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"America First" : Shaking Up the Global Order

Original Broadcast Date:
July 8, 2017(UTC)

In this edition, Global Agenda turns its attention to the foreign policy of US President Donald Trump. It's been six months since Trump took office and began implementing his pledge to put "America First." How has his administration dealt with North Korea's nuclear program, China's growing military and economic presence, and Russia -- which views the US as its main rival? Our panelists assessed Trump's approach to diplomacy and shared their thoughts on the future.

Deciphering "America First"

The panelists began by discussing how President Trump's "America First" pledge was being translated into action. Dr. Robert Kagan said that Trump has made it clear that his foreign policy will be driven by a very narrow definition of America's interests. He called the possibility that the US will use power merely for its own gain "a pretty frightening prospect." On the other hand, Dr. Matthew Kroenig said even though many people think "America First" means isolationism, it doesn't seem to be turning out that way. Instead, we've seen the US reaching out to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. But Dr. James Steinberg brought up the uncertainty reflected in German Chancellor Merkel's remarks that former allies may not be able to rely on the US.

Missile Attack on Syria

Mr. David Sanger asked the panelists to share their views of the Trump administration's foreign policy high points, and mentioned the country's missile strike on Syria. Steinberg voiced support for the attack. However, he said it is still not clear how the White House is defining its long-term objectives. Kroenig said the Syria strike was the most significant action, since it sent the message to the world that the US is willing to use force if necessary.

Assessing the Threat: North Korea and China

Next on the agenda was the issue of North Korea which the Trump administration considers a major threat. Kroenig said the North Korea threat is most urgent because the North could have the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental US. Dr. Toshihiro Nakayama stated that if North Korea succeeds in miniaturizing a warhead and developing ICBMs, it's going to be a strategic game-changer. And he also noted that Trump seems to be pressuring China, which is important; however, there is too much expectation about what China can accomplish. Kagan said that declaring North Korea America's number one strategic problem is a mistake. He thinks it's more important to maintain the current world order, and the greatest threat to that is China. If China were able to establish hegemony in East Asia, it would completely change the nature of the international system. Steinberg pointed out that Trump links issues which shouldn't be linked. If China thinks it can get away with other questionable actions by helping the US deal with the North, that ends up potentially bringing about the worst of both worlds.

Strategic Competition with Putin's Russia

Sanger then moved the discussion to the US relationship with Putin's Russia. Kagan said that Putin has achieved his most important objective: a divided and demoralized West. He also said that he has never believed there was anything in particular to negotiate with the Russians about since Putin's view of the West is pretty much a zero sum game. Steinberg suggested that the US needs to be very clear about which Russian actions might be considered unacceptable enough to require strong measures. But he cautioned against a situation in which the US is prepared to ignore things that are very damaging to the US simply to improve relations.

Can America Retreat?

Nakayama said everyone now talks about the demise of the pro-international order. If the US is not committed, other nations could start searching for Plan Bs. And this aggregation of Plan Bs would have a big influence on where our world is going. He said that Trump seems to be interested in mainly premodern threats, such as the Islamic State, and the US is not prepared to handle very complicated issues. On the other hand, Kroenig thinks the US continues to play an important global role. He said the biggest challenge is that the US cannot be static anymore; therefore, if you have a president who is comfortable with a little bit of change and disruption it might even be a good thing in terms of updating and revitalizing the order. Sanger concluded that it's worth remembering that it's still early days for this administration. But we do not yet know whether this president is interested in evolving his views or will return to the more familiar territory of his campaign rhetoric.


Matthew Kroenig

Associate Professor, Georgetown University
Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

Matthew Kroenig is the author of The Case for Trump's Foreign Policy. The article, published this spring, focused on Trump's diplomatic direction and achievements.

Robert Kagan

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Robert Kagan is a leading neoconservative historian who supports US intervention abroad. He's a strong critic of Trump's foreign policy.

James Steinberg

Professor, Syracuse University
Former Deputy Secretary of State (2009 ~ 11)

James Steinberg served in the State Department under President Obama. He's concerned that the US is becoming too isolationist.

Toshihiro Nakayama

Professor, Keio University, Japan

Toshihiro Nakayama is an expert on US politics and foreign policy who's concerned that Trump has a limited understanding of the issues facing the world.


David Sanger

National Security Correspondent, New York Times

David Sanger is one of the most prominent journalists covering Trump and conducted a series of interviews with him during the campaign.