A U.S. strategist explains the consequences for Europe: What does “America First” mean in Trump’s foreign policy?

“We are borrowing money from China to finance our operations in Europe,” criticizes U.S. strategist John Sitilides and explains what would change under Donald Trump.


Mr. Sitilides, Donald Trump promises to make America great again when he returns to the White House. What does that mean in terms of US foreign policy?

If the United States gets involved in conflicts, it should be able to win them. The American people are not tired of fighting wars. They are tired of losing wars or not winning them. They are tired of seeing thousands of our men and women die in foreign lands and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent and often wasted. Trump wants to be very careful in the future about any wars we get involved in – only if they pose a direct or indirect threat to America.

So Trump’s main message is that there will be less international involvement with him?

He would definitely reduce the use of military means, i.e. missiles and other weapons. This is also why many NATO countries have been criticized for not spending the promised two percent of their GDP on defence – a criticism that has long been voiced not only by Trump, but also by Barack Obama. The bottom line is that both parties have recognized that the American people expect less burden-sharing than burden-shifting. It’s not just about getting above two percent. If the Europeans are really afraid of a Russian threat after the end of the Ukraine war, then many of them have not acted accordingly so far.

Europe recently agreed on a new aid package for Ukraine. Is this appreciated in the USA?

There is no consensus in the United States on what our Ukraine policy should be. However, most Americans agree that the more Europe increases its military, financial and humanitarian aid, the better. Because it is really Europe that is under existential threat. What Russia has done in Ukraine is not an existential threat to the United States. There are countries to the west of Ukraine – Poland, the Baltic countries and others – who fear that if Russia succeeded in Ukraine and was able to rearm, it could move into NATO territory in a few years.

The Republicans don’t believe that?

In my opinion, Trump is not convinced that NATO is seriously threatened by Russia. If he were in a position to do so, he would make a grand bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the moment it looks like Putin is going to write off 2024 in the hope that Trump will be president in 2025 and they can then negotiate an end to the war, which benefits Putin. The way I see it, from Trump’s perspective, there is a stalemate in Ukraine right now: it’s a war of attrition, Russia has set itself up for a 24/7 war production economy – and the US Congress, after months of wrangling, is unable to agree on an aid package for Ukraine.

Putin is playing for time.

Exactly. He is betting that now that Trump is the likely Republican nominee, there will be a sharper debate among the American people about whether or not we have already done enough for Ukraine. Trump will argue that more than enough money has already flowed and we need to solve our problems here at home before we can afford the luxury of sending another 100 billion dollars to Ukraine or any other country.

If the USA were to refuse further support and Ukraine were then to be defeated by Russia – wouldn’t all the money spent so far be in vain?

You could see it that way. But you could also say that a lot has already been achieved by seriously weakening the Russian military. And some will argue that you don’t throw bad money after good money and that the US did what it could for two years to help Ukraine in its struggle for survival. That now the European countries that feel most threatened by Russia must defend their continent themselves and relieve the US. Of course, this is not a zero-sum game. We’ll probably still be spending more than a trillion dollars a year on defense in a few years – and that’s to better protect the Indo-Pacific region against China.

What will Congress do about Ukraine?

The Democratic Party is largely united and in favor of additional aid for Ukraine. The real debate is within the Republican Party. There are the traditional interventionists, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And then there’s a growing number of Republicans who are skeptical of our role because they feel that our European allies are not as engaged as they should be. The latter are looking at what is currently playing a major role here in the USA: We are experiencing a severe crisis because we effectively no longer have a border with Mexico. Many Americans feel it is a disgrace that thousands upon thousands of people we know nothing about are simply being allowed to come into the United States – while at the same time Washington is debating the borders of Ukraine.

Some experts argue that a Republican White House would not be so different from a Democratic one in terms of foreign policy, because Biden would also try to find a way out of Ukraine in a second term in view of the mood in American society. Do you share this assessment?

No, I don’t think so. A possible second Trump administration would be very determined to change the global attitude of the country. The Heritage Foundation is already identifying as many future government employees as possible who would be loyal to a President Trump. The America First Policy Institute, staffed by former Trump administration officials, is also preparing to implement his foreign policy agenda.

Who might we see in a Trump administration?

Above all, much more loyal advisers who share Trump’s vision of statesmanship, diplomacy and international relations. In the first Trump administration, numerous experienced Republican foreign policy advisers from previous administrations vowed never to serve in a Trump White House. Trump tried desperately to cobble together a foreign and security policy team from people he did not know and, as it later turned out, could not trust. So he was weakened from the start, and even the people he brought into office did not know how to operate the levers of power in the State Department and the Department of Defense.

That is now set to change?

Yes. A possible second Trump administration will be much more efficiently based on an “America First” strategy, where every policy is examined and evaluated first and foremost for its benefit to the United States and the national interest.

What would be the biggest differences from Joe Biden’s agenda?

Trump’s foreign policy would be very different in the use of armed forces, trade and tariffs, the dominance of the energy industry on the world stage, and linking our domestic energy production to our global influence. The goal, for example, is that we can act diplomatically as we wish in the Middle East because we are not dependent on supplies from there. Another fundamental difference is that climate policy would be deliberately marginalized. And the influence of the West would be almost deliberately reduced – this would not only be a departure from Biden, but from many Democratic and Republican governments.

What would that mean in concrete terms?

A Trump administration would allocate many more resources to Mexico, Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean to help our southern neighbors develop their economies. This would reduce illegal immigration to the United States. In addition, trade tariffs could be imposed on countries that do not meet the two percent threshold in defense spending until they do. Trump is known to like to play politics with punitive tariffs.

Trump has repeatedly stated that he would not help a NATO country in the event of a Russian attack if it did not make its full contribution. Is he serious?

Let’s put it this way: Article Five of the NATO treaty does not provide for an automatic military response in defense of a NATO country. Yes, any attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on all NATO countries. But then it simply requires all countries to come together to decide on the appropriate response, including the possible use of military force. An attack on an important country like Poland or Germany, say from Kaliningrad, would probably provoke an American military response under a Trump administration. If something happened in Montenegro, a President Trump would hardly risk a nuclear exchange with Russia.

What should Europe understand better?

It’s not just about Europe. Given the strategic threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses to the United States and to Western civilization, we have limited resources. The United States is 33 trillion dollars in debt, every year we run a deficit of almost two trillion dollars. In reality, we are borrowing money from China to fund our operations in Europe.

What would change with regard to China?

That’s really the only area of foreign policy where the Biden administration is largely sticking to what it inherited from the Trump administration. Trump likes to talk about his very good relationship with President Xi. However, he also makes it clear that he feels personally betrayed because Xi lied to him about the Covid pandemic. That has destroyed trust. So I think Trump will be much more aggressive and try to limit China’s geopolitical ambitions in Asia. For example, through punitive tariffs to protect American industry from China’s predatory practices. He will take a much more protectionist approach to trade and technology issues. It is therefore possible that many of Biden’s measures will be continued, especially with regard to China’s access to cutting-edge American technologies, albeit in a much more stringent form.

How would Trump behave towards Taiwan? He would be much tougher on Taiwan. Biden has publicly stated three times that the US would stand by Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. White House staff had to retract the statement each time, as it could have led to war with China. In private conversations, Trump has made clear his doubts that anyone can defend Taiwan against China. And if the island nation were to be defended, the onus would be on the Taiwanese first: they would have to change their military posture and become the Israel of the Pacific Ocean – by spending around ten percent of their GDP on defense and significantly upgrading their technology. This reorganization would have to be designed in such a way that it does not trigger a Chinese decision to invade Taiwan. Trump knows that a war would be disastrous for both economies and the global econo


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