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‘America First’: Trump foreign policy doctrine was named by man who hates it

Inside the unexpected career development for foreign policy guru Ian Bremmer


 
Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty

Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty

WASHINGTON – Imagine being an international-affairs expert, mortified by the views of Donald Trump and you suddenly discover you’ve helped create his foreign-policy slogan.

Welcome to Ian Bremmer’s world.

The author and international-risk consultant recently spotted a consistent concept in a Trump foreign policy most people consider incoherent.

Trump himself brags about its unpredictability – he says he wants to keep rivals guessing.

Build up the U.S. military, but withdraw it from foreign bases; encourage the spread of nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea, so they stop relying on the U.S. for defence; avoid military adventurism, but take Mideast oil while bombing ISIS; build the Keystone XL pipeline, but only if Canada pays more; call NATO obsolete; cancel trade deals; build a wall with Mexico, make Mexico pay.

In all these Trump policies, Bremmer noted a recurring theme: American resentment.

It’s the persistent notion that America is being ripped off. In Trump’s world view, it’s time to make others pay. Bremmer began referring to Trump’s foreign policy in speeches and emails to clients as: “America First.”

He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

“I said, ‘This is clearly America First.’ It’s not, ‘Make America Great Again,’ because it won’t make America great again. This is viewing international relations through a purely zero-sum, winners-and-losers kind of frame,” Bremmer said in an interview. “It’s blaming everyone else in the world for America’s challenges. …

“I was not suggesting this was a good thing.”

The term carries deep, negative connotations in U.S. history. The America First Committee was the isolationist group which pilot Charles Lindbergh belonged to that opposed war with Nazi Germany.

The phrase has just been endorsed, however, by a surprising source: Trump himself. A New York Times reporter asked the candidate about the term Bremmer coined.

Trump replied, “I am America First,” he said. “I like the expression.”

The newspaper put the term in the headline. It published the entire interview transcript, to let readers judge for themselves. It includes Trump suggesting, more than once, that he’d be fine with new countries getting nuclear weapons – a drastic reversal in long-standing American policy.

If it saves Americans money, he said, why shouldn’t Japan and South Korea get their own nukes? “We cannot be the policeman of the world. … You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”

“America First” has now surfaced in numerous media headlines.

It’s an unexpected career development for Bremmer – author of numerous books on foreign policy, president of the Eurasia Group and writer for Time magazine.

Bremmer’s latest book, “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World,” argues the U.S. needs to pick a clear foreign-policy path after stumbling around since the end of the Cold War.

He argues that indecision has had disastrous results. One example Bremmer cites is Russia _ while the U.S. was repairing relations with it in the 1990s, it was simultaneously provoking it with NATO expansion. Every recent president has been guilty, he says, of unpredictable vacillation that has confused friends and foes alike.

He suggests the U.S. choose one of three paths: A leader-of-the-free-world approach that aggressively promotes democracy; a so-called moneyball approach, where the U.S. makes clear it’ll only pick priorities that serve its interests; or a domestic focus, where the U.S. tries setting an example abroad by having an ideal democracy at home.

Bremmer ultimately sides with the third option – which he refers to as Independent America.

He suggests Trump offers a distorted, unattractive version of that: “It’s independence on very large steroids… (We) wouldn’t be an example for the world. (We’d) be a great example for Putin.”

It’s not the first foreign-policy concept Bremmer has named.

He’s coined the J-curve _ which illustrates how some countries become more stable with repression, and others with openness. He’s also offered a twist on the G7 – the G-Zero world, a post-Cold War order defined by a dangerous power vacuum.

He notes some irony in his contributions to the language of international affairs.

“Maybe I’m destined to coin terms for things I don’t like,” he said.

The current president isn’t persuaded his would-be successor has put much effort into the conversation. Barack Obama said last week: “What do (Trump’s nuclear) statements tell us? They tell us the person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean peninsula or the world, generally.”


 

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