For Donald Trump, America First is increasingly translating into America alone. He apparently believes that the United States is so dominant that it needs no friends. Trump prefers to act alone, often on impulse, in conflicts across the globe. He views allies as a burden, international law as an affront. He claims that America is back, more respected than ever. In fact, it is becoming more isolated than ever.
The New York Times reports that Trump was ready to impose tariffs on Australia this week, to counter a surge of aluminum imports to the United States, to all of 6 percent of total U.S. imports. Fierce opposition from the military and State Department led the White House to reconsider.
Trump has launched a long overdue challenge to our trading relationship with China. Our trade deficits with China have been the largest between two countries in recorded history. The Chinese have been masterful mercantilists, manipulating their currency and conditions to capture jobs, expand exports and build their industries. The U.S. — with our trade policies defined by global corporations and banks — has been willing to allow U.S. companies to ship jobs abroad to take advantage of suppressed labor and lax environmental and consumer standards, and then ship goods back to the U.S. Profit margins and CEO pay soared; workers and communities in the U.S took it on the chin. The relationship had to change.
Yet instead of enlisting allies in challenging the Chinese practices, Trump slapped tariffs on Canada and Mexico, on Europe, Japan and South Korea. He’s on the verge of alienating Australia, which has been a staunch ally in relation to China. Instead of isolating China, he’s isolating the United States. Now the Europeans are ignoring U.S. warnings about the Chinese high-tech company Huawei’s 5G system.
Trump trumpeted his NAFTA 2.0 agreement with Mexico and Canada as a great success. Yet last week he suddenly threatened to slap escalating tariffs on Mexican imports unless that country cracks down on the people traveling from Central America to seek asylum in the U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, warns this could torpedo any possibility of passing the treaty. Trump isn’t just isolating the U.S., he’s isolating himself.
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Trump moved to take the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord that includes virtually every country in the world. He’s repudiated the Iran Nuclear Deal, spurning the pleas of our allies to respect a treaty that ensures Iran cannot revive a nuclear weapons program. His bellicose bluster and military maneuvers against Iran have earned the rebuke of European allies warning against the threat of hostilities. Instead of removing us from the endless “stupid wars” that he campaigned against, he’s gone all in with Saudi Arabia, sustaining troops in Afghanistan, Syria, escalating tensions with Iran, and vetoing the bipartisan congressional resolution seeking an end to our shameful complicity in the Saudi assault on Yemen.
His solo act on North Korea blew up in his face in the failed summit leaving South Korea to pick up the pieces, if that’s possible. He’s ratcheted up the economic sanctions against Venezuela, adding to the miseries of the people there, while the regime-change efforts orchestrated by his aides violate both decency and international law.
The United States is a powerful nation. Our economy represents about one-fourth of the global GDP. Our military is the strongest in the world. Our network of alliances is unrivaled.
Our culture—movies, language, currency—spread across the world. But we are not an indispensable nation or all powerful. Acting sensibly with allies, we can have immense influence. Acting erratically alone, we make ourselves weaker, not stronger.
Bluster is not strength. Isolation is not freedom. Lawless impulse is not strategy. Trump’s posturing is making us weaker, not stronger.