America First: Foreign Policy of Mr. Trump
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

Several recent episodes have brought out the nature of the ‘America First’ policy of President Trump. What is then the place of cherished values of human rights and free trade in the US foreign policy today?

Human Rights

The first question is how far do human rights matter in US foreign policy?

President Trump has been categoric that in the America First model of foreign policy he is running, human rights would have to take secondary place.

On the Khashoggi murder case, Trump categorically said that arms sales, jobs and geo-political considerations would take priority in US-Saudi relations. The US would not let the Khashoggi murder case come in the way of US-Saudi relations even if the orders to eliminate the Saudi journalist came from the top.

Some sections of the US media criticized the president for downgrading the values of human rights in US foreign policy. But the outrage has been largely symbolic and smacks of double standards.

Trump cannot be blamed for being selective about human rights. The US has used the human rights as a convenient tool of foreign policy. In the past too, US administrations have supported and nurtured military dictators and authoritarian rules for geo-political dictates when that suited it. The Middle East is a standing example. Support to Pakistani military dictators has been the corner stone of US policy for decades.

So, it should not come as a surprise that Trump has put American interests first as he sees them. The only difference is that he is blunt and unfazed about it.

Migration and National Security

Trump has raised another controversy by sending 5000 troops to the US-Mexican Border to prevent thousands of asylum seekers, who have gathered in the Mexican Border town of Tanjun, from breaching the border to enter the US.

Trump has invoked national security concerns to use force if need be from such migrants entering the US. He has also threatened to close the entire border. Human rights advocates are critical of Trump. They feel that asylum seekers should be allowed to come in and apply for asylum. Trump would have none of this. He says the crowd of asylum seekers has five hundred criminal elements.

Trump has made illegal migration as the center piece of his America First foreign policy. Illegal migration impacts national security and economy.

Democrats now have the control of the House of Representatives but not of the Senate which remains Republican. Democrats have been pro-human rights and pro-migration. Democrat dominated house may see Trump’s America First policies in a very different light. The stage is set for confrontation between the President and the House on key foreign policy issues.

Trump has taken on the judiciary, another of America’s hallowed institutions. He called the 9th Circuit of the US court as a ‘mess’ because of its propensity to overturn administration’s policies. He accused the judge of being a “Obama judge”; this earned a rare public rebuke from Chief Justice Robert Adams stating that there were no Obama or Clinton judges. But Trump has carried on with his attacks against the judiciary regardless. Public opinion on this unsavory clash between the President and the Chief Justice has been divided. Many people have criticized the Chief Justice of committing a grave error by going public on his criticism of the President. President is unfazed over the controversy. The episode has highlighted the tensions between the top institutions of the country.


The crowning feather of the America First policy is probably the decision to take on China on a full-fledged trade war. Following protectionist trade policies in a seeming reversal of cherished free trade values, the US has imposed tariffs of hundreds of billions of dollars on Chinese imports, taking China by surprise and leaving it unsure and confused as to how to deal with the unexpected situation. G-20 is in disarray. Gone are the days of G-20 acting in concert on global economic issues; Trump would not agree to anything that does not meet the America First standards.

‘America First’

Trump feels that the America First policy is winning. The renegotiation of North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in favor of America has given him that confidence. The world is coming around to expecting that American First policy implies that there are no freebies and no free lunches. Trump is trying to sell the line that America has been taken for a ride all these years and that has to end now.

America’s traditional allies are confused about Trump’s policies. Trade sanctions imposed by the US have hurt friends and foes alike. NATO is reeling under the American insistence on equitable sharing of defense burden among member countries as pointed out by Trump. Relations between the US and other major NATO countries like the Turkey are highly strained.

The impact on the world institutions of governance is going to be hard. Most of them are under pressure. The UN Security Council is unable to deal with the global security issues and is becoming dysfunctional. The US has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council. The World Trade organization (WTO) is under pressure. It has also junked the Paris Climate Change Agreement. It has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Trans-Atlantic partnership is under stress.

Trump, in his inaugural Presidential Address in January 2017, officially launched the ‘America First’ policy. He had said, "We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first — America first." Since then he has relentlessly pursued this policy without a second thought. But what is America First policy? It is an intensely nationalist policy keeping America’s interest uppermost. It signifies American nationalism in all political, economic and security manifestations.

America First slogan has a long and controversial history. In the 1916 presidential election campaign, when the First World War was at its height, Harold Wilson used America First as a slogan to tap into anti-war and isolationist feeling in the country. During the Second World War, an America
First Committee (AFC) was set up by students in the Yale University. AFC was supported by many leading lights of the day like aviator and national hero Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, the famous automaker. Representing an isolationist and anti-British sentiment, AFC opposed America’s entry into the Second World War. Many historians have also described it as anti-Semitic. In 2000 presidential election campaign, candidate Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party used the slogan by advocating dismantling of the institutions like the International Monetary fund (IMF).

America First phrase or similar sounding phrases have been used in the past too. Presidential candidate McCain used ‘country first’ in his election campaign and Reagan in 1980 campaign said, "Let's Make America Great Again", a phrase Trump has used repeatedly in his speeches in conjunction with America First policy. Thus, America First has been representing not just staunch American nationalism but also isolationism, protectionism and non-interventionism.

Trump’s America First is no doubt an advocacy of American nationalism. But does it signify isolationism? That will be a stretch. The US remains engaged with the rest of the world. Only the terms of engagement are being rewritten. Values are being given a second place to political and economic interests of the country.

But what is not clear at his point is what impact the America First policy will have on America itself and the world at large. The course the trade war between the US and China might give us some clues.

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
1 + 16 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us