How ‘America First’ Became America Alone

In his desperation to restore and showcase American strength, Donald Trump has made the country weaker.

It took only three and a half years for Donald Trump to solidify and formalize the United States’ comprehensive international isolation. In August, the Trump administration demanded the extension of restrictions against Iran for breaking the terms of a nuclear deal that Trump himself had withdrawn from. All but one of the other members of the United Nations Security Council voted against the move or abstained—including every other permanent member of the body. “America First” had, effectively, become America alone.

The fallout at the UN was just the latest episode in the long-running soap opera over Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear agreement. Dismissing the deal as among the worst in history, Trump opted instead for a policy of maximum pressure to force Iran’s capitulation. His efforts were part of a wider shift during his presidency toward diplomatic unilateralism, pulling the U.S. out of key international agreements in favor of a return to the raw-power politics that he believed better suited American strength.

The move achieved what the Trump administration would consider important victories. Following America’s withdrawal, Britain, France, and Germany—which, together with China and Russia, were signatories to the deal—discovered they were powerless to circumvent the might of American sanctions. Other instances of solo action also appeared to work for the U.S.: The president ordered the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, reasserting American escalatory dominance in the Middle East; bullied Britain into shutting the door to Huawei; pressured NATO allies into paying more toward the West’s collective defense; and forced better trading terms from Canada and Mexico.

Of course, even these apparent successes had consequences. Although Europe has been unable to respond to America’s financial power, for instance, it has not accepted Trump’s demand to abandon the deal with Iran, which remains just about alive. Nor has American pressure, no matter how great, succeeded in forcing Tehran to the negotiating table on American terms. Though Soleimani is dead, continued Iranian aggression has pushed Washington to consider pulling out of its giant embassy in Baghdad, and NATO countries may be paying more toward defense, but France and Germany are now arguing for Europe to expand its independent defense capacity.

What, then, would be Trump’s foreign policy legacy (on the assumption, of course, that he doesn’t get an additional four years to further reshape the world)? To find answers to this question, we spoke with some of Trump’s senior advisers, many of whom were central to his most important foreign-policy decisions, as well as career diplomats, officials, aides, and intelligence analysts in the U.S. and Europe. Some would speak only on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the topic, their own position in government, or the proximity of the U.S. election. In multiple interviews, these people related a consistently chaotic policy-making apparatus, often contradictory priorities, and a president who was singularly uninterested in the complexities of diplomacy or the history that typically drives decision making.

More important, they outlined how the president’s instincts inform his worldview and, crucially, how those instincts often themselves conflict. As we reach the end of his first term in office, these instincts are relatively clear: Trump has a nationalist, mercantilist outlook, coupled with a demand that American power be acknowledged and accounted for. As we wrote recently, these instincts have resulted in him—perhaps inadvertently—making legitimate and accurate assessments about the flaws in the international order.

Yet time and again, this demand to showcase American strength, to win and to be seen to win, has had another effect. Trump came to power promising an end to the naïveté in Washington, which he claimed was enriching the rest of the world at America’s expense. He promised to be the great dealmaker. His record, however, is one of arrangements destroyed, not made. Along with unpicking the Iranian nuclear deal, he has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, allowed nuclear-arms-control agreements to lapse, and pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Even over issues on which Trump might enjoy broad international agreement—nuclear disarmament and Chinese aggression, to name but two—he has torpedoed bargains and alienated friends.

Strength, in the Trump view, is unilateralism—breaking the U.S. out of international systems and organizations so that it can use its great power to maximum effect. He has pursued a trade war against China largely alone; he announced the drawdown of American forces from Germany without first informing Berlin; his administration has sought to single-handedly dismantle the Iran nuclear deal. This commitment to unilateralism has pushed American allies to change their behavior and upended their long-held belief in the U.S.-led Western alliance.

The end result, then, of this pursuit and display of power—as defined by the president—is that he has achieved little of note diplomatically and dulled the force multiplier that is the U.S.’s system of alliances. In seeking to exhibit strength, Trump has made America weaker.

In 1980, when Trump was 34, he made one of his first forays into national politics, giving an interview to the TV personality Rona Barrett. To listen to the conversation today is to hear the early sounds of a revolution that would consume the U.S. decades later.

In it, Trump claimed that the U.S. had lost its greatness and needed a firm hand to win back the world’s respect. “Respect can lead to other things,” he said. “When you get the respect of the other countries, then the other countries tend to do a little bit as you do.” The 1979 Iranian hostage crisis was a case in point. “That they hold our hostages is just absolutely, and totally ridiculous,” he said. Jimmy Carter had been weak, and Iran had taken advantage. The U.S. needed to get tough. But Trump went further: He said American troops should have been ordered in to take control of Iran’s oil reserves. Trump was making an explicitly imperial argument.

We examined this mindset in a recent story, cataloging Trump’s desire to be recognized for strength, and his wistfulness for an apparently bygone era when the U.S. could simply do as it pleased. In some senses, it helps explain his continued fixation on Iran today.

Those close to Trump and those who had interacted with him—officials, aides, diplomats—described another impulse: an apparently genuine desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Trump, many of them told us, does not care about Iranian aspirations for Middle East hegemony, nor the philosophy of its regime (in the same way, we were told, that he does not care about Russia’s or China’s aspirations, only each regime’s willingness to trade). But he does fear Tehran’s getting the bomb. “He was obsessed about nuclear weapons and getting rid of them,” Fiona Hill, Trump’s adviser on European and Russian affairs until July 2019, told us. Four other current and former officials—from the U.S., Britain, and Europe—relayed similar assessments of the president. “He has this obsession that only he can save the world,” Hill said. “He believes he can be the hero.”

This concern was evident from Trump’s earliest moments in the job. In his first solo press conference as president, in February 2017, he said he wanted to get along with Russia because he wanted to “do the right thing” for the American people, but also for the world. “Nuclear holocaust would be like no other,” Trump explained. “They’re a very powerful nuclear country, and so are we. If we have a good relationship with Russia—believe me—that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.” (Trump has repeatedly spoken of Russia in these terms, and his remarks, his supporters contend, help explain his desire for stronger ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “He was often complaining that he was not able to talk to Putin, when he was the guy who could destroy us 100 times over,” Hill said. This assessment is supported by notes from a lunch between Trump and former British Prime Minister Theresa May, published in The Telegraph, during which he said of Putin, “I have to talk to this guy. He has a thousand nukes. This isn’t the Congo.”)

An initial briefing on the power of nuclear weapons, in which he was told they “could melt granite,” according to Hill, appears to have affected him. Such was his alarm, Hill told us, that she believed that Britain, France, and Germany could have saved the Iranian nuclear agreement had they moved more quickly and forcefully to address his concerns about some of its specific details. She wasn’t alone in her broader assessment of Trump. Kim Darroch, the former British ambassador to Washington, told us he thought that Trump “genuinely believed in full nuclear disarmament.” And Julia Friedlander, Trump’s director for European affairs at the National Security Council until last year, told us the president had seemed to her like “a nuclear-zero guy.” According to Friedlander, “He comes off as the opposite because he’s had hard-line advisers around him advocating for armaments and withdrawing from arms-control agreements. But he wants to get down to zero and believes everyone needs to get down to zero.”

One British official close to May told us that while Trump had no obvious foreign-policy strategy, and cared mainly about trade and American dominance, nuclear disarmament was an exception. “When speaking about his opposition to nuclear weapons, it felt very genuine,” this official, a senior member of May’s team during Trump’s 2019 state visit to Britain, said. Hill confirmed the account of the meeting with May.

The issue of nuclear weapons even provided a brief moment of understanding with Angela Merkel, we were told. During negotiations over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Trump withdrew from, the German chancellor and the U.S. president—who have otherwise had a combative relationship—struck a rare note of harmony: Merkel “talked to him about the 1980s and what it was like in East Germany during that period, and how the 1980s war scare informed everybody’s view,” Hill told us. A senior European official confirmed the account. “She brought that home to him,” the official said of Merkel. “My feeling tells me [Trump’s] horror of nuclear weapons could be genuine.”

If Trump really is a “nuclear-zero guy,” though, what has he done about it in office? Here is where the president’s overriding characteristic comes into play: his desire to dominate. Trump has said he believes that he holds unique insights into the world of nuclear weapons because his uncle was a physicist—Trump even suggested he could be Ronald Reagan’s nuclear negotiator in the 1980s. But he appears to think that the way to secure arms reductions is to showcase American strength to win concessions from the other side. Friedlander said Trump’s view was that the U.S. didn’t need nuclear weapons, but that if other countries were not going to abide by their agreements, “he would show them that the U.S. would not be outmatched.” The upshot is that every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy has struck an agreement to control nuclear weapons, according to Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, but Trump has not.

A similar dynamic plays out over the president’s policies toward Beijing. China’s rise is the most consequential event of the 21st century, and Trump has made it the centerpiece of his campaigns. Though he was not the first or the only political candidate to turn against China, he has undoubtedly shifted the terms of the discussion.

For decades the consensus was that engagement with China was necessary and its opening up desirable. The U.S. foreign-policy establishment long believed that working with Beijing would make the country more liberal, more democratic, more American, and would, on balance, be good for the American economy.

But since the turn of the century, the U.S. has lost millions of jobs, particularly in manufacturing, at least partly because of China’s growing role in the world economy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, 1.7 million jobs have gone, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., which largely blames China’s admission into the World Trade Organization for the loss. In an essay titled “The Death of Engagement” by Orville Schell, a giant in the world of China studies, the former secretary of state George Shultz reflected that the policy of opening up “gave the Chinese leverage over us.”

Hawkishness toward China is a rare position on which Republicans and Democrats in Washington now largely seem to agree, in no small part because of Trump. Daniel Fried, a longtime diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations, told us that prior administrations’ promises about China were “faulty.” He said, “China was in fact not going to respect the rules of the international system, but was going to game and exploit it.”

Yet, just as with nuclear weapons, the contradictions inherent in Trump’s approach have worked to undermine his bid to rebalance the relationship with Beijing.

It is not clear whether Trump cares about great-power competition with China, about military dominance in Asia, or about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea—or whether his criticism was just an extension of his fixation on the trade deficit. Even if Trump has bought into the need to develop a strategy to contain Chinese power, his foreign policy seems perfectly designed to do the opposite: Rather than working with allies in Europe and Asia to form a bloc against Beijing, he targeted them with tariffs and other measures; instead of applying pressure from within American-led (and American-built) multilateral institutions, he withdrew from them; between the democracies with which the U.S. shares values and the autocracies that Beijing favors, he has been warmer to the latter.

Within days of his swearing-in, for example, Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact with staunch American allies such as Australia, Canada, and Japan, that had been designed as a vehicle to contain Beijing’s economic influence. It was an early instance of “America First” in action. “By not going forward” on TPP, Dan Coats, a former Republican senator who served as Trump’s Director of National Intelligence until last year, told us, “we lost a lot of leverage.”

This gets to the heart of Trumpism as a foreign policy. The president appears to have had genuine bipartisan goals of reducing the risk of nuclear weapons, and identified strategic flaws—whether on Iran, multilateralism, overextension, or bipartisan naïveté about China. But in trying to address these issues, he focused solely on using unilateral strength, and instead exacerbated some problems. As Friedlander put it to us: “The Trump administration has been successful in raising the profile of the China problem and laying it bare, in clarifying the nature of Chinese behavior. Determining a coordinated response has proven much more challenging.”

In the case of China, Trump identified a problem none of his predecessors had confronted. This insight has become a settled consensus—a legacy that will outlast his time in office. Yet the practical consequences of Trump’s presidency might be the acceleration of China’s rise, not its containment. When it comes to his hopes of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, propelled by a primary instinct that to compromise is to show weakness, he believes that the way to secure agreements is to use American strength to escalate and dominate. And so, despite his “nuclear zero” desires, he has served to increase the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

The late icon of British socialism, Tony Benn, used to tell a story about Margaret Thatcher. Imagine, he said, a single piece of legislation undoing everything she had achieved. Would that be enough to kill her legacy? No, Benn argued: Thatcher’s power lay in the fact that she had taught Britain to think differently. The same is true of Trump and the way his foreign policy has taught the world to think differently about America.

In our conversations with officials, diplomats, and experts, two core observations came up again and again. The first was that America’s retreat—taken as a given in almost every interview—had not begun under Trump, but Obama. The second was that even if the retreat is reversed under a future administration, the world now thinks differently. Trump’s instinctive unilateralism, his belief that international institutions cage the U.S. rather than project its power, forced other nations to change their calculations about dealing with Washington. This, more than troops on a map, speeches to the U.N., or recalcitrant tweets, may prove to be Trump’s real legacy.

Looking at the architecture of the world order in 2020, one could be forgiven for thinking that not much has tangibly changed. The United States remains the security guarantor of its Western alliance; its troops are stationed in essentially the same places they were in 2016; its bases remain dotted around the world just as before. It is still a member of NATO, and its central bank is more important to the global economy and financial system than it was a decade ago.

But has the United States retreated psychologically? And, just as important, does the world believe that it has? Central to the U.S.’s strategic power is its network of alliances, an immense and semi-voluntary global empire of democratic and economically developed nations protected by the might of the American military. U.S. security guarantees stretch across the globe, projecting martial and financial power and ensuring a huge market for American culture, technology, goods, and finance. The maintenance of this order has been the central foreign-policy objective of every U.S. administration since World War II. Trump is the first president to openly question its value.

Darroch pointed to a moment of American supremacy in the 1990s, when the do-it-all diplomat Richard Holbrooke brokered a peace agreement in Bosnia—a show of imperial resolve to address regional weakness. That America is gone, Darroch said. As if offering a contrast, a senior European official cited rising tensions between Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, that he believed would previously have been stamped out by the U.S. “Sometimes it’s just a withdrawal of interest,” he said.

Perhaps most important, however, have been concerns over continued American involvement in NATO under Trump. Darroch noted that the damage to NATO could not be measured in troops’ numbers, or in dollars and cents, but in the perception of America’s commitment. A psychological question mark had been placed over Article 5 of the treaty, which commits every member to the collective defense of all the rest.

James Melville, the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia who served under Trump, told us the president had been “disastrous” in this regard. Melville recalled a bipartisan congressional delegation in April 2017 to Estonia, a NATO member that shares a border with Russia, followed by a visit by Vice President Mike Pence that year. The trips sought to reassure America’s NATO ally of Washington’s commitment. But why was such reassurance necessary?

Ultimately, if the result of Trump’s bellicosity is a division of America’s allies, leaving the U.S., Europe, and Asia to deal, for example, with China separately, then Beijing’s relative power is only increased—it is simple divide and rule. Brett McGurk, Trump’s former special presidential envoy coordinating the campaign against ISIS, told us that America’s “unmatched comparative advantage” against both China and Russia had always been its ability to build and maintain alliances—in other words, to view power not simply as what one country can do on its own. Lewis Lukens, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London, echoed that sentiment. Trump’s “‘My way or the highway’ … approach makes him feel tough, and it appeals to some of his supporters,” Lukens told us, “but the reality is, it leaves us in a weakened state because our allies don’t see us as [being as] reliable as we used to be, and they don’t necessarily trust us.”

Trumpism is not a strategy, but a worldview that pulls in different directions. It yearns for the simplicity of supremacy and an end to the responsibilities and restraints of that supremacy. It is drawn to disengagement, but does not accept the loss of power that comes with it. It seeks empire without the hassle of colonial rule. These contradictions have worked their way to the surface of Trump’s foreign policy, leaving a record of occasional victories, surprise pivots, plenty of destruction, and just as much boring, strategic stasis.

Trump has failed to turn legitimate insights into practical policies that achieve much beyond American withdrawal from international treaties. In part, this is because to do so would require him to challenge a core tenet of his worldview, principally his disdain for alliances and compromise. McGurk, who resigned in 2018, listed Trump’s achievements in office: pulling out of the World Health Organization, departing from the Paris climate accord, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, letting the INF Treaty lapse, sabotaging the Iranian nuclear deal. “If there’s any consistency in Trump’s foreign policy,” he said, “it’s wreckage.”

To those less favorably inclined toward the president, this failure is also due to Trump’s own lack of curiosity and rigor. Melville told us the president was “unteachable,” recounting how during a 2018 summit, Trump (falsely) claimed in a private meeting that “World War I started in the Baltics, and it was their aggressive nature that caused World War I and World War II to happen. It’s shocking.” On his apparent desire for nuclear disarmament, “he might have aspirations, but his record is one of a lack of follow-through, inconsistency, and, I would argue, total unfamiliarity with the detail,” Kimball told us. Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, went further: “Donald Trump himself is more uneducated about the threats that this country faces than any president that we’ve seen in a century.”

Many of those we spoke with said that, should Biden win the election, much of Trump’s practical legacy could still be reversed. Yet several of the same issues that drive Trumpism would remain: America’s strategic competition with China, the need for Western burden sharing, the centrality of trade, American willingness to continue policing the world.

Should Trump win, however, almost everyone we spoke with agreed, his primal instincts would be unleashed. If his first term is a guide for what might come in the second, only those who unquestioningly support him would survive. Many told us they believed that NATO and America’s system of alliances would come under much greater strain, and perhaps not survive. In fact, U.S. involvement in any global institution would be in jeopardy.

Perhaps Trump will seek a return to the question of nuclear Armageddon that gnaws away at him, and he will look to achieve his superhero fantasy and save the world. His record so far, however, shows that when his fear of nuclear weapons meets his fear of weakness, he will continue his strategy of escalatory dominance, tearing up arms treaties rather than agreeing to new ones. Maybe he will look to corral allies to form a larger bloc against China. His past performance, though, suggests he will instead confront Beijing alone, believing America’s unitary power to be greater than China’s, and thus sufficient. In both cases, and in countless others, Trump’s overwhelming desire—to display what he believes to be strength—will drive the U.S.’s relations with the world.

Yet precisely in this narrow definition of power is where Trumpism fails. The president has—indirectly, implicitly, and perhaps inadvertently—raised legitimate concerns about the burden of the country’s global obligations and whether they are sustainable, reasonable, or worthwhile. Should European and East Asian countries not share the cost of the grand alliance? Equally, would the average American really be harmed if the U.S. gave up some advantages of global leadership in exchange for fewer commitments?

Raw American strength—measured by the country’s share of the global economy, by relative defense spending, or a litany of other criteria—is ebbing. The U.S. remains the most powerful nation on Earth, yet it is less powerful than a decade ago, and the decade before that. In a way, Trump is correct not to fear a world where the “rules-based order” gives way to straightforward great-power rivalry, but this is beside the point.

America has every right to withdraw from its grand strategic commitments, but that comes at the price of reduced global influence. In his unending bid to display American strength, Trump has only accelerated its weakening.