Anyone expecting Donald Trump to give a conciliatory, open-minded inaugural address was sorely disappointed.
America’s 45th president began his term with a dark, fire-breathing speech assailing America’s governing elite and pledging to rededicate Washington to “the people.” His rhetoric about the rest of the world was equally, if not more, aggressive: Trump questioned America’s historical commitment to free trade and argued that defending longstanding allies wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of the US.
“For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” he said. “From this day forward, it's going to be only America first.”
This vision is, as Trump himself said, a break with a decades-old bipartisan consensus on how Washington should interact with the rest of the world. It’s also exactly what he promised on the campaign trail.
Trump has a bit of a reputation as a flip-flopper. But he’s been remarkably consistent on his core view of the world — that all of international relations is transactional and should be motivated solely by assessments of what's better, financially, for the US. That has led to some of his more controversial policy pronouncements, from threatening to withdraw US troops from Japan and South Korea unless the countries pay more the costs of those deployments to hinting that he’d ignore the NATO treaty and only defend members of the alliance who’d spent more on their militaries.
Trump may not act on his ideas; his picks for the Pentagon, State Department, United Nations, and CIA are notably more hawkish and committed to NATO and other traditional alliances. Still, this speech, and everything Trump has said before, is a declaration of intent to radically revise America’s role in the world.
Donald Trump’s unwavering commitment to “America first”
Throughout the campaign, Trump came back to the same two-word description for his foreign policy view: America first. “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” he said in a foreign policy address way back in April.
Trump repeated this phrase, almost ritually, during his inaugural address. It’s a handy mantra for the way he sees the world.
The phrase has its origins in a 1930s-vintage pressure group of the same name that opposed America’s entry into World War II. The America Firsters were isolationists, whose overarching belief was that America needed to disconnect from the world in order to preserve its independence and prosperity. Some prominent members, like aviator Charles Lindbergh, actively sympathized with Nazism — a stance that soon discredited the group entirely.
Trump has told reporters that he knows this history and that his use of the phrase isn’t intended to signify any connection to the discredited slogan and movement. Still, his basic, overarching vision of US foreign policy idea is strikingly similar to that of many of the America Firsters of yore: He thinks that America’s current close ties to the rest of the world, particularly Europe, are at best a distraction from, and at worst a threat to, the interests of the American public.
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” he said in the inauguration speech — implying that’s not what happened prior to 2017.
This is most obvious when it comes to Trump’s view of trade. In his mind, America’s current economic ties to foreign countries like China and Mexico are harming US workers. He gave a whole speech on this theme back in June. So he made backing away from free trade, and moving toward protectionism, a major part of his inaugural address.
“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs,” he said. “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
You see a similar “America first” theme when it comes to Washington’s military alliances. Throughout the campaign, Trump argued that the United States was doing too much to protect allies capable of defending themselves and openly wondering whether the US gets enough from countries like Japan and South Korea to bother keeping tens of thousands of troops there to defend them. He jarred European allies back in July, meanwhile, by openly speculating that the US might not defend NATO members that Trump felt had “not fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Here, Trump’s notion of “America first” becomes clearer. He doesn’t believe, as many international relations scholars do, that these alliances more than pay for themselves by promoting peace and increasing American leverage over other countries. What matters isn’t long-term stability outside the US; it’s whether the United States is being paid enough, in a very clear pecuniary sense, for its military deployments and security commitments. The world is a zero-sum game; the prospect that the US and its allies could both lose doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind.
The inaugural address was more of the same. When Trump talked about America’s global commitments, it wasn’t about the vital role America plays in promoting peace and prosperity. It was the amount of money the US wasted on its allies and foreign wars, which he thinks trades off with more important work at home (like keeping out immigrants from Mexico).
“We've defended other nations' borders while refusing to defend our own, and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay,” Trump said. “We've made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”
These ideas were, unsurprisingly, immensely controversial during the campaign. Since World War II, the United States helped build a global order centered, in large part, on both free and open trade and a series of defensive alliances aimed at preserving peace. Trump has promised to, if not upset this order entirely, at least chip away at it significantly — throwing the globe into truly uncharted waters.
This inauguration speech shows that this wasn’t an act or some grand con. This what Trump (and whoever wrote his speech) actually thinks.
Now the rubber meets the road
But a speech is just that: a speech.
The trick with Trump, as my colleague Matt Yglesias notes, is not just to listen to what he says — it’s to see what he actually does. And the truth is that, intentions aside, extricating the United States from trade and alliance commitments it set up is a lot more complicated in practice than it sounds on paper.
Tearing up free trade agreements like the US pacts with China could very well slow economic growth or even trigger a recession. America’s national security establishment will lobby vigorously against any attempt to weaken NATO or other US military alliances to them. So will some key members of Trump’s own team, like soon-to-be-confirmed Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Indeed, you already saw a little bit of walkback from “America first” policies in Trump’s inaugural. At one point, Trump nodded at the vital nature of America’s existing alliances, a clear sign that his team is worried about the heat he’s drawn for his positions on NATO, Japan, and the rest.
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” Trump vowed in the inaugural, a near direct contradiction with his broadside against “[defending] other nations' borders” earlier in the speech.
What’s more, Trump has set up some impossible expectations for his radical new foreign policy approach. He promised, among other things, to eliminate jihadism entirely: “[We will] unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.”
I don’t want to spoil anything, but Trump won’t in fact get rid of every militant terrorist group on Earth. He may weaken them more than Obama or Bush did (though I have my doubts on that point), but it is literally impossible for him to destroy each and every single militant Islamist group, or even just all of the major ones.
Yet these are the metrics that Trump is setting up for himself. He’s promising a radical revision to American foreign policy and to accomplish all sorts of extraordinary things by doing it.
The people who wanted a more toned-down Trump might be disappointed, but the ones who have long liked what they’ve seen from him — who felt like his angry populism is just what America needs — doubtless loved what they heard. Yet they may not love what they eventually see.