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'America First' offers opportunities abroad

Nancy Isenson
June 12, 2018

Donald Trump may be able to point to at least one foreign policy achievement during his presidency: He has made it appear futile to watch experts try to shed light on the strategy behind his actions. If there is any.

A man wears a 'Make America Great Again' cap
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Wechter

Mikhail Troitsky's dilemma first became apparent when he elucidated Donald Trump's deal-making, give-and-take approach to foreign relations.

"There's clearly a 'take' for North Korea," he said of the US president's dealings with leader Kim Jong Un. "The gamble is that North Korea is going to go on a path of regime change. North Korea moving towards more engagement will lead to domestic change." 

But then Troitskiy, associate professor and dean of the School of Government and International Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, undercut his whole analysis, saying he didn't really believe there was a strategy behind Trump's moves. He was not alone.

"I think he takes the problems of the world on a case-by-case basis," said John Gizzi, chief political correspondent at conservative US media outlet Newsmax and a member of the White House press corps.

The panel at the Global Media Forum, an international media conference in Bonn hosted by Deutsche Welle, had gathered to discuss the threats and opportunities that increasing isolationism poses for international relations. But the exchange revolved mainly around Trump, despite a few attempts to take it in another direction.

Benedikt Franke, John Gizzi and Mikhail Troitsky
Left to right: Benedikt Franke, John Gizzi and Mikhail TroitskyImage: DW/P. Böll

Sean Jacobs, associate professor of international affairs at the New School and founder of the Africa is a Country media website, began by underlining that the main US involvement on the African continent is military, and that engagement is being scaled down. Meanwhile, China has a huge presence in Africa and has clearly made it a priority, with the Chinese premier or other high officials visiting the continent 79 times in the past 10 years.

But the subject of China did not catch on.

'More than a wake-up call'

"It is a time of political change in the United States," Gizzi said, adding that the country's engagement in Iraq — beginning with the US invasion in 2003 and its withdrawal of troops in December 2011 — had caused a rethink in US foreign policy circles.

Read more: Opinion: Time to scrap the G7

He compared the greater focus in the US on domestic issues to the political developments in Italy, which have brought a coalition of populists to power as part of "an Italy first movement." And he went on to characterize the British vote to leave the European Union as a "Britain first movement," and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the largest opposition party in Germany's parliament, as a "Germany first movement."

Benedikt Franke, chief operating officer of the Munich Security Conference Foundation, injected a note of hope into the discussion, albeit with an undertone of fatalism. "It's not as bad as it looks," he said, adding that the international world order is not near unraveling. "It's an enormous change for Europe, and Germany in particular," an opportunity they could take advantage of.

Mikhail Troitsky and Sean Jacobs
From left: Mikhail Troitsky and Sean JacobsImage: DW/U. Wagner

He went on to describe the stunned atmosphere that permeated the Munich Security Conference in February, which took place one year after Trump's inauguration as US president. "It wasn't so much like a wake-up call, but more like a heart attack," that prompts changing one's habits and behaviors, Franke said.

Read more: Munich Security Conference — the end of diplomacy?

But he said no, Europe is not in a position to respond in a timely fashion.

Troitsky summed up the sentiment: "Donald Trump is testing American power and international institutions and norms in the world arena."

The question arose as to whether institutions like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund would change in reaction to Trump. They hadn't in response to the rise of China, Jacobs pointed out.

But maybe they won't have to. Franke drew attention to "the Trump Doctrine," apparently newly defined by a senior aide, in an article published on Monday in US magazine The Atlantic: "We're America, bi***es."

"It is forgetting all about soft power," he lamented. "America has lost so much clout in the world. As you saw at the G7, people are beginning ignore the American agenda."

"Losing soft power. I don't think you can go long at all..." Troitsky said.