Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Donald Trump's nationalist approach to international relations will not change when he leaves office. Pundits and politicians may hope America will return to global policies pursued by presidents for seventy years; but the reality is that while Democrats now control the House of Representatives, their leaders are not attacking Trump's America First theme because the public largely supports it.

Internationalist policies pursued by presidents of both parities after World War II began to erode after George W. Bush invaded and occupied Afghanistan and then did the same in Iraq. The financial and human costs of those wars proved far higher than political and military leaders predicted. Public disillusionment was exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis which triggered major disruptions in the economy, a spike in unemployment, and huge new budget deficits.

After taking office in 2017, Donald Trump proclaimed that he would "put America's interests first." He then cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), demanded renegotiation of NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, scrapped a nuclear-freeze agreement with Iran negotiated by Barack Obama, and eventually withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord. He also questioned the value of NATO, saying America's allies were "free loaders" on U.S. protection and its taxpayers...

These radical changes in policy rattled allies and friends but were broadly popular with a public. They shared Trump's view that America had paid too high a price to defend the world, at the expense of domestic priorities. This change in America's outlook will survive Trump's presidency because it reflects a major shift in the way Americans view their national interests in 2019.

Here are three areas where Trump brought major changes in foreign policy. :

Trade relations

Dealing with "unfair trade" was high on Trump's agenda from his first days in office. Pulling out of TPP dismayed Asian and Pacific nations that supported it, but he argued that it was detrimental to American interests and cost many American jobs. Hillary Clinton too questioned its benefits during the election campaign. Although China was highest on Trump's list of "bad actors," Europe, Japan, South Korea, Canada and Mexico were also subjected to administration pressure to improve trading relations with the U.S. China came in for special attention because of its huge trade imbalance with the U.S. Trump imposed modest tariffs on Chinese imports last year but threatens to raise them to 30 percent on March 1 if Beijing doesn't agree to significant changes in trade relations. Despite the pain caused to some exporters and farmers, Trump appears to have public support for his tough policies because free trade with China has harmed many businesses at home and displaced tens of thousands of workers.

Immigration and border security

Mr. Trump pledged during the 2016 election campaign to deal with a major influx of immigrants who crossed our southern border illegally. And once on U.S. territory, they were entitled to many social benefits until their status was decided by courts. Many disappeared into communities across the country and were never processed. Trump's insistence on a "border wall" to stop the illegal flow became a political issue, but the public wants changes in the laws that curtail growing pressure on the southern border from "caravan refugees" from Central America. Providing funds for a physical barrier on the Mexican border became a major contest between the president and Congress after Democrats gained control in the House. It's unclear whether the public supports the president or Democrats on this border wall issue.

U.S. troops abroad

The costly invasions and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq soured the public on the wisdom of sending U.S. forces abroad to enforce peace in dangerous places. The public generally accepts the idea that America should not be the "world's policeman" because of its costs and paucity of benefits. Small American forces remain in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the president wants to reduce and eventually withdraw them. Syria is the latest issue because Trump asserted that he would withdraw them quickly. His Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned over that abrupt decision, and Secretary of state Mike Pompeo is in the Middle East reassuring allies that the withdrawal will be gradual. Still, the public appears to support the president's desire to scale back our military presence abroad.

What we are seeing, I believe, is what historians call a paradigm shift in the way Americans view national priorities. They are turning away from the idea that that America's security relies on a world order dependent on U.S. military and economic power. Trump didn't create this new nationalist mood, but he boldly endorsed it to win the presidency. America's internationalist outlook is gone. But what takes its place remains to be seen.

File last modified on Monday, 14-JAN-2019 08:42 AM EST

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