Is the US returning to isolationism?

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The slogan of America First used by US President Donald Trump during his election campaign was not new. It was in line with the policy of isolationism practiced by some US administrations, beginning in the 19th century with the Monroe Doctrine, when President James Monroe directed the US Congress to guarantee the independence of Western Hemisphere countries against European intervention.

The purpose of the doctrine was to make it clear that the United States would not allow either the creation of new European colonies in the Americas or the further expansion of existing colonies. It stated that any efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

A number of American presidents who succeeded Monroe supported the doctrine up to the start of the First World War in which the United States joined the Allies and emerged victorious in the war. During the war, President Woodrow Wilson presented his Fourteen Points, which was a statement of principles for peace that was to be used for peace negotiations in order to end the war. These points included the establishment of the League of Nations. However, Wilson failed to get his proposal endorsed by Congress, which was one of the reasons for the failure of the League. Consequently, the United States returned to the policy of isolationism. However, there were drums of war once again and within two decades, World War II broke out. The United States did not join the war directly in the beginning but Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor brought it into war. After the end of the war, the United States found itself leader of the Free World, with more burdens to bear.

Along with his slogan of America First, Donald began to disengage America from those burdens. At the same time he maintained a desire to retain the leadership of the world, but at the expense of others. This was evident when he announced his decision to build a wall on the Mexico-US border at Mexico’s expense. The Mexican president reacted to this with the cancellation of his scheduled visit to US.

Trump went beyond the decision to build a wall on the border to the cancellation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is a free trade agreement between North American countries (the United States, Canada and Mexico) on the grounds that it was not in the interest of the United States. Before that, he announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change signed by the United States during the period of his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump also withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. During the presidential campaign, he criticized the accord as a potential disaster for the country committed by President Obama, arguing that it harmed US manufacturing. Trump also declared that NATO was outdated and cost the US too much money. But later he dramatically changed his stance, saying that he no longer considered it obsolete. This was after NATO members came forward to support his military strike against Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Trump has consistently misrepresented the financial obligations of NATO members, saying that they owe vast sums in dues and stating that the situation was unfair to the people of the United States.

Meanwhile, Trump entered into a trade war with China and imposed duties that, he said, were just the beginning. He also unveiled plans to impose more duties on goods from China. Reacting to this, Beijing announced that it would not be silent and would charge retaliatory duties on goods from the United States, threatening an all-out trade war between the two countries. Some other countries and agencies may join this war and this may transform a trade war into a war of a different kind, especially when taking into account the tensions that are simmering between the two countries over the issue of the South China Sea.

Observers believe that China will be satisfied with its current level of retaliatory duties unless Trump continues using pressure tactics. In such a case, China may resort to imposing more duties on the import of goods from the United States or may refuse to buy US government bonds or may resort to nationalizing US factories operating on Chinese soil.

The current US administration pursues harsh policies not only against the enemies of America, but also against its friends and allies, despite the major policy decisions of previous administration. It also fails to recognize international resolutions, especially with regard to the Palestine issue, specifically the Jerusalem issue. The US has announced a partial reduction of US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), in addition to a withdrawal from UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council.

The United States with its firm support for Israel against the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people endangers the international system and threatens the very values and democratic principles on which America is based.

— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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