America First Has Become Predictable

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Written by Corey Cooper

President Trump’s trip to Europe did not produce any surprises. He continues to pursue his America First foreign policy, which after 18 months is entirely predictable.

When Donald Trump campaigned for the White House, he argued that American foreign policy needed to be “unpredictable.” In his eyes, predictability had enabled both friends and adversaries to take advantage of the United States. Trump made every attempt during the last year-and-a-half to be unpredictable on the world stage. In doing so, he rejected U.S. global leadership, chipped away at the international order, and inadvertently became what he argued against: predictable. Just look at the last two months in particular.

In June, Trump attended his second G7 Summit. These meetings are normally an occasion for advanced economies to discuss the global financial order, tout the need to tackle common threats, and show unity among partners. Trump, however, refused to endorse the final communiqué and then took to Twitter to attack Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the summit’s host. The meetings also took place under the dark cloud of a U.S.-led trade war. German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded that the ordeal was “sobering and a bit depressing.”

Trump then journeyed over to Singapore to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He called Kim “honorable” and claimed the two enjoyed a “special bond.” He tweeted after the summit that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” That could not be further from the truth; Trump left the summit without a tangible, long-term denuclearization agreement. To make matters worse, Trump decided to suspend scheduled joint military exercises with South Korea. The side-by-side meetings were mirrored by this month’s events.

The recent NATO summit in Brussels was the American president’s umpteenth attack on the most successful military alliance in history. Rather than leading the discussion on real issues facing NATO internally and externally, Trump derided the allies for being “delinquent” when it comes to burden-sharing. While he did make scripted, but still notable comments about being committed to the alliance, he called the European Union a “foe” while visiting the United Kingdom. After clearing this hurdle with America’s friends, Trump shifted gears for what he predicted would be the “easiest” leg of his trip.

There is no doubt that Putin enjoyed the spectacle preceding his meeting with Trump in Helsinki. The Western alliance, the biggest thorn in Putin’s side, looks crumbled and frayed. Most importantly, the alliance is without a strong, committed leader. Trump repeatedly indicated that he does little to prepare for high-level, high-stakes meetings. And it showed. Trump blamed both sides for the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, publicly sided with Putin over the U.S. Intelligence Community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, and missed an opportunity to make strong statements about Russian violations of human rights and international law. But it really wasn’t surprising.

The last two months were a perfect snapshot of what the last 18 months have meant for U.S. global leadership and the liberal international order. America First has consistently coupled attacks on allies with heaps of praise and gracious outreach towards adversaries. Trump has no problem jeopardizing the 70-year-old transatlantic relationship, which boasts military and economic ties that have made both sides of the Atlantic safer and richer. He has no problem cowering to adversaries under the guise that he is a good deal-maker. America First has consistently produced one disturbing image: an increasingly isolated United States and a global order without leader.

When the United States championed its foreign policy for 70 years, it did become a bit predictable. The country stood by its allies, pushed for free and open markets, and defended its values abroad. America was predictable, which made it reliable. Allies and adversaries knew that the United States would lead. What President Trump sees as a weakness, was actually the strength of U.S. global leadership.

America First has replaced one flavor of predictability with another. America’s sprawling alliance commitments are shaky. Trump continues to wage a trade war against the country’s biggest economic partners. The president does not use his office to actively promote democratic values, the rule of law, or human rights. This foreign policy will undoubtedly continue in a predictable fashion, making the United States less reliable and weaker on the world stage.

About the author: Corey Cooper is a research associate in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.