These 5 Facts Explain Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy

6 minute read

Donald J. Trump isn’t an isolationist. Like so much else about his candidacy, his views are not nearly that consistent. But some of his criticisms around foreign policy make more sense than he’s given credit for. Others still don’t add up. These 5 facts explain the truth behind Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

1. Trade Wars

“China is killing us, Mexico is killing us, Japan is killing us. Everybody is beating us. We have incompetent people negotiating trade.” Thus spoke Trump last June, and he hasn’t budged much since. He’s called for a 45 percent tax on all Chinese imports, a 35 percent tariff on all goods imported from Mexico and has just railed against Japan generally. To Americans who have lost their manufacturing jobs, the search for scapegoats has understandable appeal. But Trump doesn’t acknowledge that enacting these measures would hit the U.S. too—hard.

Moody Analytics recently modeled Trump’s trade proposals, focusing specifically on his Mexico and China claims. If Trump makes good on his pledges, China and Mexico would fall into recession—but so would the U.S. Four million American workers would lose their jobs, and 3 million jobs that would have been created will be lost. This forecast assumes that China and Mexico will take retaliatory measures on American imports, which is a safe bet. The U.S. economy will be 4.6 percent smaller by 2019 than it otherwise would be, and unemployment would rise to 9.5 percent over that same time horizon. U.S. unemployment currently stands at 4.9 percent.

(The Washington Post, Bureau of Labor Statistics)


Trump stands on firmer ground when it comes to sharing the costs of security, particularly regarding NATO. Trump raised eyebrows recently when he declared that NATO was “unfair, economically, to us” in his wide-ranging foreign policy interview in The New York Times. In fact, the U.S. is currently responsible for roughly 75 percent of the total military spending of all NATO countries, and 22 percent of NATO’s direct budget. The U.S. is one of only five countries that meet NATO’s stated goal of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. (Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom and Estonia round out the rest.)

Read More: These 5 Facts Explain the Good News About Africa

Even in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, NATO’s European members spent, on average, 2.3 percent of their respective GDP’s on defense. Today, they average 1.5 percent each. Trump makes a strong case that the U.S. is spending more than its fair share. Perhaps because this case is being made by Trump, it falls on deaf ears among some within America’s foreign policy establishment. It shouldn’t.

(The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times)

3. Nuclear Powers

Trump’s take on South Korea and Japan are another matter. The U.S. has nearly 50,000 troops stationed in Japan and nearly 30,000 in South Korea as part of long-standing treaties with these allies. Trump has said that South Korea and Japan should consider developing nuclear weapons so that they don’t have to outsource their security. But more countries with nuclear weapons won’t make Asia (or America) safer. Trump acknowledges as much: “It’s a very scary nuclear world. Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.” Yet nuclear proliferation is exactly what he’s suggesting. Trump seems less concerned with that than with the U.S. saving a few more million dollars.


Read More: Turkey’s Erdogan Feels the Pressure

4. Middle East Allies

Trump’s attitude toward South Korea and Japan shows that he considers no U.S. partnership sacred—unless he’s speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A few weeks ago, Trump declared that he would remain “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. But he backpedaled at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on March 20. The US spends nearly $6 billion in foreign military financing, more than half of which goes just to Israel. And truth be told, U.S. support for Israel was never really in question—71 percent of Americans view Israel favorably. Trump’s a populist, after all.

On the other hand, just 37 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally in the region. Trump has said that that the U.S. should halt oil purchases from the Saudis unless they send ground troops to battle ISIS or that they “substantially reimburse” the U.S. for fighting on their behalf. But given how badly Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has gone, it’s not clear that more direct Saudi involvement in Syria and Iraq will help or that the introduction of Saudi troops into these countries will help stabilize them.

There’s another consideration for U.S. policymakers. Saudi Arabia is believed to have spent more than $100 billion exporting Islamic Wahhabism across the Muslim world over the past four decades. If Trump makes good on his threat and cuts Saudi Arabia loose, an increasingly isolated and weakened Saudi Arabia will cast about for new allies. Extremism in the Middle East will become an even bigger problem.
(CNN, Gallup, World Affairs Journal)

5. Middle East Threats

Trump’s plan to defeat ISIS has other problems, too. Three weeks ago, Trump said that the U.S. had “no choice” but to send 20,000 to 30,000 combat troops to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In reality, to defeat an ISIS force of roughly 30,000 fighters, the U.S. would have to send in nearly 90,000 combat troops, which requires another 270,000 military personnel in support positions according to the Pentagon’s “3-1” doctrine for ground combat. (Three support personnel for every combat solider.) Trump quickly did an about-face and said in his New York Times interview that he would pressure other countries to send ground troops to the Middle East while the U.S. bombs ISIS’s oil supply. It’s not clear whether Trump knows that the U.S. is already bombing ISIS oil fields.

Trump has also been quick to pan the Iran nuclear deal, calling it a “disaster” on multiple occasions, and he’s particularly incensed that Iran will receive $150 billion as part of the agreement. The White House claims the actual figure of unfrozen assets is closer to $56 billion. Trump has said he would both “dismantle” and renegotiate the deal once elected to office. Once more, a businessman with an eye on costs may be missing the bigger picture.
(CNN, Politifact)


Read More: These 5 Facts Explain the State of Global Corruption

Taken separately, each of these policies can be considered part of an “America First” approach to foreign policy—or at least to managing near-term costs. Taken together, they represent an incoherent mishmash of policy positions that are better designed to generate campaign rally applause than to make America safer or more prosperous.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at