Donald Trump aspires to “make America great again.” He also pledges, in all his policies, to put “America first.” Are those two postures, which comprised the core of his campaign, compatible with one another? As Donald Trump looks across the Pacific, he may wish to ponder that question.
If there was a time when America could be said to have been “great,” surely, it was the decades immediately following World War II. It was a time of prosperity and economic growth, of advances in human rights at home and abroad, of pioneering achievements in science and technology, and of undisputed stature as the sole superpower in the non-Communist world. It was also a time when American presidents, each justifiably looked upon as the “leader of the free world,” restrained themselves from putting America “first.”
To be sure, it was always the case that America saw its own long-term interest to be best served by strengthening allies, promoting democracy and open markets, fostering development in the “Third World,” and endeavoring to protect weaker nations from communist aggression. Such undertakings, however, required discipline, restraint, and sacrifice in the short term. Had it chosen to do so, America had the power to pursue policies of rampant exploitation of weak nations aimed at immediate American benefit; instead, America assumed great burdens directed at the construction and maintenance of a prosperous, secure, and free world. Most representative of such policies was the Marshall Plan, wherein the United States gave devastated European nations more than the current equivalent of $120 billion for reconstruction. During those same post-war years, the United States often incurred the displeasure of important European allies by not supporting and, in some instances, even subverting their desires to retain colonial empires.
For more than a half-century, the United States has spent staggering amounts to maintain defensive military presences around the world, for the protection of allies as much or more than itself. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, all pre-9/11, as controversial as they may have been, were fought at great cost, not for the immediate defense of the United States, but for the protection of allies and in support of a world order of which the U.S. was only one among a large number of beneficiaries.
Washington coordinated its economic policies with those of global partners by becoming the principal underwriter of a system of lowered barriers to trade, first with the GATT, then with the WTO. While American self-interest was always an ultimate incentive of these and the many other Cold War era policies, none of them can be said to have put America “first.”
In the United States today, in the weeks since the election, there is both exhilaration and trepidation as Donald Trump assembles his administration and makes his first, perhaps tentative, policy moves. His cabinet appointments have been somewhat out of the mainstream, but not so much as to be irresponsible. His foreign policy comments, most notably concerning Taiwan, have alarmed a bipartisan collection of long-time professionals and commentators in the field, but some see a method behind them aimed at establishing a more nationalist negotiating posture.
Still, it remains unclear exactly what the shape of American foreign policy will be for the next four years. One move, however, is quite clear. Trump has killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a big, consequential reversal of America’s position in Asia-Pacific affairs. Trump’s argument throughout the election campaign was that the TPP was a bad deal for America. The same theme was urged by Senator Bernie Sanders in his campaign for the Democratic nomination, and was taken up, in a more muted form, by eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, in a reversal from her previous support for the deal as secretary of state.
It may, indeed, be the case that the TPP, when viewed strictly in terms of trade and its impact on business, would have been a “bad deal” for the United States. That is one of those questions on which boatloads of economists argue one way while boatloads argue the opposite. Even conceding that segments of the United States economy would have been somewhat disadvantaged by the pact, however, should not necessitate the utter disavowal of broad trade arrangements with Asian and Pacific nations. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was to be a linking together of the economies of a number of Pacific Rim countries, who would have staked their futures on open markets and the rule of law. It would have meant for its members a turning away from the Chinese model of heavy-handed, centralized state direction of national economies in which state-owned enterprises occupy the “commanding heights.” The United States would have assumed its traditional role of accepting burdens and making sacrifices in order to promote and sustain an international order aimed at providing long-term benefits for itself and all the partners.
Specifically, especially now that it is off the table, there is little point in not acknowledging that the TPP was drawn with the objective of balancing China’s influence. It was.
China, whose economy looms over most of the TPP partners, and whose military ambitions continue to alarm many of them, has advanced a number of initiatives with aims parallel to those of the TPP. The Chinese-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the Maritime Silk Road seek to construct a set of economic arrangements that would link the self-interests of the partners to China’s own interests. That would, of course, be a reasonable way to state the diplomatic aims of the TPP, substituting the United States for China. The two systems would not have been incompatible. Future linkages between the TPP and the Chinese-based arrangements were definitely contemplated, and sought by various partners to the agreements. That outcome is, for the time being, out of reach.
President Trump should think carefully about the diplomatic and strategic advantages of the TPP. All of the TPP countries, including the U.S., will benefit if he stops looking at it simply as a bad trade deal. It would be a grave mistake to leave the field of mutual trade arrangements to China, because to do so is to weaken, even forfeit, America’s leadership role among Pacific Rim countries who desperately do not want to have their own interests permanently submerged in China’s. The TPP is gone, but no time should be lost in America’s taking the lead in promoting a new set of arrangements that will enable Pacific Rim countries to continue pursuing economic liberalization and political reform, with the United States occupying a role in their calculations of national interest at least as weighty as China’s. That would be consistent with America’s long tradition of being “great” without necessarily putting itself “first.”
William G. Frasure is the Lucretia Allyn Professor of Government and International Relations at Connecticut College.