The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As it turns out America First does equal America Alone

Donald Trump has very little agenda-setting power.

19 leaders from the world's leading economies broke with President Trump on climate policy at the Group of 20 meeting on July 8. (Video: Reuters)

To assess President Trump’s performance at the G-20 Summit, it is worth remembering two things. First, for years, Republican foreign policy commentators blasted Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy strategy as an abdication of U.S. leadership and an abandonment of U.S. allies. A specific criticism was the notion that the Obama administration had done little while Russian President Vladimir Putin had intervened in Ukraine and Syria. A deeper criticism was that Obama seemed reactive to world events. Rather than setting the global agenda, Obama was often criticized for being a prisoner of other people’s agendas.

The second thing is that, two months ago, two key Trump White House staff members wrote an extraordinary op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising that Trump’s strategy of “America First” would not mean “America Alone.” National security adviser H.R. McMaster and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn were quite explicit on this point:

America First does not mean America alone. It is a commitment to protecting and advancing our vital interests while also fostering cooperation and strengthening relationships with our allies and partners. A determination to stand up for our people and our way of life deepens our friends’ respect for America.

So did last week’s G20 summit bear out McMaster and Cohn’s claim? No. No, it does not.

In many ways, this cake was baked even before the summit started. The European Union and Japan responded to Trump’s protectionist instincts by announcing an agreement on a trade deal. As my colleague Ana Swanson reported:

Leaders from Japan and the European Union on Thursday announced their agreement on the broad strokes of a trade deal that will cover nearly 30 percent of the global economy, 10 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global trade.
If the nations agree to the terms, the deal will create a trading bloc roughly the same size as that established by the North American Free Trade Agreement, a 1994 deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Coming on the eve of the Group of 20 meeting of global leaders in Hamburg, the announcement appeared to be a calculated rebuke of both the United States, which has spurned global trade agreements in favor of more protectionist policies under President Trump, and Britain, which voted to leave the European Union last year.

It does not seem as though America’s allies are really following Trump’s lead here.

Meanwhile, for all of Trump’s happy talk in recent months about China pressuring North Korea, last week’s ICBM launch led to a coordinated statement — from China and Russia. As The Diplomat’s DD Wu noted:

What is noteworthy this time is that the July 4 joint statement is actually the first such statement issued under the name of both Foreign Ministries in ten years. The statement’s prompt timing as well as the signing parties demonstrates the highest-level consensus and determination between both countries. Given that Russia and China are both the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the joint statement implies a strong alliance between the big two on the issue, which could be a double-edged sword for both North Korea and the United States.

So for all the talk about a successful Trump-Xi Mar-a-Lago Summit, it would appear that China coordinated much more with Russia on North Korea. And Russia subsequently blocked any useful U.N. Security Council statement on North Korea’s ballistic missile program.

Finally, the United States was pretty marginalized at the G-20 summit itself. China and Germany took the lead in the run-up to the summit. In the aftermath, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post write-ups looked pretty. From the Times:

For years the United States was the dominant force and set the agenda at the annual gathering of the leaders of the world’s largest economies.
But on Friday, when President Trump met with other leaders at the Group of 20 conference, he found the United States isolated on everything from trade to climate change, and faced with the prospect of the group’s issuing a statement on Saturday that lays bare how the United States stands alone.

And from The Post:

President Trump and other world leaders on Saturday emerged from two days of talks unable to resolve key differences on core issues such as climate change and globalization, slapping an exclamation point on a divisive summit that left other nations fearing for the future of global alliances in the Trump era.
The scale of disharmony was remarkable for the annual Group of 20 meeting of world economic powers, a venue better known for sleepy bromides about easy-to-agree-on issues. Even as negotiators made a good-faith effort to bargain toward consensus, European leaders said that a chasm has opened between the United States and the rest of the world.

In the end, they all signed a communique, one that singled out the Trump administration’s opposition to the Paris climate change accord.

So, at best, the rest of the G-20 shrugged at Trump’s discordant policy positions. At worst, they refused to follow him on any major issue. The economy and the environment were the issue that made up the bulk of the communique, and on both of these issues the United States was largely isolated.

Trump’s nationalist advisers are apparently giddy about the trip, believing that Trump’s Warsaw speech combined with his bilateral meetings in Hamburg made him look presidential. In actuality, his Warsaw speech was a mixed bag. As for his bilateral with, say, Putin, the deliverables are dubious. On the plus side, a cease-fire in Syria appears to be holding. On the down side, Trump’s proposed cyber-cooperation with Russia drew widespread mockery from experts and Republican politicians. The criticism was so fierce that Trump managed to contradict himself on Twitter in a single day:

Perhaps the biggest summit fail was the Trump’s lack of any agenda-setting power. There was no issue the president was able to push onto the agenda that was not already on the agenda. Instead, while Trump had his meetings, ties between other countries (the EU and Japan, Russia and China, the EU and China) seemed to deepen far more.

So, to sum up: No other G-20 member agreed with the United States on the two key issues at the summit, climate change and trade. Trump’s most high-profile bilateral meeting proved to be a political embarrassment for the administration. And the rest of the world is growing inured to Trump’s America First strategy.

Maybe, just maybe, America First does mean America alone.