During the nightmare that was the 2016 election, many candidates promised different changes to America’s approach to foreign policy. Some candidates wanted to increase our presence abroad, ensure the safety of likeminded countries and intervene in conflicts in the interest of human rights. Others wanted to move away from America’s status as “The World Police,” focus only on ourselves and tell other countries that they are on their own. Trump’s platform was different because it promised both.
Trump and his supporters want it both ways, they want a disengagement from the increasingly globalized world but they still want the ability of self-insertion in global affairs. This approach can’t function.
For example, Trump railed against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) while at the same time promising voters in rural farmland that the “America First” approach would focus on the middle class. Paradoxically, farmers in rural America would have been big winners with the TPP in place, seeing a big boom in crop exports. Because of Trump’s promise to stay out of the world, he failed on the promise to focus on what is best for America.
Just like Trump’s isolationism hurt his nationalistic goals, so did his nationalism hurt his interventionist goals. In a speech to the UN general assembly, Trump spoke about what he believed should be the goal of every nation,
“As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always, put your countries first.” He followed this up by thanking the countries that are imposing sanctions on North Korea and stated, “But we must do much more. It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behavior.” These two statements are in total contradiction. On one hand he is saying that countries should put their best interests first. On the other hand, he is asking countries to come together to defeat North Korea.
The problem with this is that China’s best interest is not to get involved, not to have North Korea collapse. Not to have a U.S.-backed, unified Korea and have a full-scale war and millions of refugees on its border. China can’t do both things that Trump is saying in his speech. Trump wants China, and other countries, to do what is best for them, but to put that aside when he wants them to do something.
Trump’s foreign policy is a classic case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Trump needs to pick a strategy; either go with nationalism or foreign interventionism, but not both. Doing both hurts both goals. It hurts the country and the world.