By: Ryan Kirby*

President Trump campaigned heavily on his promise to put America first and it has played a large part in how he has enacted foreign policy. Just over eighteen months into his presidency, President Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, questioned and threatened U.S. participation in NATO, and attacked numerous trade deals.[1] Americans can interpret these policies as good or bad depending on their own political leaning, but individuals outside of the United States also have their own opinions about American policies. These policies have important consequences for how other countries respect and admire the United States, which is important when attempting to use soft power. Soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments,” as opposed to hard power which are efforts of coercion to make a state act in a desired behavior. [2] Soft power is useful because it relies on coalition building and requires less effort to get other states to act in American interests. The Trump Administration’s foreign policy of America First has caused the U.S. to lose the respect of other countries and their citizens, decreasing the United States’ ability to use soft power.

International poll data demonstrates that the policies of the Trump Administration have had serious consequences for how foreign countries, both allies and enemies, view the United States. Gallup and Pew Research Center conduct routine polls across the globe on a number of questions to gauge the international response to U.S. policy decisions. For the last decade for instance, Gallup has polled 134 countries annually to ask, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of the leadership in the United States?”[3] During the Obama Administration approval averaged approximately 48% at the beginning and end with a dip in the middle at 41%.[4]

The first poll under the Trump Administration was taken in 2017 and with it came a significant decline in foreign approval of U.S. leadership. Average approval abroad fell by almost twenty points to a record low of 30 percent.[5] The poll also asks about the leadership of Germany, Russia, and China to compare to the United States. The significant decline in U.S. approval has not only marked a record low, but for the first time since the George W. Bush Administration, U.S. approval fell below that of Germany and China. Not only did approval fall, but disapproval increased dramatically by 15% to 43% when compared to the Obama Administration.[6]

The decline in U.S. approval under the Trump Administration becomes important when the U.S. tries to exert its soft power to influence foreign affairs.[7] If soft power is diminished, it forces the U.S. to rely on tactics that involve coercion or payments to get desired behavioral changes from other states. Coercive tactics have the potential to magnify disapproval among other states as the U.S. tries to exert its power over other nations and their people.[8]

It is also important to consider where approval has fallen and, in some cases, improved. The biggest decrease in approval came in Latin America.[9] There are a number of reasons that can be attributed to the decline, ranging from President Trump’s critical language of Hispanic immigrants to his criticism of trade deals that has benefited some of those countries. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump became infamous for kicking off his campaign by discussing Mexican immigrants and stating that, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”[10] Claims that accuse other countries’ citizens as drug smugglers and rapists does not foster international cooperation and good will. Western Europe, particularly over traditional allies, also had a dramatic decline in approval of U.S. leadership. Most importantly, U.S. approval declined by over ten points, “in 24 countries, including 18 NATO allies.”[11] The dramatic decline of U.S. approval among NATO allies is important for exercising both soft and hard power.[12] Being uncertain about whether or not one’s allies, especially NATO allies, will support the desired policy weakens the U.S. position by diminishing confidence that its allies will follow. It also makes the use of hard power less effective. Alliances such as NATO rely on the idea that member-states will work together, and if attacked, defend one another. With consistent critiques on NATO’s purpose, European nations have begun to question whether they can even rely on the United States. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that, “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future.”[13] The U.S. decision to pursue an America First foreign policy and take a step back from global involvement leaves a power vacuum for America’s rivals to exploit.

Specifically, as the U.S. has embarked on its America First policy, it has opened the door for Russia and China to begin to fill the void. Ironically, U.S. approval has increased by 6% points in Russia.[14] The increase is likely the result of President Trump’s outspoken support for Russia and attempts to warm relations between the two countries. The U.S. retreat from leading global politics to pursue America First policies has also allowed Russia to increase its influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The lack of American leadership has real impacts on its own strategic interests as global perceptions of U.S. power shift and place China and Russia on an equal playing field with the U.S. Instead of immediately turning to the United States for help, countries may turn to China or Russia. The ability of the U.S. to build relationships and influence other countries using soft power is diminished and may limit American foreign policy tools to coercive methods rather than positive ones.

President Trump’s agenda has also changed the way America interacts with international institutions. The United States has questioned its role in NATO and the United Nations, pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, left international trade deals, and abandoned the International Criminal Court.[15] Because of the important role America has played in dominating global politics, its absence in major international organizations makes their enforcement more difficult. When the United States questions their participation or the existence of an international organization, it can severely impair that organization’s legitimacy as well as American legitimacy. If the U.S. does not have to abide by international rules, it opens the door for other countries to leave as well. Why should other states have to obey by a set of rules that the United States does not? On the other hand, if the U.S. chooses to leave an international organization or treaty, other nations may be less willing to make agreements with the U.S. out of fear it cannot be a reliable partner in the future.

The Trump Doctrine of America First will take years to properly analyze and likely fall along partisan lines, but the consequences, good or bad, have already started to take effect. The next president will have to interact with American allies and rivals to implement their own foreign policy agenda. Will the next president choose to follow Donald Trump’s lead and pursue an America First policy, or will they be forced to mend broken relationships and return to the previous status quo?


[1] Hal Brands.”Trump’s Foreign Policy Is Finally Off the Chain.” Bloomberg Politics & Policy. July 17, 2018. Accessed September 23, 2018.

[2] Benjamin E. Goldsmith and Yusaku Horiuchi. “In Search of Soft Power: Does Foreign Public Opinion Matter for US Foreign Policy?” World Politics 64, no. 3 (2012): 556.

[3] Gallup. Rating World Leaders: 2018. Gallup Inc. Last modified 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Benjamin E. Goldsmith, and Yusaku Horiuchi. “Spinning the Globe? U.S. Public Diplomacy and Foreign Public Opinion.” The Journal of Politics, no. 3 (2009): 863.

[8] Goldsmith, Benjamin E., and Yusaku Horiuchi. “In Search of Soft Power: Does Foreign Public Opinion Matter for US Foreign Policy?” World Politics 64, no. 3 (2012): 556.

[9] Gallup. Rating World Leaders. 2018.

[10] Reilly, Katie. “Donald Trump: All the Times He’s Insulted Mexico.” Time. August 31, 2016. Accessed October 05, 2018.

[11] Ibid.

[12]   Myre, Greg. “With ‘America First,’ Trump Challenges the World Constructed After World War II.” NPR. June 18, 2018.

[13] Gstalter, Morgan, and Jordan Fabian. “Merkel: Europe Can No Longer Rely on US Protection.” TheHill. May 10, 2018. Accessed September 23, 2018.

[14] Gallup. Rating World Leaders. 2018.

[15]  Myre. “With ‘America First,’ Trump Challenges The World Constructed After World War II.” NPR. June 18, 2018.

*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.