National Security & Defense

‘America First’ Should Not Mean Putting Allies Last

U.S. Army airborne soldiers train with Italian troops in Siena, Italy, in November. (Photo: US Army)
Will the new president set aside the contradictory foreign policy of candidate Trump?

Despite his exuberance and unpredictability, Donald Trump stayed on message throughout his campaign. He repeated the simple but powerful message “Make America great again” and spoke of putting “America first” and won the election against most expectations. Developing winning policy propositions is the challenge he faces in the next four years. This is particularly true on foreign policy, where the candidate made plenty of contradictory statements, broke many taboos, and unsettled U.S. relations with much of the world.

With respect to foreign policy, making “America great again” would require three related plans of action:

First, the U.S. must maintain the American-led order that goes back all the way to President Truman after World War II. It has spawned unprecedented prosperity and security throughout the world. For America, it has meant that it has enjoyed a position of power never experienced by any other nation. In concrete terms, it means that the Trump administration should revise free-trade agreements where necessary but not abandon them. They remain the engine of global growth.

Second, America must maintain a strong global military posture. It is in America’s interest for economic muscle to be harnessed into military and foreign-policy prowess, as Reagan understood. It gives America strength and enables it to negotiate from a position of strength. Russian president Vladimir Putin, for example, respects only a firm and steady hand. Should the Kremlin perceive that America is frail and unable to keep its house in order, he would work even harder to bring other countries into Moscow’s orbit. Nothing would make the Kremlin happier, and America weaker, than for America to show the world that our common shared Western values — freedom, democracy, free trade, rule of law — are failing.

Third, America must preserve its strong alliances, particularly with NATO and the EU, as well as as with likeminded democracies across the world. Given the many problems we are faced with at the onset of the 21st century, it is crucial that we reassure friends and deter foes.

Putting “America first” should not mean putting friends and allies last. Candidate Trump questioned U.S. treaty commitments to our European allies. That threatens a pillar of the rules-based international order. To allay any doubt about America’s commitment to collective defense, a NATO summit should be held soon after Trump’s inauguration. There President Trump could stress these points:

#related#‐ America remains committed to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The U.S. will play its full part in implementing the measures agreed at the NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw to stabilize the eastern flank.

‐ Europe must make marked improvements in its defense spending. Smaller allies, especially those from Eastern Europe, are getting closer to 2 percent of their GDP. Europe’s defense weakness still lies with larger allies, especially Germany, whose defense spending, despite some marginal increase, stands at 1.2 percent of GDP. The president could put forward an interim defense-spending plan whereby by 2020, at the end of his term, all allies are at the 1.5–2 percent mark and rising.

‐ Reengagement with Russia will not come at the expense of Europe’s security and integrity. This means respecting, not bargaining away, the sovereignty of countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. This would be key to gaining the support of all European allies as the U.S. seeks a more constructive dialogue with Moscow.

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