What is Trump’s “America First”?

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What is Trump's
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The US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team bears an appearance of being dominated by the military brass. This in turn engendered the perception that Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy is not going to happen. But in reality Trump has been biding his time. One sign of it has been the slow, unobtrusive emergence of state secretary Rex Tillerson at the centre stage of policy-making in the recent weeks. (I subscribe to the opinion that Tillerson was an inspired choice President-elect Trump had made in his cabinet appointments.)

Thus, one could hear in the phone conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday the crunchy sound of ice cracking after a deep winter in the deeply frozen Russian-American relationship. (Read my column in Asia Times Trump revisits pledge to take Russia’s help to fight ISIS.)

After reading the transcript of the extraordinary remarks made by Tillerson on Wednesday at the state department on Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda, one gets the feeling that, perhaps, POTUS is shifting gear. Tillerson was ostensibly taking into confidence the employees at the state department, but being the intelligent man he is, would have known that he was also outlining for the world audience the Trump administration’s priorities in the foreign-policy domain. To be sure, what emerges is a radical – even revolutionary – shift in the US foreign policy priorities.

Being an Indian, the really stunning thing is that Tillerson did not say a word about India being a foreign-policy priority. Nor did he take note of the Obama administration’s pivot strategy in Asia. He omitted any reference to Japan; and, he viewed the relations with Australia and New Zealand in terms of their contributions to the US-led war against terrorism.

On the other hand, Tillerson spoke at length about US-China relations. He candidly admitted that North Korea is a litmus test of the efficacy of US-China partnership. Tillerson elaborated on Trump’s intention to upgrade the strategic communication with China, disclosing that CCP’s Politburo members will henceforth get involved with the US-China dialogue while the two presidents will directly oversee the progress under way. Quite obviously, Trump ascribes to China the number one priority in his foreign-policy agenda. Tillerson claimed that there is mutual interest on the part of both Washington and Beijing to develop a long-term Sino-American partnership that would endure for at least half a century.

Quietly but insistently, Tillerson also put on the table Trump’s determination to stabilise and improve the US’ relations with Russia. No doubt, it is a problematic relationship but Tillerson flagged that a comprehensive US-Russia engagement on the range of issues, including intractable issues, will be commencing shortly. Of course, Tillerson spoke cautiously – as if Senator John McCain might have been eavesdropping — but he has re-introduced Trump’s new thinking over the US-Russia relationship, the lurking danger notwithstanding that the very thought of normalization with Russia might raise dust in the Beltway all over again. Simply put, Trump seems to be estimating that the high tide of Russophobia is behind him.

Two other regions that Tillerson prioritized have been the Western Hemisphere and, curiously, Africa. Evidently, trade and investment are the principal drivers of policies in Africa. We may expect mercantilist policies both in Africa and Latin America, which would inevitably necessitate selective US interventions. Significantly, Tillerson singled out the current turmoil in Venezuela.

Unsurprisingly, Middle East has been viewed almost exclusively through the prism of the fight against ISIS. Tillerson’s perspective on the US strategy in Afghanistan is also imbued with such a narrow perspective. In a single pithy sentence, he said: “How do we advance our interest in Afghanistan to a legitimate peace process is what we’re pursuing in Afghanistan, and then keeping this (read ISIS) terrorism network confined as it wants to spread itself through North Africa and Central Africa.” Simply put, he hinted at a two-pronged strategy to achieve a negotiated settlement with Taliban in Afghanistan, while hunting down the ISIS. Clearly, we should note that there is no zest for nation-building in Afghanistan.

Right at the outset of his remarks, Tillerson underlined that the US policies will not be driven by “exceptionalism”. Nor will they be ideology-driven. He expounded that values matter – democracy, human rights, etc. – but they are not to be mixed up with foreign policy. “I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values.” Plainly put, there is no regime-change agenda, no interest in humanitarian interventions, no intentions to be a global policeman.

Equally, “America First”, while implying “it’s American first for national security and economic prosperity,” will have continued use of partnerships and alliances with other countries – except that those countries should also “meet their obligations” so that relationships remain “balanced”. He cited NATO allies, in particular.

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