The spectacle of the president of the United States defying the collective will and the sensibilities of foreign leaders sums up everything many Americans both love and hate about Donald Trump. President Trump’s blowing up the G-7 Summit last weekend horrified all of his usual critics, while his refusal to be influenced by Germany’s Angela Merkel and his picking of a fight with his host, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, will only further endear him to his base.
But there was more at play in Trump’s tantrum than just the usual dialogue of the deaf about his unorthodox style and predilection for doing things that offend the educated classes. The president’s bristling hostility to his counterparts on display in Quebec brought into focus a troubling question about what his “America First” foreign policy really means.
If the slogan means a change in tone but a continuing commitment to defense of Western interests, as Trump seemed to be saying in a December 2017 foreign-policy address and the accompanying white paper released by his administration, then the attempt to portray him as a neo-isolationist was unfair.
But if, as critics could not unreasonably conclude from his behavior at the summit, the shift he seeks is not so much attitudinal as it is substantive, then perhaps the historical associations with the term “America First” can’t be ignored as just an unfortunate coincidence. His lack of comfort with the whole idea of the Western alliance, his seemingly insatiable appetite for trade wars, and his continuing inexplicable soft spot for Russia seem to indicate more than just a desire to recalibrate U.S. strategy to deal with new threats and realities. Instead, he seems to be demonstrating a fundamental desire to overturn the nation’s foundational beliefs of post–World War II foreign policy.
Rather than seeking a more rational approach to problems such as the impact of globalization, the threat from Islamist terrorism, Iran, and Moscow’s attempt to reassemble the old Soviet empire, Trump at the G-7 seemed to betray a deeply destructive impulse. And that is where his party — which has, to the consternation of Trump’s critics, remained loyal to him specifically because he has for the most governed as a conservative — needs to say no.
Trump’s instinctive distrust of the foreign-policy establishment has served him well on some key issues in his first year in the White House.
He was right to reject the establishment’s approach to the Middle East peace process, which emphasized putting pressure on Israel and ignoring the Palestinians’ rejectionism. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem did not set off a regional war but instead injected a dose of realism into the discussion about the conflict.
Similarly, Trump was correct to ignore the desire of America’s European allies to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. Trump understood that, since the pact more or less guaranteed that Iran would eventually get a nuclear weapon, it had to be revisited. Though his decision to force Europe to reimpose sanctions on Iran was reviled as an insult to U.S. allies, it was Trump who was defending the long-term security of the West — not the Europeans, who seemed more interested in doing business with a dangerous regime.
But in Quebec, we saw a side of “America First” that cannot be portrayed as realist or sensible but must be understood as a dismantling of a Western alliance that, for all of its flaws, still serves the United States well.
Conflicts over trade barriers are a given in a global economy. But Trump’s Hobbesian protectionist view, in which the U.S. is in a continual semi-state of war with both friends and foes, calls for more than a defense of embattled American industries. Picking fights with Canada, a nation with which the U.S. has no real conflicts and that has loyally followed Washington into conflicts such as that in Afghanistan, serves no strategic purpose — whatever you may think of Canada’s tariffs on dairy products. That Trump is willing to engage in trade wars with even the nation’s best friends suggests he sees the whole notion of alliances as obsolete.
This is the one issue where Trump disagrees with most Republicans, who have always seen free trade as a basic American interest. Just as important, Trump’s willingness to risk trade wars is a threat to the booming economy over which he has presided.
Trump’s oversize personality and social-media use, which feed the rage at his presidency from both political opponents and a hostile media, may overturn James Carville’s rule about elections always being decided by “the economy, stupid.” But otherwise, the record level of employment, and the prospect of continuing growth fueled by Trump’s deregulatory policy and the tax cuts enacted by the GOP Congress, should help keep Republicans afloat. Yet all of that could be undone if trade disputes take a terrible toll on important sectors of the U.S. economy.
Trump’s trade wars and contempt for an alliance built on common Western values should be a bridge too far.
Some administration staffers have defended Trump’s conduct at the G-7 as rooted in a desire to project strength in advance of his summit this week with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. His showing up late, his blatant disinterest in the economic discussions, and his parting shots at Canada and Mexico — even if you choose to interpret these as strength rather than indiscipline, boredom, and bad manners, Trump’s use of the event to talk about his desire for better relations with Russia was a sign of something more than a desire to look tough.
Trump’s suggestion that the West talk about readmitting Moscow to the G-7 without it making amends for its past conduct — including aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine, the poisoning of Putin foes in Britain, and interference in U.S. elections — isn’t merely problematic. It indicates his lack of comfort with traditional notions of a Western alliance. His critics put it down to his being more comfortable with authoritarians than democrats. But his lack of sympathy with what Donald Rumsfeld once called “Old Europe” is more than that. Trump’s impatience with even a pretense of affection for the Western alliance seems to indicate that he sees the world as a place where America has no real friends and perhaps even no real enemies. In his mind, an authoritarian Russia intent on reassembling its former empire and in wrangling with the U.S. for influence everywhere is no more a natural foe than Canada is a natural friend.
Republicans have been happily surprised to see that Trump governs as a conservative. But Trump’s trade wars and contempt for an alliance built on common Western values should be a bridge too far even for those who see politics as a team sport and are outraged by the Democratic “resistance” to the president.
An “America First” foreign policy that puts forward a better defense of Western values than the reflexively multilateral Obama is something that all Republicans can get behind. But if “America First” means trade wars, irrational hostility toward friends, and a blind spot for Russian outrages (the popularity of such defiance notwithstanding), Trump needs to be told that his party will vigorously oppose it.