While delivering his inaugural address as President of the United States of America, Donald Trump made a reference to the expression “America First” repeatedly. Stating that his election represented people’s ascension over politicians in Washington, Trump asserted, “Today we are not transferring power not from one administration to another or, from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” The text and tenor of Trump’s speech conspicuously appear to suggest, at least at the initial outset that the defining characteristic of the US since World War II, i.e., global engagement and leadership via its web of military blocs, alliances, and key partnerships, could be in for a revamp.
Trump seems to be more inclined towards an America that is inward looking. From a foreign policy point of view, the expression “America First” is striking, given that it can be referenced back to the time when the US’ entry into World War II was fervidly opposed in the internal debates within the US. In fact, the America First Committee went on to becoming the leading non-interventionist pressure group in American history that rallied against America’s entry into World War II. Strongly backing America’s isolationist orientation, the America First Committee was set in motion at Yale in the spring of 1940 with Douglas Stuart Jr., Gerald Ford (who went on to becoming the US President in 1974), and Potter Stewart (later a Supreme Court Justice in 1958). They drafted a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep up with his pledge of keeping America out of the war, proclaiming, “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”
At least as of now, Trump’s arguments increasingly mirror and lean towards an isolationist outlook of US power in global politics. This can be sensed from his assertions that America, for many decades, has enriched foreign industry “at the expense of American industry”, subsidised armies of other countries while allowing for the “very sad depletion of our military” and defended other nation’s borders while “refusing to defend our own”.
For that matter, the announcement of the US formally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an almost immediate exhibition of Trump’s “America First” slogan, and the first indication of an effective withdrawal from its global leadership role. Scrapping the TPP—a flagship trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim countries, whose leaders had invested substantial political capital and energy in it—shall have strategic consequences too. The rumblings of an American credibility crisis vis-à-vis its alliance commitments to its Asian allies and partners can already be heard faintly, promising to get only louder with time.
This apparent unleashing of a scramble in the global order has one nation gauging developments most intently, namely, China. While America under Trump is seemingly tilting towards restricting itself in engaging with the world, as can be interpreted by the initial policy pronouncements, China simultaneously is integrating itself increasingly into global affairs, and making its presence felt particularly in the economic sphere by rewriting international rules and norms. Chinese ascendancy and assertion on the global economic stage was visible at the World Economic Forum at Davos with Xi Jinping’s presence, as he became the first ever Chinese President to attend the World Economic Forum summit. In his address at the opening plenary, Xi stated, “It is true that economic globalisation has created new problems…but this is no justification to write economic globalisation off completely.” He further cautioned, “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room...While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”
This statement resonates of China’s apprehensions of an imminent decline in trade with the West, placing added strain on an already struggling Chinese economy, with its foreign reserves falling from $3.25 trillion to $3 trillion. Any potential trade barriers coming from the US and Britain will adversely affect Chinese exports that remain a key component of its economic growth trajectory.
Going by these initial indicators, the next few months of the Trump presidency shall clarify the strategic track of his administration. By his repeated reiteration of the “America First” slogan, and its undertones explained above, any undermining or slippage of Washington’s pledge towards its Asian allies and partners will prove to be a dodgy affair with vital repercussions for Asia’s future, especially in the face of a China that is becoming more fierce, militarily.