Donald J. Trump seems set to reconfigure the United States. Whether he knows it or not, he is tearing apart more US symbols than any other president in living memory. Among them is multilateral trade that the United States introduced during the 1940s; the collective military force (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) that, within the next 40 years, would bankrupt the salient US enemy, the Soviet Union; democracy (in spite of widely cultivating dictatorships during the Cold War); and a "born-free" immigration opportunity that no other country can match. All of these "American firsts" have been threatened, not by what they sought to displace, but by very un-American presidential policy outbursts.
Left in ruins behind those accolades lie the largest free-trade border in the world and the largest boundary between the developed and developing worlds; a "fourth," or even "fifth," democratic "wave" spreading the most human form of government across the world to the hitherto most locked-up countries; an Atlantic order that brought West Europe to its heels after two world wars had ravaged it; and, through the United Nations, the most successful experiment at "world governance."
Trump's "America First" successful election campaign slogan took the tempo of changing all of that to a new and more embarrassing height. Previous "retreat-minded" US-policy-approaches, such as from the League of Nations (one-hundred years ago this year), "Buy American" Act of 1933 (President Herbert Hoover's last legislation in office, in March), and the 1969 Guam Doctrine, among others, left some manoeuvrability space. But "America First," meant to promote US trade by limiting "unfair" imports, drove those sentiments across the Rubicon. The purpose was to revitalise slipping US manufacture, give people the steady job they took for granted from the 1930s, and cultivate networks worldwide, once again, on US terms. What has transpired is not a policy-shift or sentimental cycle, but paradigm-changing actions: catapulting the drift from "free-trade" towards "fair-trade" into a tariff war, reminiscent of the 1930 Hawley-Smoot Tariff legislation; substituting predictable West European NATO partners with flawed leaders of all stripes, from North Korea to Russia; and building neighbourhood walls, ironically along the Mexican border when Mexican migrants have hit their lowest US flow, and psychologically on the Canadian border, distancing two of the closest countries more than they ever had been since Great Britain relinquished Canadian foreign policy-making (with World War II).
Headwinds and tailwinds rocked the boat. Over trade, locking horns with China opens a long-term confrontation, even if sporadic compromises may temper the tone: both sides will still be hurt, and unnecessarily so by the very climbing prices, retaliation, and increasing lost markets that the confrontation is bringing. Then if we add spillover effects of these particular tariffs and the supplementary tariffs imposed on a string of post-World War II US partners (across West Europe, South Korea, and Japan, among others; and of course, new partners, like India), the spiralling cost can only be surpassed by the opportunities lost of US comparative advantage that, for example, its software trade could have reaped. It was a bad but perhaps predictable decision. An "America First" attitude could be detected even in the construction of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the early 1990s, predicting the world body's diminishing returns through the self-seeking tendencies we see today.
"America First" became un-American not only by diverting the United States from multilateralism, but also in cold-shouldering NATO members. It is not just Turkey being possibly sanctioned over the Kurds inside Syria right now (and thus being pushed into the Russian camp and sympathising with Iran), but also from two years ago with Germany, then France, and now even post-Brexit Britain. Canada, the closest post-World War II US friend, had already been thrown to the winds (then to the wolves with the 2018 G7 summit). Trashing steadfast West European Cold War brethrens, all because they were free-riding US security and trade, opens a different ballgame. It is one thing to court dictators (as the United States had done right after World War II), without abandoning democracy aspirants abroad, given how confusing emitted Cold War signals were at a time of colonies winning independence (thus favouring what became in the "west" a suspicious "non-aligned" stance). It is entirely another (and more blasphemous) ballgame to throw long-standing friends into the fire for upstart new friends, ranging from the former adversary Russia, to a dangerous megalomaniac-led, nuclear-building North Korea, murder-minded monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, and ethnic-cleansing Israel. If one is known by the company one keeps, the 21st century may become known for its plethora of low-hanging relationships in the annals of diplomatic history.
That sets it up to become a century when cleavages rather than consolidation may dot the democracy-US relationship, making that form of government itself very suspicious. Instead of other countries rising to the lofty standards set by the US Founding Fathers in introducing democracy to that country before it was introduced anywhere else on this planet in modern times, the United States has opted to stoop as low as President Kim Jong-un, who not only flouted the very essence of diplomatic courtesies, but also flashed his middle-finger at the rest of the world for hounding him out (for many other reasons); or even a corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu whose silent genocidal campaign against Palestine is only a stark reminder of what Adolf Hitler had done to Netanyahu's type of people.
Historians may one day find Trump's "America First" springing from the same well as the virulent anti-Mexican mindset brewing across the United States, and exploited most thoroughly by low-breed politicians, like Trump. Needing low-wage labour expeditiously for a wide variety of US sectors is a stark reality before automation dominates the US economy. Particularly with a simultaneous comparative advantage in farm production, the United States needs those farm-hands desperately. Yet, building walls to soothe some discriminatory instinct flies in the face of that reality, so much so that the "economic integration" so magnificently built over a generation under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), may be hard, if not impossible, to repair and restore. The 1990s recorded the largest continued growth in the entire 20th century for the United States, with the NAFTA impact playing no small a part in that. Spillovers of this North American disaster across the rest of Latin America, if not the world, leaves the United States a symbol more of "fuddled" masses than "huddled" ones. Another US icon burst into smithereens.
This has never happened with any leader in any country before: one single chief executive extinguishing free trade, security, democratic claims, and the kind of immigration that built his/her country in the first place. Trump's new "America" is at odds with the US constitution and weltanschauung or worldview. Whether US citizens will accept what he offers remains to be seen. Regardless, the United States stands more divided now than it did during the Cold War.
Contrariwise, their refusal to accept this changing order leaves them with too little time and too few resources, goodwill, or temperament to win back what has been lost over the past two years. A domestic leadership vacuum is consistent with the loss of global leadership. Both domestic voters and foreign friends await the order to replace the "American" gap anxiously.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent