The structure of world order will be on the ballot in the 2020 United States presidential election. As is now readily apparent, President Donald J. Trump’s “America First” agenda drastically departs from mainstream U.S. foreign policy as practiced for decades. Typical of right-leaning populist nationalists, but not characteristic of previous occupants of the White House, Trump scapegoats foreigners when explaining America’s problems and embraces neo-isolationist and protectionist policies when trying to solve them. His administration is openly hostile to multilateralism as Trump has boasted about being a nationalist and has long criticized what he calls “the false song of globalism.” The President explains almost all U.S. interactions in transactional terms, views American sovereign interests as supreme, and applies a hyper-competitive (and mostly zero-sum) perspective to evaluate virtually every relationship or situation.

After three and a half years of America First, we have a clear understanding of how it influences world order. The Trump administration has pulled the U.S. out of various multilateral organizations and agreements – and threatened additional departures. Specifically, the U.S. announced withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Accord in the first six months of Trump’s presidency and later declared U.S. exit from UNESCO, the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran, and both the INF and Open Skies arms control treaties with Russia. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the WHO. Currently, the U.S. is not a willing partner of cooperative efforts to address the world’s foremost problems– climate change, nuclear proliferation, pandemic disease, the quest for universal human rights, etc.

As for the WTO and NATO, which have been central institutional pillars of world order, the former real estate mogul exhibits crass material rent-seeking behavior – abrasively insisting on new side deals favoring the U.S. Trump claims that America’s sizeable trade deficits can be blamed on bad trade deals with other nations. While he specifically scapegoated China throughout his 2016 campaign, he has subsequently criticized long-time allies and trade partners such as Canada and Germany. The self-described “Tariff Man” threatens the WTO and other trade arrangements by imposing protectionist taxes on imports and has repeatedly warned that he might end existing agreements if he cannot gain new concessions. Canada and Mexico faced such warnings during the NAFTA renegotiation. Trump has likewise threatened U.S. withdrawal from NATO, particularly if other members do not increase their defense spending. Indeed, Trump sometimes addresses allies as if he is a mob boss and they are delinquent clients on a protection-racket contract. At their first meeting in the White House, Trump reportedly said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “you owe me $1 trillion.”

Trump’s greatest threat to global order may be the ongoing disruption in longstanding relationships that have created enduring collective identities in the transatlantic and transpacific western “security community.” Members of this community historically view one another as like-minded and dependable citizens of a peaceful collective who expect change to be worked out cooperatively through established procedures. Members share common values, have multi-faceted and direct relationships with one another, and act towards each other with a reciprocal sense of obligation and self-restraint. They do not see other members as threatening, a fact that virtually eliminates the risk of war within the community – and has helped foster economic prosperity as well.

Trump’s job performance to-date reveals that the former star of The Apprentice cares little for common values, reciprocal obligation, and self-restraint. Rather, he is an accomplished practitioner of the dubious ethics of reality television, which is founded on negative typecasting, misrepresentation of facts, antagonistic interference, humiliation, and repetition. Trump frequently directs outrageous attacks against American allies and their leaders, often amplifying these assaults on his Twitter feed, which reaches more than 82.6 million followers. Trump’s bombastic rhetorical style and menacing unilateral threats have been testing the mutual bonds that undergird U.S. relationships with partner states. The western security community is at risk.

Consider Trump’s handling of the Canada file. The U.S. and Canada share the world’s longest undefended border, trade over $625 billion in goods and services annually, which is the world’s second largest bilateral trading relationship, and have long aligned on all sorts of foreign policy issues. The security relationship features explicit multilateral defence commitments in NATO and bilateral ties in the continental NORAD Command. In addition to the strong traditional economic and security partnerships, these nation-states share innumerable cultural and social ties. In sum, they have a “special relationship” often described in terms of friendship, if not family.

In 2018, Trump imposed tariffs against the European Union and other western allies and trading partners, including Canada. Moreover, for the executive branch to meet the domestic legal standards to impose such tariffs, the Trump administration had to designate imports of these materials as a national security threat. Almost immediately, allied leaders were stunned and angered by these words and deeds. Chrystia Freeland, serving then as Canadian Foreign Minister, noted that the U.S. was telling “all of your NATO allies… that we somehow represent a national security threat to the United States.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the U.S. actions as “kind of insulting.” Trump fired back that Trudeau was “dishonest” and “weak” and his Director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Kudlow, said that Trudeau was “double-crossing” Trump. According to the Washington Post coverage of the incident, there was “no obvious precedent for such a coordinated and acerbic series of attacks by White House advisers on a stalwart U.S. ally.”

During the NAFTA renegotiation, President Trump doggedly played up alleged U.S. victimization and threatened Canada repeatedly. He frequently made false and even outrageous claims that tested the bonds of the relationship. For instance, Trump wrongly claimed that the U.S. has a “large” trade deficit with Canada. In reality, thanks to fracking and the consequent reduced need for imported energy, the U.S. achieved a trade surplus with Canada from 2015 through 2017. Trump frequently attacked the Canadian dairy industry, though it is a very small sector of the Canadian economy (about 1.15% of GDP) and is much less than 1% of bilateral trade. In fact, the U.S. had a nearly $500 million surplus in sales of dairy goods to Canada in 2017 and the U.S. dairy industry is protected by various government subsidies. Employing hyperbole well beyond the standard in international negotiations, Trump tweeted that Canada had “taken advantage of our country for many years” and that the U.S. had suffered “decades of abuse.” Ultimately, Trump threatened Canada with “ruination” by imposing significant new automobile tariffs. A columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote that Trump is the most “anti-Canadian” President ever “in terms of values, beliefs and hostile actions.” Keep in mind that Trump has similarly and repeatedly threatened and insulted other close U.S. trade partners and allies, including France, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

NAFTA has been successfully renegotiated, but Trump’s bombastic populist attacks on Canada created lingering distrust and anger – magnified by the very recent U.S. threat to reimpose tariffs on Canadian aluminum. Currently, the U.S.-Canadian border is closed to all but essential travel because of global pandemic and Justin Trudeau recently declined to travel to Washington for the July 2020 launch of the new trade deal. As former Trudeau foreign policy advisor Roland Paris put it, “Canadians won’t forget Trump’s disgraceful treatment of Canada. Our economic partnership has been reaffirmed, but trust can’t be rebuilt with the stroke of a pen.” Former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman likewise noted that Trump’s treatment of Canada “has been shocking and disappointing and upsetting.” Heyman does not “think it gets wiped away and resolved with an agreement” on trade. Unsurprisingly, Trump polls quite poorly in Canada and Canadian public opinion about the U.S. is the lowest on record, going back to the mid-1970s.

Worse, it is not at all clear that the marginal material benefits Trump attained outweigh the damage to the relationship. Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa claimed that 95% of the new trade deal is the same as NAFTA. Critics go further, insisting that the changes in the deal are mostly “smoke and mirrors” and that the new treaty amounts merely to a “rebranding.” Journalists frequently refer to it as NAFTA 2.0.

Ultimately, the great danger of America First is that it could undo the western security community. The peril of Trump’s bombastic tactics were anticipated by scholar Ole Wæver, who noted that “labelling of issues as security problems contain the risk of unravelling patterns of mutual adjustment” and carry the “risks of triggering political escalations within which the security community might unravel.” Wæver prophetically offered the example of a member state violating WTO rules and justifying those actions by making national security claims. Essentially, this is what Trump’s tariffs on Canada and the EU did. Just after the tariffs on steel and aluminum were imposed, Matthew Rooney, managing director of the Bush Institute said, “To do tariffs in the name of national security is absurd. It’s dangerous.” Costly retaliatory tariffs reveal that U.S. trade partners took these actions and labels quite seriously. More recently, the Trump administration on March 11 proclaimed that travelers from the 26 European states of the Schengen region threaten the national security of the U.S. In turn, the EU has barred U.S. travelers even after reopening its borders this July.

The western security community has been tested by the COVID-19 pandemic as every global traveler is potentially a threat to public health. However, the community will likely be in deeper trouble if a reelected Trump administration abandons additional American international commitments and continues to cause member states to see one another as security threats.


To read the full article found in CFPJ Vol. 26, Issue 2 , click here.


Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. In fall 2018, he was Fulbright Canada Research Chair at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. During Spring 2019, he was a Visiting Global Scholar at the Institute for Social Sciences Research at University of Dundee in Scotland. His most recent work focuses on two major projects: (1) “America First” and multilateral relations and (2) the value of comedic and satirical narratives in world politics. 


Banner image by Charles Deluvio, courtesy of Unsplash. 

You May Also Like