America First: Impact of American Foreign Policy on the Global Order

Image Credit: Christian Action Network

Since the beginning of the American election campaign in 2015 leading up to the victory of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of USA, one slogan has resonated throughout among the public- “America First”, the campaign theme and motto of Donald Trump. With the “America First” slogan; Trump positioned himself as an Anti-Establishment campaigner who would take down the elitist cabal of Washington DC and Wall Street who have so far dominated the US Institutional policy groups. This message resonated well in Drain the Swamp notwithstanding the fact that post-polls, President Trump has nominated 6 members from Goldman Sachs, top executives from Exxon Mobil, Amway Corporation, Heritage Foundation, CFR, Kissinger‘s executive to his cabinet and Military Generals leading the Defence and National security team. Amid all these changes in the administration, it is essential to understand the meaning of Trump’s Foreign policy which is based on his core value of ‘America First’ and how this will affect the Global Order.

The America First Committee

Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy in the usual notion would mean putting America’s national interest first; be it trade deals with China (in dealing with the trade surplus), bringing back jobs in the US (with the Border tax), banning Muslim migrants/refugees from some countries in the Middle East, or building a wall on the Mexican border to safeguard the internal security of the American homeland and its core values. From a layman’s perspective, America First may seem perfectly rational. However, this policy has a long history dating back to the 1930’s and 40’s when a similar movement was launched to keep America out of World War 2 in Europe; and warrants discussion. In 1940, the America First Committee (AFC) was formed as a non-interventionist pressure group against America’s entry into World War 2. The movement gained traction in America within an isolationist Congress and gained a massive base of 8,00,000 members whose primary aim was to pressurise then President Franklin D Roosevelt to maintain his pledge of neutrality. The AFC was of the view that Roosevelt was lying to the American people and he should stay committed to the 1939 Neutrality Act and abort the idea of Lend-Lease agreements (through which America could arm allied nations in Europe against Axis powers). The primary aim of AFC was to make America Great again by impregnable defences, keeping it out of the European War and not aid any side in the conflict thereby maintaining a non-interventionist and isolationist foreign policy.

The AFC had prominent individuals as its members like Future President Gerald Ford, future SC Justice Potter Stewart, the famous Aviator Charles Lindbergh etc. Though many Republicans and Conservatives supported the isolationist movement, it was Charles Lindbergh who became the most vocal face of the America First movement. Lindbergh had accepted a medal from Hermann Goring (the head of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe in honour of his transatlantic flight) and his frequent praise of the German military might after the invasion of Poland had earned him the reputation of a Nazi appeaser. He made powerful speeches across the United States leading the charges against Roosevelt and claimed that “a powerful group” was pushing for America’s entry into World War 2. Many of the remarks by Lindbergh made in Des Moines speech on 14th September 1941 in Iowa bordered on Anti-Semitism, blaming the Jews for America’s walk towards the War and attacked President Roosevelt for his pro-Allied policies. However, the situation dramatically changed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor paved way for America’s entry into World War 2 in the Pacific theatre. As a result, AFC has disbanded soon after and Lindbergh aided the American military efforts in the Pacific in the Rabaul Islands.

Franklin Roosevelt and the Long Peace

Franklin D Roosevelt in the quest for world peace during World War 2 faced a similar dilemma as President Woodrow Wilson during World War 1, whom he had served as an Assistant Secretary of Navy. President Wilson during World War 1 told the American people that they were abandoning the historical isolationist policy as “the weak were getting mowed by the strong in the war and he wanted to create a world order where such exploitation wouldn’t be possible”. But the Paris Conference after World War 1 which gave birth to League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles clearly showed that the European powers had no intention of creating such a just world order. The American public led by the Senate rejected the idea of joining the League of Nations; continuing its isolationist policy unwilling to put American lives in the line of fire again.

Franklin D Roosevelt faced a similar dilemma during World War 2. Roosevelt’s dilemma of America joining the war was fervently opposed by AFC but events like the Nazis overrunning France, the German Naval attack on Britain and finally the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor swung the public opinion towards an American war effort to spearhead a World Order opposed to the Colonial empires giving a fairer chance to world peace which Woodrow Wilson could not achieve post-World War 1. This was called Roosevelt’s Long Peace and has ultimately ended up serving America’s interests. Despite this, the concept of Long Peace has largely held up until date by avoiding another Great War between the established global powers after World War 2.

The New Global Order Book

The Long Peace which Roosevelt desired by carving out a new post-war World Order was possible not just by the barrel of the gun but also through hectic diplomacy, statecraft and political negotiations. Here, one needs to delve deeper into the negotiations behind the fog of war that were instrumental in creating the post-war order. The first and foremost was the Atlantic Charter of 1941, a landmark agreement signed between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on 14th August 1941 in Newfoundland in Bay of Argentina. The Atlantic Charter essentially signed the death warrant of the British Empire, as Roosevelt made Churchill (then British Prime Minister) agree to relinquish all the colonies and dominions in return for American help towards the Allied Forces against the Axis powers in World War 2. President Roosevelt travelled across the British colonies of India, Burma, Gambia, Java etc and saw the plight of the people at the hands of the British between the period of the two summits and concluded it was time for colonial oppression to end.

The memoirs of Elliott Roosevelt (Franklin Roosevelt’s son) titled “As he saw it” describe some of the altercations Roosevelt had with Churchill in the creation of the Post-War Order. In these conversations, it becomes evident that Roosevelt in his quest for Long Peace made it crystal clear to Churchill that one of the preconditions for lasting peace would have to be the greatest possible freedom of trade with no artificial barriers and room for healthy competition. Winston Churchill replied that that, “‘British Empire trade agreements are.. .’ and Roosevelt interjected that ‘Yes those Empire agreements are case in point’, ‘It is because of these agreements that people of India, Africa, Far east and the near east are as backward as they are”. Roosevelt knew it was time for the 18th century colonialism to end and the 20th century methods of industrialisation, wealth generation, education and sanitation were the way ahead for backward countries to develop to ensure lasting world peace.

It was also curtains for India’s occupation when President Roosevelt mentioned to Churchill that “Yes we cannot be seen to fighting Fascists and encouraging slavery simultaneously and the taking away of the resources of your colonies and putting nothing back into it for its people will no more work” and suggested that India should be made a member of the Commonwealth for a few years ultimately giving it the option of self-determination to leave the Empire. Churchill naturally resisted signing the death warrant of the British Empire but later realising the reality of the war situation said “Mr President every Idea you are mooting seems to be doing away of the British Empire, In spite of that we know you are our last hope, without, you the Empire won’t stand”. President Roosevelt also stated the same to the French representatives post his visit to their colonies in Algeria and said that they should manage Algeria on trusteeship if France wanted to be treated as a world power.

The Post World War 2 World Order

During the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt first talked about the United Nations Organization that would be led by the big 4 i.e. The US, Britain, Soviet Union and China later adding France as the 5th World Power. Thus, Roosevelt laid the foundation of UNO & dismantled Colonial rule as part of the post World War 2 order. The foundations of the post-World War 2 order laid out in the Atlantic Charter and through the Casablanca Conference were further cemented in the 1943 Tehran Conference and 1945 Yalta Conference followed by the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. In Tehran Conference in 1943, the big 3 i.e. British, Soviet and American leaders met to take a stock of the war efforts and planned a fresh offensive against the Nazis led by Anglo-American forces in Normandy, France in 1944. Stalin also agreed in principle to join the American war effort in the Pacific against Japan. It was also agreed that Russia would get Poland as its zone of influence along with some German territories as part of its post-war gains. Thus, the Big 3 (including Stalin) confirmed their commitment to new world peace in the form of UNO.

The Tehran Conference was followed up with Yalta Conference in 1945 where Roosevelt pivoted UNO by laying out the broad terms and conditions of UN, established a German War Crimes Tribunal and shared the repatriations of Nazi Germany among the Allied Powers with a special regard to Russia. However, during the course of Yalta Agreement, Roosevelt also relented on certain key principles of the Atlantic Charter by allowing Russia a zone of influence over Eastern Europe and parts of Germany keeping the rest under the influence of itself and its allies in Europe. The Yalta Conference is often marked by numerous Central European nations as “The Western Betrayal”. Yalta also marked Stalin’s agreement to join the American efforts against Japan (in further exchange of 2 occupied territories in North Korea and Manchuria) to which Roosevelt also agreed. Stalin finally acceded to Russia being a member at UNO after a secret understanding among the permanent members of veto power at UNSC that ensured each of the Big 5 could block decisions. Churchill, the net loser on returning to London wrote to Roosevelt that” The Soviets are a threat to peace in the new order and you conceded too much at high table to Stalin”. Yalta was followed by Potsdam Conference of July 1945. In the interim President Roosevelt passed away and America tested the Atomic Bomb on July 21 under President Truman which meant that America did not need the Soviets in the Pacific against Japan anymore and the discord between the allies came out in open. But the Potsdam agreement culminated into formalising zones of influence in Europe between the Allied Powers and the creation of UNO with the leading global powers as agreed in Yalta.

It was after World War 2 and with the beginning of the Cold War that America began to position itself as the leader of the Free World, augmenting Freedom, Liberty, Democracy, Internationalism and Free Trade as its core values across the world against an oppressive communist bloc lead by the Soviet Union. It was for this reason that former President of France Jacque Chirac extolled Ronald Reagan as the Leader of the Free World after Reagan called on the Soviet Leader in 1987 from Berlin, West Germany, saying “Mr President bring this Wall Down”. Post the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America has aggressively as the sole superpower built international alliances and free trade agreements over the decades that have taken a toll on the American economy and psyche of American people. This has resulted in the resurgence of “America First” isolationism policy of President Trump who has made it abundantly clear that he plans to renegotiate the terms of NATO, rip off trade agreements like TPP and even NAFTA to benefit the American people. The protectionism and isolationism which had vanished from the American foreign policy in 1940’s is making a comeback after 70 years; hitting at the very foundation of Global Order which Roosevelt and future presidents have built over the decades in establishing America’s unchallenged hegemony over the world.

America First: It’s Impact on the Global Order

The Policies of Donald J Trump from Alliances to Trade Treaties to Walls and Protectionism in form of America First marks the beginning of the unwinding of the current International Order and with it the end of the “Unipolar Era of American Hegemony” over the world. One of the primary lessons in geopolitics is to always have your backyard in order to project your global ambitions something which Donald Trump could learn from Zhou’s Enlai’s statecraft inspired by the Art of War through which it avoided an Anglo-American alliance in its neighbourhood during the Indo-China conflict in 1950’s. Trump’s diatribe on Mexico to build a wall on its southern borders has significantly strained relations between the US and Mexico, with the Mexican President refusing to fund the construction of the wall further leading to the cancellation of his meet with Donald Trump in the very first week after his inauguration. President Trump, in retaliation, has proposed to levy 20% tax on products originating from Mexico making them more expensive for the American consumers who will already be footing the bill of $25 billion for the construction of the wall. President Trump’s building a wall in response to the illegal immigration and drugs is like a simple solution for a complex problem as the CIA and DEA, American Enforcement agencies are complicit in co-opting Mexican drug cartels abetting drug flows in the US!

Mexico’s importance to the US National Security can also be looked at from a historical perspective too i.e. Zimmermann Telegram during World War 1. During World War 1, the British Intelligence in 1917 alerted the Americans about a secret and crypt message sent by German Foreign minister Zimmermann to the German Minister of Mexico Von Eckhardt where it offered a deal to Mexico that if it would join Germany in its war effort against America it could be rewarded with the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. This extraordinary telegram was obtained by the US from the Western Union and decoded in the American embassy in London which ultimately led Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany and its allies shunning its isolationist policy. Donald Trump’s tirade against Mexico and the hurting of its economy could open America’s backyard once again to global powers like China which has already made overtures to Mexico via State Councilor Yang Jiechi who recently met Mexican Foreign minister pledging to deepen the comprehensive partnership in trade, investment and infrastructure ties. China is already Mexico’s 2nd largest trading partner after the US with 16% trade comprising from Mexico’s imports in 2014. The recent awarding of 2 Oil blocs in Mexico which CNOOC won through the bidding process outpacing even Exxon Mobil is a continuation of a trend which does not augur well for the US given the escalation of a trade war with Mexico under the Trump Administration. The encroachment of China in America’s backyard from Latin America to Mexico could be the biggest nightmare for the US Foreign Policy establishment.

Donald Trump’s America First policy and protectionism could also have serious impacts in Asia Pacific where the decision to withdraw from TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) could push allies like Australia, Vietnam and Philippines into a quandary about a détente with China as America withdraws into its shell-raising questions about its global leadership. Already Australian PM has taunted Trump by suggesting China as part of TPP while Japan has categorically stated that without the US the TPP is as good as dead. In retort, Donald Trump had a recent altercation with the Australian Prime Minister on phone further miring the ties between the US and one of its closest ally in the region. Donald Trump’s anti-globalism push in the name of America First could end up boosting China and make its trading blocs like RCEP, OBOR more credible and viable for many smaller Asian countries who were counting on the US to balance China in the region. Trade and economics is not a Zero Sum game- America had championed the cause of Free Trade agreements with allies and friends in a bid to maintain its hegemony and the current administration (by sparking of Trade wars and threatening trade tariffs) is unraveling the very foundation of the Current International Order which Franklin Roosevelt and other presidents built since World War 2. Countries like Australia, the Philippines who have significant trade deficits with China could also seek short term peace in form of FTAs with it, undermining the US interests in the region eroding its credibility further. Adding to the mix Trump’s foreign policy adviser Steve Bannon has raised the spectre of a possible war with China in next few years. President Trump has committed to Japan and other allies in East Asia against the North Korean and Chinese threats, yet Japan could seek a detente with Russia in the Far East and also make a push to remilitarization reducing the dependence on the US security setup, PM Abe has already shown some indications towards the same.

While Donald Trump could maintain a good relationship with India in military and defence partnership, its protectionism in form of H1B Visa to Indian techies, Tax on Outsourcing and Make in America could run against India’s plan for Make in India. The Trump Administration could also face risks of running into headwinds with India on IPR in Pharma Sector and Trade and the US’s AF-Pak policy of legitimising Taliban as China and Russia play out their parts in the Central Asian region. Another significant region where Trump’s America First policy could have an effect is the MENA region where Trump’s soft attitude towards the Saudis, Qataris and stress on Israel could affect America’s détente with Iran. Banning of Muslim Immigrants from countries like Iran, Iraq where Kurds and Shias are fighting against ISIS could add more fuel to an already burning fire in the region of Shia-Sunni vortex in Syria-Iraq and the extended MENA region like Yemen. Trump’s advisors and Faith leaders in the US have also openly called for banning Muslim Brotherhood which could anger Turkey who is their prime sponsor making Turkey ally with Russia, China and Pakistan further endangering the EU states with refugee inflows.

The growing prospect of the US-Turkey rift would compound the problems for European states already facing a backlash in their countries for allowing refugees and presenting a security nightmare for the local population. Trump has already unnerved the EU by saying that NATO has become obsolete and invited UK for a trade deal lauding the UK’s exit from the EU by way of Brexit. Trump’s anti-refugee stand and uncertainty over NATO could once again lead the nationalist wave in countries like France which could be next to exit the EU leading to the breakup of the European Union. Recently Trump’s appointee as ambassador to EU in an interview to BBC has stated that like the Soviet Union may be its time to tame another union clearly sniping at EU led by Germany. Trump’s America First policies in this manner will totally unravel the American alliance in Europe built after World War 2, with the EU countries grappling with nationalist fervor facing a resurgent Russia in the East. Though the US and Russia could cooperate with each other against Islamist terror; this reset with Russia could cost the US dearly in losing its principle allies/partners in Europe and the International Order it has painfully built over the decades post-World War 2. All great powers lead by example and America after World War 2 many times sacrificed its interest to protect the core values it championed which helped it to maintain alliances and its hegemony across the world. With an administration that is no more willing to foot the bill for friends/allies, the prospect of losing the International Order which it created is just a matter of time. Donald Tusk, EU President has recently remarked Donald Trump is a threat to EU alongside China, Russia & ISIS. Trump’s Trade representative Peter Navarro has accused Germany of undervaluing EURO to gain unfair benefit over the US in Trade which has been refuted by Chancellor Merkel. Trump’s trade representative has also declared that Trans-Atlantic trade deal with the US i.e. TTIP is dead. Donald Trump could and should take a cue from history as whenever America has retreated from global affairs disturbing the fragile balance, conflicts have befallen on the world be it in WW1 or WW2 preceding which America had staunchly followed the Isolationist policy of America First.

Donald’s Trump policy of America First and putting the US interests first could cripple the very values on which Roosevelt sought to build The Long Peace after World War 2. The US’s likely decision to withdraw from UN on which a bill has already been introduced in the US Senate or cutting the US funding to international bodies like UN etc by 40% could be the final nail in the coffin ending the era of American hegemony built over decades while China and Russia will seek to fill the vacuum which the isolationist policy of America First could bring to the world. Xi Jinping has already thrown the hat in the ring by announcing that China is ready to step up to lead the world in case needed whilst defending Globalisation at WEF in Davos, Switzerland in January 2017. As America retreats under protectionist policies of Trump Administration it would certainly induce more uncertainty and chaos across the world with the credibility of International Institutions being eroded and nation states, transnational ideologies like Radical Islam and Communism making a renewed pitch to exert and expand their sphere of influence across the globe leading to an eruption of conflicts.

Moreover, China has only begun its role as a potential superpower and its actions in Latin America of forcing its ideology, its indifference to despots in Africa, the environment, international law, labour law, trade dumping, unethical manufacturing practices; and violation of human rights, ethnic groups, minorities, its acceptance of terrorists, its clamping of Islam in Xinjiang; and restriction of freedom are worrying signs of a nation that aims to replace the United States as a superpower. Whenever the Global Order has undergone a transition, it has resulted in more chaos like the 1920’s or the 1940’s before the Order is restored back. The last few decades in the world history have been the most peaceful with no major war between the global powers for nearly 7 decades. However, time is running out on The Long Peace and bells of an impending conflict are ringing loud. What will emerge? What does the future hold? We have explained the new Geo Political order and Geo Economic order in our book “The New Global Order”.

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