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Trump’s Protectionism and Isolationism

Trump's Protectionism and Isolationism

By: Shahidul Anam Khan

Making America isolated again

“Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?” – George Washington, Farewell Address [September 17, 1796]

Donald Trump’s slogan “America First,” which he used extensively during his election campaign was not new as it was reminiscent of the isolationism policy adopted by some US administrations. A cursory look at the US history reveals that the United States has largely remained, or attempted to remain, independent from the affairs of other nations. At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans increasingly felt that they did not need the rest of the world, and after the First World War, the US returned to its policy of isolationism. This meant that the US would avoid being involved in any dispute that could lead to war, even though it still encouraged trade with other countries (To further this notion, Neutrality Acts were passed in 1935, 1936 and 1937). The Trump administration now seems to have a “realist” approach to world affairs with an intention of becoming more isolated from certain interventions. 

It seems that America under Trump is becoming gradually protectionist, reviving the memories and the experiences of the ’20s and ’30s era of the last century. And, this has been brought upon by US policies at home and its bilateral and multilateral relationship in the international context. Trump’s executive orders indicate a deliberate effort to delink the US with the rest of the world. His very first pronounced words as the 46th President of the United States were: “From now on, it will be America first.” Although it did not take long for Trump to acknowledge that “America first” cannot mean “America alone,” he has done everything to further the singular goal of American national interest at all costs. It has not dawned on him yet that in an increasingly globalised world, enlightened self-interest cannot remain circumscribed by national interest alone.

Consequently America’s long-term allies have been alienated. He has asked his European allies for protection money to keep NATO going, without realising that it was European lives and its landmass that were put at stake to protect US global geopolitical interest to which the US had committed to fight till the “last West German and last bullet.”

Regrettably, Trump’s internal policies are a déjà vu of the 30s. And his foreign policy, both political and trade, is likely to see America being gradually isolated prompting the other existing and aspiring world powers to jockey for geopolitical space around the globe, consigning the world into greater turmoil than what we have endured in more than two decades since the commencement of the so-called global war on terror, and the younger Bush’s re-enunciation of the “new world order.” The concept of a new world order has become outdated by the geopolitical developments around the major conflict zones in the world. Thus, while the US would want the thrust and aim of its foreign policy to dictate events in every corner of the world, there are other powers that stand in its way.

The US’s Israel policy is seen by some critics as being a threat to its own national interest in the long run. And since 1973, many feel that Israel has been a strategic liability for the US rather than an asset. It is proving more so now after two very recent developments – shifting of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the wanton killing by Israeli soldiers of the Palestinian protesters in Gaza who were marking 51 years for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

Trump’s decision to shift the US embassy to Jerusalem has been under fire from most countries. The move was roundly thumped at the General Assembly with 128 countries condemning it. The vote was followed by the most undiplomatic outburst of its permanent representative conveying a threat. She said, “The US will remember this day,” threatening to withhold US contribution to the UN or to any country that “comes calling.” As usual, the US vetoed the Draft Security Council Resolution on protecting the people in Gaza and other Israel-occupied territory of Palestine. In what is described as a moment of diplomatic humiliation Nikki Haley was the only person who voted for a counter resolution, which the US had submitted criticising Hamas, with the US’ allies abstaining.

No other development in recent times exposes the gradual isolation of the US than these two epic events at the UN.

On the other hand, from some very important international and commercial deals that the US has signed, Trump wants outsized benefits. He wants to rewrite NAFTA, a deal which was designed to make North America more competitive in the international market. Instead he wants to engage in bilateral rather than the trilateral arrangement that it is. It has slapped a 25 percent duty on steel imports from Canada, begetting a reciprocal action.

The US and China are on the verge of a trade war with the US slapping USD 50 billion duty on Chinese goods. This is reminiscent of the ’30s when the US Congress imposed the highest tariffs in 50 years resulting in the stifling of foreign trade and shrinking of foreign markets.

As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the other 11 members of the TPP have vowed to re-calibrate their policies and go ahead without the US after it decided to leave the multilateral trade partnership at the toe end of 2017. The regional agreement has been renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The US has reneged on its commitment to mitigate the consequence of climate change by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, thereby endangering the lives of Americans more than others.

Obviously, the rest of the world will have to prepare to go it alone, without the US in many areas. The looming trade war, particularly for small countries, will have serious consequences. As for the US, increasing intolerance and isolationist tendencies may hold for some time but not perpetually. It may be relevant to mention that as a consequence of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, real national income in US fell by 36 percent, unemployment increased from 3 percent to over 25 percent, more than 40 percent of all banks were permanently closed, and international investment and trade declined dramatically. Trump’s trade policies portend such a possibility.

What is isolationism?

In purest form, it is a nation’s total retreat from the world stage. The term, however, usually describes a policy of noninterventionism: avoiding foreign alliances and conflicts, and waging war only if attacked. Isolationism has been a recurrent theme in US history. It was given expression in the Farewell Address of President George Washington and in the early 19th-century Monroe Doctrine. The term is most often applied to the political atmosphere in the US in the 1930s. The failure of President Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism, liberal opposition to war as an instrument of policy, and the rigours of the Great Depression were among the reasons for Americans’ reluctance to concern themselves with the growth of fascism in Europe. The Johnson Act of 1934 and the Neutrality Acts (1930s) effectively prevented economic or military aid to any country involved in the European disputes that were to escalate into World War II.

How the US Founders were isolationist?

They saw America’s geographical separation from Europe as an ideal opportunity to cultivate the new nation in solitude. With the notable exception of the successful 1846–48 Mexican War, which expanded US borders to include California and much of the West, the US disdained military adventures in other parts of the world. America does not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” Secretary of State John Quincy Adams declared in 1821.

When did isolationism end?

A turning point was the Spanish-American War. During Cuba’s revolt against Spain in 1898, President William McKinley sent the battleship Maine on a goodwill visit to Havana — where it blew up in the harbour, killing more than 250 US sailors. Historians now believe an internal explosion destroyed the ship, but at the time Americans — egged on by a jingoistic press — blamed Spain, and the US declared war. After four months, Spain surrendered, ceding Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the US. The conflict made a national hero and vice president of Theodore Roosevelt, the charismatic leader of the volunteer Rough Riders regiment. When Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, he pursued a muscular foreign policy — his credo was “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” To promote US interests abroad, he ordered the construction of the Panama Canal and negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese war.

What revived isolationism?

Chiefly, it was a horrified response to World War I. The US entered the “war to end all wars” in 1917, unleashing a burst of flag-waving fervour. But the sickening carnage in Europe — 17 million dead and another 20 million wounded — sparked a long period of isolationism. Americans withdrew into the pursuit of money and fun during the prosperous 1920s, and in the Depression-ravaged ’30s worried more about putting food on the table than about the rise of militaristic dictatorships in Europe and Japan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the threat, but could not control the isolationist Congress. When war finally broke out in 1939, it gave rise to the America First Committee.

Trump’s isolationism

As of lately, the activities of the US government has been isolationist to an extreme that is worrying everyone in and out of international affairs. Within the last year, the US has officially withdrawn from the UN Migrant and Refugee Compact, the Paris Climate Accord, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. As of June 11, 2018, this year, President Donald Trump has spoken and acted against US allies at the G7 Summit, and has also pulled out from the UN Human Rights Council.

In world politics, the US has been known to always harbour an exceptionalist (or unique) attitude towards international affairs. The country firmly believes in its ability to do things without any external policing force involved. Despite being a self-proclaimed human rights defender, the US hesitates to join international human rights institutions and even refuses to enact agreements through Congress. It has never ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Rome Statute giving the International Criminal Court.

In regard to withdrawals of both USHRC and UNESCO, bias against Israel was stated as a reason; in other cases, it was a concern for sovereignty. This is a recurring pattern that shows the US incapability or unwillingness to be held accountable for human rights violations.

Will it succeed?

Noted Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson answers the question in the following words:

“The great delusion of Donald Trump’s presidency is that we can thrive by embracing nationalism even though major economic and political events are increasingly driven by international forces. Trump is an isolationist in an era of globalism. It won’t work … [w]e cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. To the contrary, power is being drained from nation states to “market forces” or other global mechanisms that are difficult to control. This has been going on since at least the mid-19th century and reflects new communication and transportation technologies: the telegraph, the telephone, television, the internet, automobiles, planes and containerization.”

Trump's Protectionism and Isolationism

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