How did Donald Trump’s America First policies impact international institutions?


The concept of global power is not a recent idea; throughout history, many great transcontinental empires and nations have emerged, ruled, and vanished (Carafano, 2015). The United States, with its vast land, growing population, and emerging economy, began its ascension towards global hegemony after the American Civil War (Hunt, 2007, pp.11-31). With the fall of the Pax Britannica, America’s emergence almost seems inevitable. As stated in The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, “As early as 1870 the United States had caught up in total output and by 1913 dwarfed the British economy by a margin greater than two to one (Hunt, 2007, p.24).” Yet, as the new leader of the western hemisphere, America did not want to assert dominance through obtaining colonies and engaging gunboat diplomacies like the British Empire did in the 19th century (Wong, 2000). The United States wanted to establish a US-led world order based on rules and trade rather than bloodshed and slavery.

America’s desire to build supranational organizations is based on a theory called liberal internationalism. The theory was developed by several well-respected philosophers, most notably Immanuel Kant, with the idea that peace and prosperity can only be achieved through 3 underlying principles: 1) having democratic governments, 2) international laws, and 3) material incentives that decrease conflicts (Doyle, 2004; Jahn, 2013). The first person who attempted to materialize liberal internationalism was America’s 28th President, Woodrow Wilson. During President Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech in 1918, he outlined possible plans to prevent another World War and to ensure peace in Europe and around the world. Of the fourteen points, his most famous was establishing the League of Nations (Wilson, 1918). He laid out a potential international system where countries would be able to settle disputes through negotiations and treaties. As President Wilson famously stated, “We do not wish to fight her either with arms or with hostile arrangements of trade if she is willing to associate herself with us and the other peace-loving nations of the world in covenants of justice and law and fair dealing (Wilson, 1918).” The United States, which was not devastated by World War I, was able to lead in this system. Though strongly supported by President Wilson, the plan eventually failed after immense pushback from isolationists within America. Without the U.S., the League of Nations was an utter disappointment that failed to prevent World War II (Henig, 2019).

The United States’ second attempt at putting liberal internationalism in action was establishing the United Nations system. After another World War that pillaged Europe and Asia, the United States remained mostly undamaged and found itself the role as the leader of the world order. Unlike during Wilson’s presidency, the United States’ had domestic and international support to establish an international organization that functions similarly to the failed League of Nations (Goodrich, 1947, pp1-2). The world thus entered a new era of Pax Americana which ruled with its newly established United Nations system. However, the American-led United Nations system alone was not sufficient. Aside from the United States’ undisputed military might, America established its dominance through the Bretton Woods system. The Bretton Woods system was established in 1944, one year before the establishment of the United Nations. The system created America-based international economic organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (Ghizoni, 2013). It allowed America to project its global financial influence, assert the U.S. dollar as the sole global currency, and allowed New York to replace London as the world’s financial hub (Hunt, 2007, pp. 163-164). This system had been the essence of America’s grand strategy since World War II. As a report from Rand Corporation states, “Support for the liberal international order has been the single most consistent theme of U.S. grand strategy since World War II, and over seven decades, U.S. grand strategy has contributed markedly to the success and advancement of that order (Brands, 2016).” However, with the election of the United States’ 45th president Donald Trump in 2016, the institutions that have guided America’s foreign and economic policies for over half a century now face challenges from within the country. Instead of continuing the U.S.’ commitment and promotion of international organizations like his predecessors, President Trump began developing policies around the concept of America First. These policies take a mercantilist approach towards trade, aims to eliminate America’s trade deficit, and withdraw America from international trade treaties and organizations (Noland, 2018, pp.262-266). Trump declared that previous grand strategies had negatively impacted America by increasing the trade deficit and decreasing domestic manufacturing (White House, 2017). In this paper, I will explore the impact of Donald Trump’s America First policies on international institutions and world politics. I will provide case studies on the Sino-American trade war and Trump’s actions on the World Health Organization (WHO) during COVID-19.

Since China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, trade relations between China and the United States had been strained. Aside from the European Union, which combines 27 member states, the U.S. has the most trade disputes with China and vice versa (McKenna, 2018). The main reason behind such tension is China’s trade practices. Based on fact sheets published by the White House, China had used trade practices such as engaging in dumping, imposing discriminatory non-tariff barriers, increasing forced technology transfers, and creating industrial subsidies. These tactics give Chinese products advantages and allow them to outcompete other countries (White House, 2018). The United States had long been alarmed and often retaliated against such actions. The first incident of America’s WTO complaint against China’s trade practice was from the Bush administration in 2004. The U.S. condemned China for granting domestic produced integrated circuits an advantage by imposing a 17% value-added tax on imported integrated circuits. In less than four months, China agreed to settle the dispute by revoking the value-added tax (WTO, 2004). Since the initial complaint, America had more frequently relied on the WTO to resolve trade disputes. The United States, under the Obama administration, filed more WTO complaints than any other country (with 16 of these against China alone) and won every single one of these challenges (White House, 2017).

The United States’ reliance on the WTO to resolve trade disputes came to a halt when Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. Early on in the campaign, he had made numerous allegations that China is stealing American jobs and creating an outstanding trade deficit by using trade practices like currency manipulation (Holland & Lawder, 2017). President Trump even went so far as claiming China is “raping our country” on trade (Diamond, 2016). Unlike past administrations, he had sent out a clear message that he would not use the WTO to settle future disputes. As a part of his America First policy approach, President Trump had openly called the WTO “the single worst trade deal ever made” and had threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the organization (Micklethwait et al., 2018). President Trump’s first trade action to fulfill his campaign promise was in 2018. He imposed large amounts of unilateral tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines to address America’s trade deficit and to protect domestic manufacturers. Though the tariffs apply to all countries, they were targeted at China, which is the largest exporter of solar panels (Brown, 2018). Compared to the Bush administration’s integrated circuits case, the Trump administration’s decision completely bypassed the WTO and was decided solely by the United States Trade Representative (Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2018). Such a unilateral imposition of tariffs led to retaliation by China and eventually spiraled into a full-on trade war (Bown & Kolb, 2020). Throughout the trade war, the United States imposed a total of $550 billion worth of tariffs against China; The latter retaliated with $185 billion worth of tariffs (Wong & Koty, 2020). Despite the astronomical number, the largest trade war in decades, the United States only requested consultations from the WTO twice regarding its disputes with China (World Trade Organization, 2018; World Trade Organization, 2018; Li & Balistreri & Zhang, 2018). The increase in the U.S.’ reluctance on requesting WTO consultations demonstrates not only the rise in unilateral policies but also the abandonment of the World Trade Organization. With the wealthiest and most prominent member of WTO shifting away to unilateralism, the influence and integrity of the rule-based supranational organization is greatly hindered.

America First policies also negatively impacted another international institution, the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO was a prominent part of the United Nations system since its birth in 1945 (World Health Organization). It was created in the belief that globalization not only allows ideas to spread but also diseases; to combat global pandemics, the world needs an organization to guide international public health (World Health Organization, 1958, pp.3). WHO was never a mere add-on towards the UN system but an essential part of the international order. As stated in The first ten years of the World Health Organization: 1948-1957, “(WHO) was, however, not an isolated example of international co-operation, but rather one of many symptoms of a new international movement-a movement born, in an age of nationalism, as a necessary adjunct to the enormous growth of international intercourse and commerce which had been made possible by developments in transport and communications(World Health Organization, p.5).” Since its establishment 75 years ago, WHO eradicated and mitigated Smallpox, Polio, Ebola, and other life-threatening diseases that took away millions of lives across the globe (Boseley, 2015).

In early 2020 when the outbreak of COVID-19 happened in China, WHO also acted swiftly declaring it a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020 (World Health Organization, 2020). Yet, only 2 days after the declaration, President Trump openly stated that “We pretty much shut [COVID-19] down coming in from China (Puhak, 2020).” Such contradictory statement can also be explained by President Trump’s America First platform. The distrust of international institutions is deeply rooted in his political principles. He had expressed skepticism and his intended negligence of international institutions on multiple occasions. President Trump had even openly defended his America First policies in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly by stating that “the future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots (White House, 2019).” This explains why Trump ignored the WHO’s advice and downplayed the severity of COVID-19. Trump’s mistrust of international organizations came to the apex when he declared that he would withdraw the U.S. from the WHO amid a global pandemic (Ortagus, 2020). As part of his platform, he had tried to boost his America First policies by blaming WHO for the deaths caused by COVID-19. In his White House briefing, he claimed that “The WHO pushed China’s misinformation about the virus” and “The WHO’s reliance on China’s disclosures likely caused a 20-fold increase in cases worldwide (White House, 2020).” Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of WHO is detrimental to the organization. The United States contributes 15% of the World Health Organizations’ total budget. Pulling out will destroy the organization that had acted as the foundation of the liberal world order for over 75 years. By withdrawing, the United States will also lose its ability to have influence over the global institution. Considering the U.S. is the biggest contributor, there would be a tremendous impact if the U.S. withholds its payments. This is why past administrations had used withholding payments to exercise influence over WHO and other international political institutions (Mckeown, 2009). In International Law and U.S. Withholding of Payments to International Organizations, the author stated different methods of payment withholding that the U.S. has used to influence supranational organizations. Each method was used in different circumstances and each has had different impacts on the global political system (Nelson, 1986). The U.S. leaving WHO would greatly diminish America’s global influence and its control over the liberal world order.

America’s departure from WHO also raised concerns from around the world. The European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Borrell Fontelles, had expressed his worries by tweeting that he “deeply regrets U.S. decision to suspend funding to WHO. There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic (Fontelles, 2020).” This demonstrates the increasing worry that America is becoming unfit to lead the world order under President Trump’s America First policies. Such withdrawal from international organizations and treaties greatly undermines the United States’ global credibility thus damaging America’s soft power (Handley, 2020).

There are several limitations to my argument against President Trump’s America First policies. It is necessary to clarify that certain aspects of his decisions are substantiated. Trump’s decision to impose unilateral tariffs on solar panels is controversial, yet, he is not the first president to do so. President Obama also imposed unilateral solar panel tariffs on China in 2012, however, tension did not escalate to a trade war (Springer, 2012). Trump’s accusation of WHO’s reliance on Chinese data regarding COVID-19 is also partly supported. On January 23, 2020, WHO Director-General stated that it would not declare COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern and he believed China had taken appropriate actions (World Health Organization, 2020). This allowed the disease to travel and transmit until the WHO Director-General overturned his own statement on January 29, 2020.

There are two serious concerns regarding international organizations. The temptation of unilateralism and China’s increasing influence in international organizations. Stronger countries often follow international laws and restrain themselves from abusing their power on weaker states. Leaders of great powers often face temptations to disregard international regulations and act unilaterally to fulfill their national interests (Malone & Khong, 2003). Aside from leaders’ inclination of turning towards unilateralism, China’s increasing global influence will also threaten international organizations. As China’s power increases, it gives more influence and legitimacy to China’s authoritarian regime. This could undermine the liberal ideals that served as the basis of international institutions. As stated by Professor John Ikenberry, “The future of international order will be shaped above all by China, which will use its growing power and wealth to push world politics in an illiberal direction (Ikenberry, 2011, p.57).” However, rather than dismantling the WHO and bypassing the WTO, the United States should continue on with liberal internationalism and promote the rules- based liberal world order. Rather than abandoning the liberal internationalism system that served as the basis of American hegemony, the system should be reformed and renewed. As Professor John Ikenberry stated, “the solution to these problems- integrating rising power and tackling problems cooperatively- will lead the order’s old guardian and new stakeholders to an agenda of renewal (Ikenberry, 2011, p.68).”

President Trump’s unilateral tariff against China and his decision to withdraw the United States from WHO demonstrate how America First policies negatively impacted international organizations and world politics. The real damage of President Trump’s America First policies on international institutions is far greater; Aside from the two cases I mentioned earlier, President Trump also withdrew from 10 other major international treaties and organizations since his presidency(Wolf & Carman, 2019). There is no doubt that President Trump’s America First policies significantly impacted world politics and undermined international organizations. Whether America can retain the position as the world’s hegemon in the 21st century remains unclear.

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