TSG IntelBrief: A Remarkable Pivot in U.S. International Affairs
March 2, 2017

A Remarkable Pivot in U.S. International Affairs


Bottom Line Up Front:

• During his February 28 address to Congress, U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated that his administration will view international affairs through the lenses of trade policy and terrorism.

• In a remarkable reversal from decades of similar speeches, the President never mentioned the word ‘democracy’; ‘freedom’ was mentioned three times, once in context of health insurance.

• This outlook is consistent with the administration’s stated preference for bilateral deals and a transactional perspective on global affairs.

• It is unclear how this governing preference will alter long-standing alliances and global initiatives in a time of increasing instability.


Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has viewed and positioned itself as the leader of the free world. Though there have been significant variations in foreign policy approaches and goals, there has been a consistent and relatively nonpartisan belief that the American example of freedom and democracy should be supported among our allies and encouraged among other nations. The pendulum of that ‘encouragement’ has swung wildly over the decades, from soft-power influence and international agreements to short-sighted coups and catastrophic invasions. Despite the variations, the core of U.S. foreign policy over the last seven decades has been that the U.S. would play a leading role in the global order. 

The Trump administration appears in both rhetoric and deed to be pivoting from this long-held stance in a noticeable fashion. During his campaign and his first month in office, President Trump has consistently stressed that he believes the U.S. has ‘been taken advantage of’ in terms of trade policies and defense obligations, and has promised that would no longer be the case. Trump’s February 28 joint address to Congress confirmed again that the shift to a transactional balance sheet approach to many international concerns will be a cornerstone of his administration. 

President Trump’s preference of viewing foreign affairs in a bilateral fashion—and to approach pacts as ‘deals’—was evident in both what was and was not said in the one-hour long speech. During his speech, the President never mentioned the word ‘democracy’ in any context—foreign or domestic. He mentioned the word ‘freedom’ three times, though none of the three mentions were in the context of foreign affairs or global stability. The only specific use of the word came in the context of health insurance. The term ‘free world’—whatever its merit—was also not mentioned, again consistent with the President’s preference to review and perhaps discard long-standing policies and treaties. He stated that the U.S. “will respect historic institutions, but we will respect the foreign rights of all nations. And they have to respect our rights as a nation, also.” He added: “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.”

As such, the few times foreign affairs were mentioned in the speech, there was a balance—sometimes contradictory—of expressing strong support for allies and then demanding they pay their bills. Speaking of NATO, the deepest alliance the U.S. is a part of, President Trump stated: “But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. In fact, I can tell you the money is pouring in. Very nice.” The immense value the U.S. has gained and continues to gain from guaranteeing stability and security among our allies was not mentioned.

President Trump’s strongest statement in support of democracy came when he stated, “Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people.” He continued by stressing, “America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.”


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