When we install a new American president, it is customary to introduce the inductee as “leader of the free world” as well as commander in chief and top executive of the greatest nation on earth. This title, it is said, stems from America’s self-proclaimed status as both the hub and principal defender of a global community of democratic, free-market countries. Of course, this claim was more often used to justify intervention on behalf of friendly tyrants than to expand the web of democracy—though it did suggest that the United States was embedded in a larger universe of like-minded nations. That notion, however, is now being consigned to history as Donald Trump constructs a foreign policy aimed exclusively at benefiting the United States.
Trump has made no secret of his commitment to “America first” in international affairs. This has been evident in every one of his campaign speeches, as well as his victory statement on the early morning of November 9. “I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone…all people and all other nations.” In contrast to his predecessors, there is no promise to defend the free world or to extend priority status to countries on the basis of their Western, liberal values; the sole determinant of a nation’s ties with Washington will be: “What can you do for us?”
This represents a sea change in American foreign and military policy, with far-reaching consequences. Instead of viewing the United States as the ultimate champion of a vast network of like-minded nations—broadly termed “the West”—Trump envisions a world in which this country is just one of many major actors in a fiercely competitive, winner-take-all environment. The United States has no allies in this world, nor, for that matter, any irredeemable enemies—only competitors in the dog-eat-dog struggle over economic and political advantage.
In this sort of a world, the ultimate goal of US foreign policy is to advance American interests at every turn, no matter who suffers in the process. Nations once regarded as allies—members of NATO, Japan, South Korea, and so on—may remain good friends, but will be expected to look after their own security needs, not rely on Uncle Sam (unless, of course, they’re prepared to pay for the service). Former adversaries, such as Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, can be absolved of their pariah status if they help promote US objectives, such as the eradication of ISIS. And major economic competitors, such as China, will be told to curb their hostile trading behavior or face harsh retaliation by the United States.
What are some of the likely consequences of this stance? While it is still too early to make ironclad predictions, some outcomes appear inevitable.
To begin with, any notion of viewing the promotion of human rights and democracy as a goal of American foreign policy is now out the window. Nations will be judged solely by their potential contribution to America’s own immediate interests, not the nature of their regime or their treatment of minorities. No longer will US diplomats criticize the Erdogan regime in Turkey for its crackdown on journalists and the Kurds, so long as we can use the Incirlik air base for strikes against ISIS; no longer will the Baghdad regime be warned against mistreatment of the Sunnis in Mosul, so long as ISIS is driven out of the city; no longer will Uganda and Nigeria be criticized for jailing members of the LGBT community, so long as they assist us in other matters.