America First Equals America Last

By Richard Boucher

Ambassador Richard Boucher served 32 years at the U.S. Department of State, including roles as Ambassador to Cyprus, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, and Spokesman for six different Secretaries of State. After retiring from the State Department, Boucher spent almost four years as Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Boucher currently teaches at Brown University, focusing on the intersection between diplomacy and economics.

The world got a taste last week of what “America First” means: insulting Iraqis who’ve risked their lives with U.S. forces; blacklisting dual-citizen legislators in Canada; and jeopardizing the political standing of leaders, like Enrique Pena Nieto and Theresa May, who try to work with the new American President.

Yet, the visa ban merely accelerated the trend; other nations were already recalibrating.

  • The Chinese negotiator stood up in Marrakesh, right after our election results came out, and proclaimed China would lead the global effort against climate change. No one objected, and many cheered. China then put its target where its mouth is by announcing a cap on coal production by 2020; a step long advocated by U.S. environmental organizations.
  • More hypocritically, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood up in Davos in January to put himself forward as the champion of free trade. As the United States pulls away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership rises as the alternative.
  • Last year, the Philippines new President, Rodrigo Duterte, decided that rather than push his luck with the Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict against China, he’d go cut a deal. Several visits and $24 billion in trade deals later, the verdict and U.S.-Philippine military cooperation are fading into the beautiful sunset over the South China Sea.
  • Malaysia shows signs of going the same way, since China doesn’t care so much about the $1 billion corruption scandal engulfing Malaysia’s leaders. Compare two headlines: in November 2015, “Malaysia Slams China’s South China Sea Encroachments” and one year later, “China and Malaysia Agree on Military Cooperation.” In January 2017, Chinese submarines visited Malaysian Ports.
  • Pakistan, our on-again off-again non-NATO ally, thrills to the prospect of $46 billion in Chinese investment for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as China reconnects Asia by land in order to keep its supplies and exports away from U.S.-dominated maritime choke points. Indeed, the United States has championed the “New Silk Road” for Central and South Asia for two decades; Chinese money is turning it into reality and making the China connection the most important terminus.
  • Our NATO ally Turkey has run off to Kazakhstan to negotiate with Russia and Iran over Syria –with the U.S. relegated to the kiddie table as an observer.
  • Iranian commentators are making clear that if the U.S. walks away from the nuclear agreement, they will continue to honor the accord if the Europeans, Russia, India and China stick to the deal as well.
  • One of the best Indian bloggers describes how India will manage in a “post-American world,” and India’s former Ambassador to the U.S. asks, “Where is the city on the hill?” and states, “With the rise of Trump, the sun sets on the post-World War II order.”

China seems to be the main beneficiary of “America First.” Indeed, one Chinese scholar told me last summer, “We like Trump because he’ll vacate space for us to move into.” However, China is not always the instigator: The Philippine, Indian, and Kazakh examples should show us that others are looking to take care of themselves.

Certainly, not all enjoy freedom of action. Mexico and Canada are condemned to be our neighbors. We still represent almost one quarter of the world economy, a market hard to pass up for any major company. Our technologies and brands remain strong. Yet, increasingly producers look to new players and new markets –the populous markets of China and India—as the poles of growth.

For the last 75 years, the United States constituted the organizing principle of international order: the one to join, the one to attack, the one to follow. We created military alliances, the World Trade Organization, and the international monetary system. Every country, for better or for worse, had to consider the U.S. view before deciding its own position. The America First path leads to a place where no other country will follow, where the U.S. is no longer the first thought but an afterthought. 

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