When Donald Trump raised the roof at his raucous rallies with pledges to put “America First,” he hit a political nerve. The long-mothballed phrase, revived from another era of American history, became shorthand for rethinking our whole relationship to the world. Seven decades after the end of World War II, why does the United States still guarantee the security of Germany and Japan? Does boosting Mexican manufacturing through the North American Free Trade Agreement really help American workers? Why are 23 of the 28 NATO members allowed to ignore NATO rules on how much they must spend on defense? Why must the U.S. do more so that others can do less?
Six months into his presidency, we’ve seen enough of the program to assess just how well he’s fulfilling this promise. Is America First paying off for America?
Not exactly. Trump has definitely shaken up the old certainties of global relations. But for whose good? It’s not clear how bombing Syria’s Bashar Assad advances U.S. interests as Trump has defined them. There are still U.S. troops in Afghanistan for some reason. His back-and-forth on U.S. support for NATO has motivated members to make new promises, but he has also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend Montenegro against foreign aggression—surely not a priority of heartland voters. If you think the Paris accord on climate was a bad deal for the U.S., you’re happy that he pulled the U.S. out. If you think he did this mainly to throw his base a bone as other campaign promises go unrealized, you might be a bit more cynical. If you think it serves U.S. interests to signal European allies that they better make defense plans that don’t include Washington, then you’re probably pleased. If you think shaking up the alliance actually makes the U.S. less secure, then you’re not.
So who, if not America, benefits most from the Trump foreign policy? We surveyed the past six months, cutting through the rhetoric to take a clear look at who’s up, who’s down, and who the real policy winners are under America First. The methodology is pretty simple. Multiply 1) the likelihood they’ll be helped by Trump’s policies, 2) the magnitude of that help, and 3) how soon that help will arrive.
Let’s start with some big names that you won’t see on this list: Russia and China. Vladimir Putin might have expected Trump’s victory to clear obstacles in Russia’s path, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Suspicions that Russians interfered in the U.S. elections feed anti-Russian sentiment in Washington. U.S. sanctions against Russia remain in place. Trump’s willingness to let the Pentagon make Syria policy has U.S. and Russian defense officials directly at odds. And whatever Trump says about Putin and his government, there are plenty of Trump administration officials, both Pentagon types and diplomats, singing from a very different hymnal. Putin is pleased that Hillary Clinton lives in Chappaqua and not on Pennsylvania Avenue, but Trump and his team are likely to prove a source of continual frustration.
China didn’t make the list either. President Xi Jinping appreciates the global leadership opportunities that Trump’s America First approach has created. It allowed him to take up the mantle of leadership on trade at Davos this year and to pledge partnership with Europe on climate change. Yet, with a major leadership transition on tap this fall, China needs peace and predictability. Trump’s ability to make trouble—over trade deficits, North Korea, or both—is stoking anxiety in Beijing in advance of a crucial political leadership transition this fall.
Trump’s ability to stir the pot with China and North Korea also keeps vulnerable Japan off the list of winners. The United Kingdom may eventually get a new trade deal with the U.S., but only after Brexit is done, if at all. Nor is ISIS a winner, because the group’s fundraising and recruitment depends much more on weak economies and bad governance in the places ISIS operates than on any special desire to punish Trump.
Here are the top 10 winners from Donald Trump’s foreign policy:
1. Saudi princes (and other old friends in the Middle East)
The U.S. has several traditional allies in the Middle East: Presidents and Saudi princes once solved big problems with quiet conversations; Israel was the world’s largest recipient of U.S. military aid, and Egypt was No. 2. In a bid to create new balance in the region, Barack Obama upended all these relationships. The revolution in U.S. energy production made it easier to ignore Saudi complaints while negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu redefined the word “frosty.” His decision during the Arab Spring not to back Egypt’s former strongman Hosni Mubarak poisoned relations with Egypt’s military.
Trump has changed everything. He hasn’t (yet) ripped up the Iran nuclear deal, but he has made clear that he shares the Saudi view of the threat from Tehran and doesn’t sweat the Saudi human rights record. Trump’s decision to send son-in-law Jared Kushner to make Middle East peace angered Palestinians but caused no concerns for Israelis. Trump sees eye to eye with Egypt’s current strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Add the United Arab Emirates, where Trump’s investments give the president more interest in, and knowledge of, the UAE than any previous president. In fact, the personal financial disclosure form that Trump filed last year with the Federal Election Commission suggests Trump has business ties in all four of these countries. All four are happy that Trump isn’t so busy putting America first that he can’t help them try to isolate their enemies.
2. Merkel and Macron
Shed no tears for the leaders of Germany and France. Yes, they care about the durability of the trans-Atlantic alliance that Trump is weakening, but Trump’s unpopularity with voters in Western Europe can’t help but boost those who forcefully answer Trump’s gibes.
The French and German governments have plenty to argue about, particularly when it comes to reform of the European Union and Eurozone, but France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, and Germany’s soon-to-be-reelected chancellor, Angela Merkel, have very similar views of Trump. Both believe Trump’s America First foreign policy, on display recently with his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord on climate change, leaves Europe to take more responsibility for its own security. Privately, they might also agree that Trump and his foreign policy offer them enormous political support.
Both leaders have been big winners under Trump’s presidency, both domestically and on the world stage. Would Macron have won France’s election if Trump had not poisoned the attitude of so many French voters toward nationalist populism? Standing up to Trump has certainly helped a (very) young leader project gravitas and strength. Trump’s style also highlights Merkel’s value as a steady, even-tempered and experienced leader for Germany and for Europe. In months to come, both these leaders will face the frustrated expectations of those who elected them as political gravity inevitably exerts its force, but they know they can count on their man in Washington to say and do things that allow them a platform to speak forcefully on behalf of their countries and the principles the U.S. appears to have abandoned—and to exert greater leadership on issues like climate change, trade and the excesses of autocrats.
3. The Mexican Opposition
Candidate Trump, aware that potential supporters see Mexico and Mexicans as a threat, put the southern neighbor on notice from the day he joined the race. As president, Trump has continued to beat the drum. The border wall he says Mexico will pay for, the rounding up and deportation of illegal immigrants, many of them Mexican, and pledges to rip up NAFTA all generate raucous approval at Trump rallies.
But the biggest winner here may be a veteran Mexican leftist: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the charismatic, battle-tested leader of Mexico’s opposition party. At a time when the left has taken losses in several major Latin American countries, López Obrador is a leading contender to become Mexico’s next president in 2018, in part because it’s so easy to challenge his more mainstream opponents over just what they’ve done to defend the country’s honor against Trump’s assaults. The wall may never be built, and changes to NAFTA will prove less than promised, but Trump’s rhetoric will continue to boost López Obrador’s appeal—potentially reversing a trend away from populist anti-American governments in Latin America and leaving Washington with another unfriendly ally, this one just across its border.
India may be the world’s largest democracy, but that shared value has never really led to smooth relations with the U.S. In part, that’s because U.S. and Indian leaders have never had much personal rapport. Things are changing. A President Hillary Clinton would likely have kept her distance from Narendra Modi and his muscular nationalism, but Trump’s personal chemistry with Modi is evident at every encounter, and his strong anti-terrorism focus and lack of interest in preserving balance in U.S. relations with India and Pakistan, India’s main adversary, opens doors for Modi to sell a new attitude at home toward the United States.
They don’t agree on everything: Modi can’t be happy that Trump’s drive to limit immigration leads him to push for restrictions on H1B visas, those that go to high-skilled foreign workers, particularly since 47 percent of those visas go to Indians. But these two leaders have put security issues at the top of their shared agenda, and economic issues are secondary. Anxiety over China’s continuing rise gives Trump and Modi something very basic in common. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord doesn’t play as negatively in India as it plays in France or Canada. Indian leaders have long hoped for a U.S. president who shares their view of the risks posed by China’s ambitions and Pakistan’s militants. Modi knows he has one.
5. Iraqi and Syrian Kurds
The Kurdish people have always created both risks and opportunities for Washington. A population tens of millions strong, well-armed and with a strong drive for an autonomous homeland, they’ve been a useful ally against unfriendly tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad—but Kurdish rebellion stokes violence in NATO ally Turkey, and threatens to unleash the kind of unrest in Iraq that might draw in unwelcome outsiders like Iran, Russia, and the next wave of jihadis, forcing another U.S. intervention.
Just back from a trip to Syria that included stops in Kurdish-controlled territory, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that “every time the name ‘President Trump’ was mentioned, there were cheers from the audience. One Syrian Kurdish commander used a vulgar term, in Spanish it would be cojones, to describe what Trump has got and why they like him.” There’s no mystery here.
Kurdish groups in both Syria and Iraq are very happy to receive weapons and backing from the Trump administration. In Syria, Kurds are a powerful weapon against ISIS, and the guns the U.S. is sending will increase their political leverage in Syria after ISIS has been defeated. In Iraq, Trump is less concerned than his predecessors about the country’s territorial integrity. When Iraqi Kurds push for independence, he will care less than most of the traditional U.S. foreign policy establishment about what the government in Baghdad thinks, since Trump is more likely to accept the Saudi view that Iraq is an ally of Iran. Nor will he worry much about anger from Turkey. The Kurds have big plans, and Trump is less likely than any of his recent predecessors to get in their way.
6. U.S. cities and states
In the U.S. federal system, states and cities have real power, and a number of blue-state governors and mayors are using this power to run aspects of their own foreign policy. In some cases, they are simply thwarting the Trump agenda. For example, as Trump has tried to ban immigration from several majority-Muslim countries, many local governments have turned resisting the administration into a badge of honor. Under pressure from Trump to drop their “sanctuary city” policies for illegal immigrants, mayors are instead refusing to cooperate with federal immigration laws and barring local police from questioning an individual’s immigration status. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit that advocates a more restrictive immigration policy, about 300 cities, counties or U.S. states have some form of sanctuary policy.
Then there’s climate. The day after Trump explained his decision to withdraw from the Paris accord with a reminder that he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Pittsburgh’s mayor met with Canada’s transport minister to discuss climate policy. Canada’s federal government is building relationships with elected officials in Florida, Texas, Michigan, New York and other states. California Governor Jerry Brown was recently feted in China as an important leader following talks with China’s Xi Jinping on climate policy. Mayors and governors, particularly in states where Trump is deeply unpopular, can score political points by defying him and pursuing their own agendas. They can also benefit their states and cities by attracting more investment, more foreign students and more tourism.
7. Africans fighting terrorism
Here’s another area where the Trump focus on fighting terrorists, and his refusal to insist that U.S. allies in that fight abide by Western rules, is winning new friends. Under the Trump administration’s proposed budget, U.S. assistance will significantly shift away from humanitarian and social services toward security. Countries in the Sahel (including Nigeria), in the Horn of Africa (especially Ethiopia) and Kenyans fighting the Somalia-based al-Shabaab militants will get a lot more direct and indirect material support from Washington and a lot less scrutiny of their spotty human-rights records. Ethiopia’s government, in particular, which faces a large and well-organized protest movement—and which has taken steps to repress dissent in ways that would grab the attention of a U.S. president who felt greater responsibility to protect human rights in faraway places—can be thankful for the support.
8. Rodrigo Duterte
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters," Trump once bragged. No surprise then that Trump might feel a natural affinity for the no-nonsense style of a man who has admitted to shooting a college classmate and who presides over a crackdown on crime that allegedly includes cash payments to volunteers willing to execute drug dealers in the street. This is Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me,” he warned drug dealers last August. But it’s not just the vendors that Duterte is after. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now there are 3 million drug addicts,” Duterte said last September. “I’d be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me].” As part of “Operation Double Barrel,” National Police and unidentified vigilantes have killed thousands of people, some of whom may have broken the law.
It would have been unthinkable for past U.S. presidents to applaud these words and actions. Trump is different: He appreciates that Duterte means what he says and that he accepts no limits on his ability to make things happen. “You don’t sleep much, you’re just like me,” Trump told Duterte, according to a transcript of an April 2017 phone call with Duterte released by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
9. General Khalifa Haftar
Here’s another favored strongman. Libya matters, especially for Europe, because it is an exporter of both oil and refugees. For the moment, it has two governments. In the western city of Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord holds power in the western city of Tripoli. General Khalifa Haftar is in charge in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Nearly half a century ago, Haftar helped Muammar Qadhafi seize power in Libya. The new leader rewarded him by giving him control of Libya’s military, but a humiliating defeat against Chad in the 1980s led Qadhafi to renounce him. From exile in Virginia, Haftar then spent years on efforts to bring Qadhafi down. With the eruption of the Arab Spring, Haftar returned to Libya in 2011. First, he fought his old nemesis. Once Qadhafi was dead, he turned his forces on Islamist militants.
Today, troops under Field Marshall Haftar’s command control Libya’s largest oil fields. The United Nations-backed government in Tripoli has no way of ousting him. Trump has not indicated any interest in injecting the U.S. into Libya’s fight, but the president’s friends in Egypt and the UAE back Haftar. Qatar, newly isolated by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, has backed his Islamist enemies. It’s not clear how much power Haftar wants, or how much he can get in the west of Libya where he is much less popular, but it’s clear Trump’s strong backing for his regional allies offers protection and a boost, making Haftar Libya’s man of the moment.
10. The Visegrad Group
Trump knew when he made plans for his recent visit to Poland en route to the G-20 meeting in Hamburg that he could expect a much friendlier welcome than the one he would receive in Paris or London, if only because officials within the ruling party reportedly bused in cheering crowds from the provinces to ensure things went smoothly. But it’s no surprise Trump would get on well with elected leaders of the Visegrad countries: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, four countries where an increasingly assertive nationalism and a deep aversion to welcoming Muslim migrants have taken hold.
It was Hungary that threw up improvised barricades to prevent Syrian migrants from crossing through the Balkans into Central Europe. It was Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico who made clear to Angela Merkel and other European leaders early on that the EU could not force his country to take in migrants. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has said the same, and the country’s president, Andrzej Duda, confident of a “no” vote, wants to hold a referendum on the issue in 2019. Under an EU quota system, these four countries were expected to accept 11,069 refugees. Slovakia has welcomed 16, the Czech Republic has taken in 12, and Poland and Hungary have accepted zero.
Trump can’t protect them from EU pressure, but his ongoing bid to restrict immigration to the U.S. from some Muslim countries will give their fears and grievances greater legitimacy. This emboldens those within Europe who reject EU principles on democracy, rule of law, human rights, and the free flow of goods, services and people. That’s an entirely new kind of U.S. influence in Europe.