The Foreign Policy of Trump’s Second Term – America First Means A Stable World

Recently, Foreign Affairs published Hal Brands’ “An “America First” World: What Trump’s Return Might Mean for Global Order.” In the essay, Prof. Brands hypothesizes that a Trump presidency, led by an “America First” foreign policy, would be based on the outlook that the United States has “no obligation to pursue anything larger than its own self-interest, narrowly construed,” and that this “would be an epic departure from 80 years of American strategy.” Brands also falsely asserts that an “America First” world could be fatal for Ukraine and other states vulnerable to autocratic aggression. It would release the disorder that U.S. hegemony has long contained.

To the contrary, the reality of what transpired during President Trump’s four years in office compared to what the Biden administration has brought about during the past three and a half years is vastly different from the partisan revisionism that Brands advances.

For instance, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC), which is on the march, is dangerously escalating tensions over Taiwan. The preparations for an attack on Taiwan were made obvious this past week with its Joint Sword 2024A exercise, the third such exercise since August 2022. This exercise is significant because the pace of exercises is quickening, thus unmasking Beijing’s intentions and preparations for war. Likewise, in the South China Sea, the PRC’s pressure on the free and open Indo-Pacific, especially against our treaty allies, the Republic of the Philippines, at locations like Second Thomas Shoal and elsewhere, is unrelenting. These actions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) are a daily reminder of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hyper-aggression in global politics, especially under the weak foreign policy of this administration.

Bewilderingly, the Biden administration is allowing this to occur, which is causing great damage to the deterrent posture of the United States. Xi Jinping, the leader of the CCP, now sees that the time to act to conquer Taiwan is now, while America is at its weakest posture in the Pacific since before the Battle of Midway some 82 years ago. What is clear is that Xi is determined to realize the PRC’s goal of being able to conduct a “short, sharp war” against Taiwan.  That matters because if the PRC believes it can win a quick and decisive victory, then the ability of Taiwan and partners like the U.S. to deter such an attack is weakened. Additionally, the PRC has termed their specific training objectives/elements as “joint sea-air combat-readiness patrol, joint seizure of comprehensive battlefield control, and joint precision strikes on key targets.” This adds credence to the thesis of the “short, sharp war” objective for the CCP. Directly stated, the U.S. is not ready to deter the PRC’s aggression against Taiwan.

The CCP’s aggression is continuing and will only get worse as precipitant aggression over Taiwan reaches its crescendo. That would be alarming enough if that were the only problem faced by the United States. Of course, it is not. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is lurching towards a major theater war that runs the great risk of escalating both vertically, in terms of the intensity of the conflict from conventional to limited nuclear war or nuclear war, and horizontally, drawing the U.S. and other NATO allies into the conflict. Evidence for this assertion came this week with news that the Biden administration has “approved” Ukraine’s use of missile strikes into Russia. Add on reports from the New York Times that the U.S. is planning on deploying American troops to Ukraine and that the UK’s Prime Minister is considering conscription, and the risk of an expanded war in Europe grows by the day. Moreover, there are the horrific attacks by Hamas against Israel on October 7, 2023, and the subsequent unprecedented anti-ship ballistic missile attacks by the Houthis into the Red Sea and missile, rocket and drone attacks from Iran against Israel. All of that underscores the Middle East is also in flames.

In essence, if Trump and his “America First” foreign policy returned to the presidency, they would be under great stress to fix the disorder that has been released by the Biden regime. Ukraine and Taiwan are particularly deadly conflicts, as they run the risk of rapid escalation.

This compels the recognition of what President Trump’s America First foreign policy will have to do to correct these grave problems. Four elements are immediately important.

First, this shows how much worse the world is today than in 2020, how much time was lost, and how difficult it will be to address these problems in 2025 due to the disastrous Biden administration. The Biden administration’s foreign policy failures have been so colossal as to rank it the worst in U.S. history, as the benign and relatively stable world of the Trump years has been replaced by policies adverse to U.S. national security interests. In sum, Americans do not know how much worse the damage to U.S. national security interests will be by the time Trump returns to office.

Second, the Biden administration’s handover to Trump will entail immediate hard choices for the Trump administration. The situation in Taiwan might be very different in January 2025 than today, with a spectrum of bad outcomes ranging from the PRC’s successful conquest of Taiwan, an ongoing conflict, or a failed effort that leads to the destruction of computer chip firms and thus a global depression, to—at best—the continuation of the present status quo where Beijing’s menacing actions are the prelude to invasion. Those are very different outcomes and will place the Trump administration in a challenging position. But the solution is at hand. With the Trump administration, the U.S. has the opportunity to move against the enemy’s center of gravity, the Chinese Communist Party, and its megalomaniacal leader, Xi.

Third, in Ukraine, the Biden administration will turn over a situation that compels unacceptable U.S./NATO escalation or the acceptance of an armistice. The Biden administration got the U.S. into this situation and it will require all of Trump’s negotiating skills to end the war on terms that are realistic given Russia’s battlefield successes.

Fourth, Trump will need to repair the U.S. military, the sinews of power, and U.S. alliances. There is much to accomplish here. U.S. conventional and nuclear forces have to be strengthened, the morale of U.S. warfighters restored, the defense industrial base rebuilt, and U.S. allies convinced once again of the credibility of U.S. commitments.

The second Trump administration, regardless of the groundless accusations of isolationism, will have to sound the ship and repair the damage that the Biden administration did to U.S. alliances and national security interests. The lost years of the Biden administration can never be regained and will have to be addressed immediately by the Trump administration’s focus on the strategic realities of the 21st Century. That reality is that the CCP is America’s existential foe and requires a unified and focused U.S. determination to defeat it.

James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are authors of Embracing Communist China:  America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: WATERLOO, IOWA - DECEMBER 19: Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures to guests at a campaign event on December 19, 2023 in Waterloo, Iowa. Iowa Republicans will be the first to select their party's nomination for the 2024 presidential race, when they go to caucus on January 15, 2024. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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