America First Now or America Last Later?

Main Image Credit Donald and Melania Trump greet Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan at the US president's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. It seems now that deals with China trump foreign policy principles.

The Trump administration appears eager to change its position frequently, keeping both friends and adversaries on their toes. The snag is that, at least for the moment, allies are more rattled than potential enemies.

The late, great Professor Michael Handel once said that victory would not fall to the side with the greatest military, economic or political strength and will; rather, victors would be the actors capable of adapting their strategy most quickly.

By doing this, the more intellectually (and conceptually) agile party would always maintain the upper hand by being proactive in advancing its interests and forcing others into being reactive.

It would be hard to believe that scholar-practitioner US Secretary of Defense James Mattis or National Security Advisor General H R McMaster don’t have at least one of Handel’s books (such as Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought) on their book shelves.

It is thus interesting that the Trump administration has, arguably, adopted the approach Handel advocated as successful: a strategy keeping competitors and allies alike on their toes. The willingness of Washington to reverse established policy positions overnight is a clear pattern since January.

Whether it's the American approach to Russia (Vladimir Putin now ‘bad’), China (Xi Jinping now an essential ‘partner’) or Bashar Al-Assad (now needs replacing), the unpredictability of policy positions is disconcerting everyone. But it is certainly reflecting a doctrine of America First.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Pacific, where the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TTP) was discarded as the first act of the Trump presidency. This was expected. What was not, however, was the apparent American U-turn with regard to China’s control of the South China Sea.

Previously, the commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, consistently used his ships, submarines and aircraft to patrol around the islands of the South China Seas. This made sure that China could not claim customary rights to ownership due to the unchallenged nature of their presence.

Yet the New York Times has reported that Harris’s recent requests to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations around Scarborough Shoal have all been denied by the Pentagon.

It seems this might be part of a bargain struck between Trump and Xi to deal with North Korea. Given that the remainder of China’s regional neighbours lack the will to make a stand (witness Taiwan’s ejection from talks in Australia on conflict diamonds or the rewording of the ASEAN declaration in China’s favour), the US withdrawal from these operations will validate Beijing’s de facto control of the South and East China Seas, despite international law and court rulings.

These points of international order and normative behaviours no longer seem to matter, notwithstanding the fact that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came to office comparing Chinese activity in the China Seas with that of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Yet his most recent speech on the essence of American diplomacy suggests that international norms, specifically human rights, are now a potential obstacle to US advancing its interests and no longer a core interest in and of themselves. These are clear reversals from Washington.

As the latest missile test over the weekend indicates, there is no doubt that North Korea is the greatest current challenge to global security, and certainly the most immediate threat to the US homeland.

If Pyongyang is able to fire nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at the North American continent at will, Seattle could start to feel like Tel Aviv. Such a situation cannot be allowed to emerge, but the US has few options except a military attack.

The response to such an attack could see the levelling of Seoul by the massed artillery of the DPRK, situated just 35 miles to the north. This would be a price too high even for Trump – certainly without exhausting every other option. And just such an option is persuading China to exert substantial pressure on North Korea.

It seems that the price of such cooperation is a de facto acceptance of China’s position in the South China Sea. Another cost might be a downgrading of the US relationship with Taiwan, although only the upcoming arms deal between Washington and Taipei will tell us whether that part is true.

Perhaps we should just accept that Handel’s thesis is correct and that America First means just that, and that allies are potentially the second casualty after principles in such a case. Yet this does not bode well for the US in the longer term.

Reversing the new US position over the South China Sea is easier said than done. And even if the US goes down that route, allies such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – let alone Southeast Asian nations seeking regional balance and space for autonomy – will be looking elsewhere for protection, or they will simply bow to China’s overwhelming regional influence.

If Trump is prepared to hang partners out to dry, Washington cannot expect much assistance on the international stage during the next four years – and this includes basing and support for its globally deployed forces.

For an unreliable partner is worse that no partner at all. 


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

View profile

Veerle Nouwens

Senior Research Fellow

International Security Studies

View profile

Explore our related content