With top African military officials visiting the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania last week, one can’t help but wonder what foreign partners must think of the new political winds blowing in Washington.
President Trump has built his agenda on the imagery of “America First,” which means, by extension, that the rest of the world comes second. But putting America first does not a strategy make. At best, it’s a banal expression of a fundamental desire that guides all nations anyway. At worst, it’s a signal to those willing to fill the voids left by Washington’s global retreats.
The African brass came to America to discuss new opportunities for collaboration to keep their nations secure. They need U.S. help to do this, and it doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate that the lofty goal of functioning governments on the vast continent in some ways has something to do with regional, if not global, security, including that of the United States.
The Army officials at the War College know this, of course. Service leaders have proudly emphasized at every opportunity that their fighting force is globally engaged. For many, putting America first has meant teaching squad tactics to the Malawis or establishing access rights in other, faraway African locales.
Meanwhile, as is the case for many of the new administration’s proclamations, the details of how “America First” translates into actual foreign and defense policy have yet to be determined. But initial signals, like a proposal to cut State Department funding and foreign aid, are already worrying some U.S. allies.
“We will not feel safer when the budgets for these programs will be cut,” Polish Ambassador to the United States Piotr Wilczek told senators last week. “We hope it's just a deliberation, a kind of, you know, tweeting — not really a decision, because this sounds really dangerous.”
But the cat is, you know, out of the bag. Trump means business when he says America comes first, and we can probably expect a re-ordering of budget priorities that matches the dogma’s bluntness.
On the other hand, Trump hired two key figures, Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as national security adviser and retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis as defense secretary, who know that an international stance is often in America’s best interest, though their experience is limited to military avenues.
It remains to be seen what kind of influence the two will be afforded in crafting a strategy and budget to match the White House rhetoric. Because whichever way the new president plans to move the country, it’s important that we and our allies know the details soon.