The ‘America First’ Policy isn’t Going Anywhere

Europe never warmed to Donald Trump. His approval rating last year was 32% in Britain and 13% in Germany. In the corridors of the European Union (EU), I don’t imagine his approval rating edges out COVID-19’s. 

Liberals in Europe are over-the-moon to see Trump go. Channel 4 was almost as excited about the election result as it was about the news of the Pfizer vaccine. They see Joe Biden as somebody to roll back Trump’s transactional foreign policy, summed up by the President’s promise of putting ‘America First’- he succeeded admirably in doing that for COVID deaths. For Europeans, however, Joe Biden will be a false dawn. ‘America First’ is here to stay. 

From listening to Biden’s campaign speeches, you might share Europe’s optimism that America is about to inaugurate a President committed to rebuilding the Western alliance after four years of uncertainty. Like so much of the President-elect’s agenda, Biden’s policy towards Europe emphasises a return to normalcy. Trump never made much of an effort to impress his transatlantic partners; he imposed billions of dollars worth of tariffs on the European Union (EU) in 2019 and moaned (correctly, of course) that many North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members weren’t committing enough money towards their own defence. Biden and his transition team have trashed Trump’s attitude towards Europe for being isolationist, and for damaging the sacred bond between Europe and the US. He stresses he wants to re-engage with old allies across the pond.

But a President’s tenure in the White House rarely comes to resemble the campaign they fight to get there. Why? There’s no simple answer to that. But probably the most straightforward reason is that on January 20, 2021, the Presidency will change hands, but the bureaucracy underneath it will stay almost exactly the same. Continuity is the order of the day in Washington. 

In no area is this truer than America’s foreign policy. And the reality is that the unstated yet unequivocal aim of the US policy abroad has always been to put itself before others. The conventional view of the US foreign policy as being liberal and internationalist is a delusion. No President demonstrates this better than Woodrow Wilson, the man who is regarded as the flag-bearer for liberal internationalism and US engagement with the world. In spite of being remembered as an interventionist who came to the Allies’ aid during the First World War, Wilson initially resisted calls to engage in the War, preferring to condemn Europe to a ‘peace without victory’ for American gain. And what phrase did he use to justify this? You guessed it: “America First!”. Franklin D Roosevelt’s (FDR) instincts were the same as Wilson’s as Europe went to war again in 1939. The US looks after its own interests first, and Europeans would do well not to fall for the Democratic party’s claims to the contrary. 

In this sense, Trump’s most important legacy as President will be to have capped the bullshit emanating from the State Department. His followers always loved him for ‘saying it as it is’, and he certainly did that when it came to foreign policy. He merely said out loud what the US had thought about its allies for decades. And on Europe, this rhetoric had the effect of speeding up a policy shift that was underway long before Trump got to Washington. From the US perspective, Europe is quickly becoming a backwater on the international chessboard. Asia is in the ascendancy, and nobody knows this better than Biden’s team. Don’t forget that it was Obama’s administration that pivoted towards Asia in 2013, not Trump’s. 

Of course, the elephant in the room here is China. Trump’s stance on Europe and his belligerence towards the Chinese were two sides of the same coin. The Bush and Obama administrations gradually became uncomfortable with China’s rise to world power status, but on the surface, things remained rosy between the world’s two largest economies. Trump changed that, and it’s difficult to imagine Biden will put back on the gloves which the 45th President so obviously threw off. Congressional Democrats now sound just as critical of China as the Republicans do. ‘Soft on China’ has a nasty ring to it, just as ‘Soft on Communism’ did during the Cold War.

What does this mean for Europe? Probably that it’s time to wake up to the fact that the US isn’t as reliable an ally as it was once thought to be. The UK government’s pledge to increase defence spending is a welcome move, and I imagine that other European leaders will soon follow suit. As for the US, Biden will carry on putting his country first-in-line, but he may need to start being a little less coy about saying so. Americans love isolationism. After all, if America isn’t first in the President-elect’s eyes, where does he see it?


Tom Leeman

I am a Politics and Spanish graduate from the University of Bristol, going on to study a Master's degree in Political Economy at King's College London.

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