How far can ‘America First’ go?

America’s own interests, as well as international pressures, may dictate fewer changes in U.S. commitments overseas than President Trump has suggested, says U. of I. political scientist Stephen Chaudoin. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Editor’s note: Donald Trump campaigned on the idea that the U.S. should redefine its role in the world, promoting the slogan “America First.” He suggests pulling back from some international commitments and renegotiating others. U. of I. political science professor Stephen Chaudoin, however, thinks radical change is less likely. America’s internationalist foreign policy is “maybe down, but not out,” say Chaudoin and two co-authors in a recent essay for an International Security Studies Forum policy roundtable. An expert on international relations, Chaudoin has focused his research on international organizations such the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.


Why do you think many of the basic elements of U.S. foreign policy are so unlikely to change? What’s in the way?

There are two main roadblocks to fundamental change: domestic politics and international politics.

Domestically, many members of Congress represent districts that would suffer tremendously from radical changes to U.S. foreign policy. The current U.S. role in the world didn’t materialize out of nowhere. The U.S. signed trade agreements that benefitted important constituencies and set up international institutions that served its interests.

Internationally, the United States has already gotten a pretty good deal. The U.S. played a huge role in writing the rules of the existing system to serve and protect its own interests. There are many examples, like veto power on the U.N. Security Council or its immense influence over the International Monetary Fund. Contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, most political science research on international institutions asks, “Just how much influence does the United States have?” And the most common answer, unsurprisingly, is “a lot.”

Withdrawing from that system weakens institutions that already put America first. Other countries, like China, would be happy to play a greater role in world affairs by altering or replacing those institutions. “America First” certainly won’t be their guiding principle.

What about the example of NATO, where the U.S. is paying so much of the bill? Or NAFTA, which is perceived to have brought job losses and closed factories?

To get international cooperation, you have to give. And you get what you pay for. With NATO, the U.S. does shoulder a big part of the burden. In return, it gets outsized influence on the missions NATO chooses and how they’re conducted. With NAFTA and the WTO, the U.S. made many concessions, but it received even greater concessions in return.  Making concessions, or virtually any policy change for that matter, inevitably hurts some segments of the U.S. public or economy, and benefits others.  The U.S. has ensured that it received valuable concessions in return for its own changes.

Do we underestimate the pressures that can be brought by other countries in resistance to changes by the U.S.?

I hope not. Retaliation against Trump’s trade policies would affect everyone from apple growers in Michigan to Harley-Davidson manufacturers in Ohio – both politically important states. Retaliation against a U.S. withdrawal from international institutions affects everything from our ability to rally support for sanctions against Iran or North Korea to our ability to combat the spread of contagious diseases.  One recent study estimated that the costs of retaliation against Trump’s border tax policies could exceed $300 billion, a tremendous number.

Also, cooperation isn’t coercion. No one is forcing the U.S. or other countries to participate in the global system. Other countries participate in the international system because, like the United States, they also gain from existing arrangements and institutions. If the U.S. demands a better deal, there’s nothing saying that other countries have to accept it. Trump may be able to extract some concessions on those deals, but if other countries refuse, and Trump is forced to follow through on his threats to move away from existing institutions, everyone suffers.

Even in areas of immigration, climate change and trade, which have been key issues for Trump, you and your co-authors suggest that real change in U.S. foreign policy is doubtful. Why is that?

For these areas, we are more optimistic than most, but immigration and climate change are two areas where we would be less surprised to see large changes. “More optimistic than most” is also a very low hurdle among foreign policy experts.

For trade, it is easy for foreign countries to identify political pressure points and target them for retaliation. The European Union did this against George W. Bush’s steel tariffs. They targeted the exports of swing states, like Florida oranges, for retaliation, and the U.S. removed the tariffs. The threat of retaliation will be a strong force to keep Trump from pursing some of his more radical trade agenda items.

For climate change and immigration, we are less optimistic, though trends in demographics and public opinion mean that the GOP cannot indefinitely pursue policies that antagonize large swaths of people.

Source: Craig Chamberlain /Social Sciences Eitorexpert/ /