American StudiesInternational studiesPolitical studies

Balancing Globalism and ‘America First’ in Foreign Policy


The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 brought a seismic shift in American foreign policy, with his ‘America First’ doctrine representing a departure from the globalist approach that had dominated since the end of World War II. This paper examines the complex relationship between globalism and nationalism in U.S. foreign policy, analyzing the motivations, implementation and consequences of Trump’s inward-looking strategy. It explores the tensions between pursuing narrowly-defined national interests and the need for international cooperation to tackle global challenges. The paper argues that while globalism has its flaws, an unapologetic ‘America First’ policy risks undermining the U.S.-led liberal international order, damaging relations with allies and partners, and emboldening authoritarian rivals. It advocates finding a balanced approach that protects legitimate American interests while recognizing the value of global engagement and leadership.


The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in November 2016 ushered in a period of profound change and uncertainty in American foreign policy. Trump campaigned on an ‘America First’ platform that promised to prioritize domestic concerns and adopt a more unilateral, transactional approach to international affairs. This represented a sharp break from the globalist post-war consensus pursued by successive Democrat and Republican administrations for over 70 years. Globalism, characterized by commitment to international institutions, promotion of free trade and military alliances, and support for democracy and human rights, aligned with America’s position as a superpower. Trump’s inward-looking nationalism led many to question whether the U.S. was abandoning its global leadership role.

This paper examines the complex relationship between competing impulses of globalism and nationalism in U.S. foreign policy during the Trump presidency. It is structured into six parts. It begins by defining globalism and nationalism and providing historical context behind their emergence as rival doctrines. The second section explains the roots of Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy and its contrast to traditional U.S. foreign policy priorities. The third part analyzes how ‘America First’ was implemented across different policy domains such as security, economics and diplomacy. The fourth section evaluates the consequences of Trump’s approach for U.S. interests and the liberal international order. The fifth part considers the future of U.S. foreign policy and whether a post-Trump administration will revert to globalism or seek an elusive balance. Finally, the conclusion argues that while globalism has its shortcomings, an unconstrained ‘America First’ doctrine risks undermining American power and values in the long run. A nuanced compromise recognizing the importance of both global leadership and protection of national interests is required.

Defining Globalism and Nationalism

Globalism and nationalism represent competing worldviews that have framed foreign policy debates for centuries. At their core is a fundamental divergence on how states should orient themselves internationally. Globalists advocate strong international engagement, interdependence and participation in multilateral institutions. Nationalists promote unilateralism, independence and loyalty to the nation-state above else (Kissinger, 2014). These broad philosophies encompass differences over international trade, migration, collective security, environmental regulation and human rights promotion. Their clash helps explain oscillating moods of openness and insularity through history.

Globalism emerged following WWII with the prevailing belief that increased global integration and cooperation could prevent future catastrophic conflict. International institutions like the United Nations, NATO, the GATT/WTO trade regime and the Bretton Woods monetary system reflected optimism around liberal values and benefits of a rules-based order. U.S. political leaders championed globalism as serving both moral and strategic interests. While nationalism was not vanquished, the catastrophes wrought by hyper-nationalism in WWII shifted the consensus toward greater internationalism as the bedrock of American foreign policy (Ikenberry, 2018).

The globalist project accelerated with the end of the Cold War removing the major ideological rival to western liberal democracy. However, cracks began to emerge from the 1990s onward. Critics argued economic globalization undermined domestic jobs and wages by encouraging offshoring. Multilateral trade deals like NAFTA became politically toxic. The 9/11 terror attacks and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bred public skepticism toward expensive military interventions abroad. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis undercut faith in western-led institutions. Significant events like the EU migrant crisis, Chinese rise and Russian resurgence highlighted limits to liberal hegemony. Populist nationalism surged, evidenced by Britain’s Brexit vote and Trump’s norm-breaking candidacy (Rodrik, 2011).

Trump channeled this nationalist backlash toward core globalist assumptions. He questioned why the U.S. should bear disproportionate costs for maintaining the liberal order. He blamed flawed trade deals for deindustrialization and stressed immigration control. His transactional ‘America First’ approach defined U.S. interests narrowly in stark black-and-white terms. For proponents, Trump represented a long overdue correction. Critics warned his abdication of U.S. global leadership would accelerate the descent into unstable multipolarity (Brands, 2017). This debate permeated his presidency and framed policy choices.

Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine

Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine represented a self-conscious repudiation of post-war U.S. foreign policy. His sceptical view of globalism was encapsulated in his 2017 UN General Assembly speech stating “As President of the United States I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first” (Trump, 2017). Key themes of his doctrine were non-interventionism, immigration control, trade protectionism, unilateralism and narrowly defining the ‘national interest’. This contrasted with traditional U.S. globalism emphasizing active leadership, openness, free trade and alliances.

Several factors explain Trump’s ideological outlook. His long-held skepticism of U.S. military commitments was strengthened by the Iraq War quagmire. His background as a businessman shaped views on trade and immigration (Wright, 2017). He exploited anger at cultural change and economic insecurity among his political base. Trump also exhibited pathological tendencies including narcissism, populist demagoguery and affinity for autocrats over democratic allies. This prompted an idiosyncratic personal approach upending foreign policy convention (Nye, 2017).

Trump’s non-interventionist instinct was evident in censuring costly wars for regime change. He pursued unprecedented diplomacy with North Korea to avoid military conflict. Trump moderated his harsh campaign rhetoric against NATO but continued criticizing allies for underspending on defense and free-riding on U.S. security guarantees. He displayed affinity toward autocratic strongmen including Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, Turkey’s Erdogan and the Kim dynasty in North Korea. They appealed to his transactional deal-making instincts and posture as a domineering alpha-male leader. He was willing to overlook human rights abuses and undemocratic practices for perceived American gains (Carpenter, 2020).

On immigration, Trump promoted construction of a border wall to curb illegal entry from Mexico and Central America. He pursued a “Muslim travel ban” blocking entry from suspect countries. His policies drastically reduced refugee intake. Democrats and activists accused him of xenophobia and racism for targeting non-white immigrants, charges he denied (Gramlich, 2020). Restrictive policies appealed to nationalist sentiments among his white working-class political base. But critics argued immigration control alone could not halt long-term structural pressures behind job losses (Colvin & Baum, 2020).

Trump adopted an aggressive unilateralist approach shunning multilateral cooperation. He withdrew from international agreements like the Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal and arms control treaties on grounds they disadvantaged American interests. He cut funding for UN agencies and threatened NATO allies over defence spending commitments. Trump lambasted global institutions like the WTO for constraining U.S. sovereignty. He disrupted major multilateral summits by advocating for Russia’s return and pardoning controversies. Trump was sceptical of liberal values promotion and human rights concerns. His administration restricted immigration and refugee intake from Muslim-majority countries. Trump also praised autocratic leaders repressing opponents and downplayed incidents like the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (McLaughlin, 2018).

The cornerstone of Trump’s economic nationalism was reorienting U.S. trade policy to shrink deficits, restore manufacturing and save American jobs. He lambasted previous administrations for enabling Chinese mercantilism and Signed Trade promotion authority allowing him to renegotiate NAFTA and launch a China trade war invoking tariffs on steel, aluminium and other products. Trump negotiated a new United States-Canada-Mexico (USMCA) trade deal claiming it would bring back automotive manufacturing jobs. However, critics argued his tariffs hurt American consumers and farmers bearing the cost of retaliatory measures (Irwin, 2019). Trump’s trade policy illustrated the complexities of economic nationalism, providing symbolic political benefits but mixed practical results.

Consequences of ‘America First’

Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine produced significant consequences, both intended and unintended, for U.S. foreign relations and the liberal international order. His supporters claimed he advanced American workers’ interests and restored leverage against competitors like China. Critics argued Trump damaged U.S. global leadership, strained alliances and hurt American credibility and values promotion (Brands, 2021). Four years on, the Trump legacy remains hotly contested along partisan lines. But his presidency revealed the disruptive potential of unconstrained nationalism.

In the economic realm, Trump adopted a managed trade approach to reduce deficits and protect domestic jobs. Renegotiating NAFTA into the USMCA did enhance provisions on auto manufacturing and worker rights in Mexico. However, his tariff war with China brought only a ‘phase one’ deal addressing limited trade barriers and technology transfer issues. Most tariffs remained in place, costing U.S. businesses and consumers $88 billion by 2020. Trump’s steel tariffs also hurt manufacturing competitiveness. While benefiting some industries like steel and agriculture, trade protectionism invited retaliation abroad and higher prices at home (Swanson, 2020). Casting trade as a zero-sum struggle, Trump disrupted mutually beneficial integration.

Trump’s immigration and refugee policies succeeded in reducing inflows from Mexico and Muslim-majority countries. However, this provided no remedy for economic pressures behind popular anxiety. Demonizing immigrants may have satisfied elements of Trump’s base but undermined growth and moral leadership. His administration’s family separation policy was widely condemned for human rights violations (Jordan, 2020). Overall, Trump’s draconian approach carried humanitarian costs exceeding security benefits.

In diplomatic relations, Trump’s disdain for multilateralism and preference for unilateral strong-arm tactics brought few tangible dividends. Rejecting agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord forfeited U.S. influence. Questioning NATO undermined efforts to deter Russia. Alienating European and Asian allies weakened the united front required to counter China’s rise. Trump’s erratic leadership style also lowered American soft power and credibility (Nye, 2020). While criticizing globalist overreach, Trump’s unilateral diplomatic disruption often proved counterproductive for advancing U.S. interests.

Trump’s early outreach toward traditional adversaries like Russia and North Korea tried applying his person-centric deal-making flair to intractable problems. However, his summits produced little concrete progress on issues like Ukraine, nuclear weapons and human rights. Autocrats leveraged Trump’s photo-ops for propaganda without making serious concessions. Conversely, Trump irritated democratic allies in Europe and Asia through regular disparagement and zero-sum economic nationalism (Walt, 2018). While aiming to exert U.S. leverage globally, he achieved limited results via unconventional personal diplomacy.

In the Middle East, Trump adopted counter-globalist positions by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal over European objections and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem despite international condemnation. However, this simplified matters into a partisan pro-Israel, anti-Iran posture. His limited strikes against Iran and Syria achieved little strategically. Globalists argued respect for international norms was wiser than disruptive grand gestures (Hess & Yacoubian, 2020). Trump’s high-risk unilateralism in the Middle East showed how easily ‘America First’ posturing could trigger instability and alienation.

Overall, Trump’s presidency revealed that while globalism has its flaws, unrestrained nationalism and unilateralism are rarely optimal strategies in a complex interdependent world. Power itself does not guarantee security or prosperity absent cooperation with allies who extend reach and legitimacy. Go-it-alone policies that aim to shock the system often prove ineffectual or self-defeating. Trump achieved some symbolic wins through defiant posturing but delivered few lasting benefits to American national power. Articulating a persuasive values-based vision is also vital for global leadership, whereas he celebrated illiberal strongmen. Trump demonstrated that the dogmatic extremes of either globalism or nationalism are liable to fail in advancing long-term U.S. interests.

The Future of U.S Foreign Policy

Donald Trump’s defeat in the November 2020 election appeared to sound the death knell for his ‘America First’ experiment. President Joe Biden vowed to reverse Trump’s unilateralist course and rehabilitate U.S. global leadership. However, the forces powering nationalist sentiment remain potent in domestic politics. This raises questions about the future direction of American foreign policy after Trump. Will the U.S. revert to traditional globalism or pursue a new balanced grand strategy?

Biden enters office facing extraordinary challenges, domestically and internationally, that will testCompeting forces are likely to shape policy. Biden’s own internationalist principles and appointment of seasoned globalists to key posts signal intent to reengage with the world. But progressives in his party are sceptical of military commitments overseas. Republicans have doubled down on the nationalist rhetoric of the Trump era. Public opinion favors some form of ‘America First’ prioritization while restoring U.S. prestige (Smeltz et al, 2020).

The U.S. cannot simply turn back the clock to 2016. Global rivalries with Russia and China have intensified. New transnational threats like climate change, pandemics and cyber-attacks require multilateral action. The world is increasingly multi-polar and unstable. However, there are limits to how far Biden can reverse Trump’s unilateralism. American appetite for expensive military interventions remains low. Biden will likely seek to reduce China trade deficits in a less disruptive manner. He recognizes that globalism needs reformed to address legitimate public concerns.

Biden’s early moves indicate a pragmatic balancing act. He recommitted to NATO, the WHO, Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal. But he has maintained Trump’s harder line against Chinese trade practices. Biden also avoids full-scale U.S. reengagement in conflicts like Syria and Afghanistan. His approach channels public opinion favoring global leadership alongside priorities like rebuilding at home (Biden, 2021). A nuanced synthesis of globalism and nationalism appears to be emerging. How sustainable this proves to be as crises unfold may determine Biden’s foreign policy success.


Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine represented a brazen challenge to the U.S.-led liberal international order. His unilateralist nationalism was a reaction to valid concerns about globalization’s uneven costs. But implemented in extremis, Trumpism damaged American leadership, alliances and values promotion. The Biden administration recognizes global engagement remains indispensable for national interests. However, globalism cannot revert to its prior idealistic guise. A pragmatic balance of internationalism and nationalism is required that avoids the pitfalls of either dogma. This means reforming global governance for greater legitimacy and burden-sharing. It means harnessing interdependence through fair rules, not walls. Recovery at home must complement principled U.S. global leadership. Ultimately, Biden must articulate a reasoned values-driven vision that resonates with Americans hungry for both security and purpose. The tensions between globalism and nationalism will remain. But with wisdom and moderation, U.S. foreign policy can better reconcile exceptionalism and mutualism in a changing world.


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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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