the agricultural sector on welfare. As Politico’s Eleanor Mueller explained last month, the trade wars combined with the pandemic have been bad for the Rust Belt: “Higher prices for imports have decreased demand, which — when combined with a global economic slowdown — contributed to depress manufacturing employment. On top of that, American exporters are hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries.”

In theory, one could forgive Trump for short-term losses if such moves eventually led to significant concessions from trading partners. The data say otherwise, however. Even when it was signed, Trump’s much-ballyhooed phase-one trade deal with China fell short of expectations. Ten months later, it is clear that China is unlikely to honor its promises. Trump’s continued bellicosity toward China is accomplishing little economically beyond tanking U.S. stocks.

Stepping back, Trump’s promised war on offshore outsourcing and the trade deficit have been unmitigated disasters. In August, the U.S. trade deficit widened to its largest level in 14 years. Employment in manufacturing has 200,000 fewer jobs than when he was inaugurated. High-profile deals like Foxconn’s in Wisconsin proved to be empty gestures. There are days when it seems that the only accomplishment of Trump’s trade wars has been to divert some supply chains from China to Vietnam.

Trump’s efforts to hector U.S. firms to keep their plants in America have been an abysmal failure. The Washington Post’s David Lynch notes, “Throughout his presidency, Trump has had little success with his highly personalized attempts to bend corporate decision-making to his will and reverse a generation-long decline in U.S. factory jobs.” The New York Times’ Alan Rappeport reaches a similar conclusion: “Mr. Trump has threatened companies like General Motors, Harley-Davidson and Carrier with backbreaking taxes and boycotts if they moved manufacturing abroad, often cajoling job promises out of those firms. But in many cases, those pledges went unfulfilled once Mr. Trump’s attention shifted elsewhere and market realities could not be ignored.”

Finally, no matter how many columns are written about the revival of economic populism, the truth is that Trump’s foreign economic policy has rendered his policies less popular. Whether it is immigration or free trade, Trump has made the country less sympathetic to his views, which might be why his own campaign has stopped talking about immigration and why businesses seem to prefer a Biden victory.

What about Trump’s national security policies? Surely his desire to expend less blood and treasure abroad have paid off, right?

Wrong again. The past four years have been a disaster across the board. Take nuclear nonproliferation. North Korea has far greater nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities than it did four years ago. Trump’s meetings with Kim Jong Un have netted him nothing.

Iran is closer to developing a nuclear capability despite greater sanctions. The killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani has so failed to deter the Iranians in Iraq that the secretary of state is threatening to close down the U.S. Embassy because of continued missile attacks from Iranian-backed militias. Even Trump’s national security adviser admits that further sanctions on Iran will not accomplish much.

While all of this has been happening, the Trump administration has discarded arms control treaties with Russia in a quixotic quest to force China to the negotiation table. This has been unsuccessful, and it remains an open question whether New START will be renewed.

It could be argued that at least Trump has not launched any new wars. The problem is that he has made a hash out of ongoing conflicts. Beginning with an ill-fated Special Operations strike in Yemen, the Trump administration has not implemented any meaningful retrenchment of U.S. forces. Drone strikes have skyrocketed with less transparency, less accountability and more civilian deaths. As Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent noted less than a year ago in Foreign Affairs:

“The president hasn’t meaningfully altered the U.S. global military footprint he inherited from President Barack Obama. Nor has he shifted the costly burden of defending U.S. allies. To the contrary, he loaded even greater military responsibilities on the United States while either ramping up or maintaining U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.”

As for the United States finally being respected in the world again under Trump, all of the evidence points in the opposite direction. If Trump’s base wanted security threats eliminated and U.S. troops brought home, they will be bitterly disappointed. On the upside, however, The Post’s Philip Rucker and Shane Harris report that, “these highlights from Trump’s nearly four years in office read like Vladimir Putin’s wish list. Few countries have benefited more geopolitically from Trump’s time in office than Russia.”

Is there any good news for the president’s base? For those elements of his base that care about Israel more than anything else, Trump has delivered gains. The United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem without significant blowback. U.S. diplomacy has facilitated wider regional recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan have recognized the country, and a tacit alliance between Israel and Sunni governments seems clear. This has all happened while U.S. economic and military statecraft have wounded Israel’s principal rivals, Iran and the Islamic State.

There are other areas where Trump’s presidency oversaw a continuation of trends that started under President Obama. Defense spending by NATO allies started rising years before Trump was elected, and the best that can be said about Trump’s bluster is that it did not halt that rise. Similarly, the Obama administration laid the groundwork for operations against the Islamic State caliphate, and the Trump administration has continued in that vein.

Trump’s base had clear and coherent demands from the president on foreign policy: more treasure and less blood. This translated into a preference for fewer foreign military entanglements and a foreign economic policy that would deliver results for America’s heartland. This administration has delivered on none of these promises. Trump has not only failed to advance the national interest; he has failed to advance his own base’s interest as well. “America First” has been a bust.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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