President Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine is both fraught and paradoxical. Though it invokes the isolationist politics of the 1940s, the doctrine, as Trump explains it, includes few historical touchstones. And though it suggests a foreign policy based solely on American interests, it does so seemingly irrespective of traditional American values, values which have come to define the very American exceptionalism Trump has promised to revive.

The US strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield on 7 April—in response largely, it seems, to President Trump’s moral outrage over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons—only highlights this paradox. While many Republicans, Democrats and foreign leaders, including those in the EU, praised the strike as an example of decisive action, critics worried it could drag the US into yet another Middle East quagmire. Even longstanding supporters such as Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen pointed out the inconsistency between the strike and Trump’s campaign promise (though not always clear) to stay out of foreign entanglements (Labott and Gaouette 2017). Harsher critics claimed the action revealed the administration’s lack of direction or even coherence, giving rise to headlines like ‘The Emerging Trump Doctrine: Don’t Follow Doctrine’ (Baker 2017) and ‘The Trump Doctrine was Written by CNN’ (Boot 2017). The White House communications director himself reportedly told staffers during a brainstorming meeting on 9 April, ‘There is no Trump doctrine’ (Goldmacher 2017).

One outstanding question following the April strikes has focused the world of politics ever since Trump’s election: how to get through to the president. Perhaps the influence of CNN and other news organisations is indeed pivotal. Certainly, the president makes no secret of his relationship with Fox News programmes like Fox & Friends, Hannity and Justice with Judge Jeanine. What does seem clear, at least, is that any approach to the Trump team will only be successful insofar as it engages the ‘America First’ paradox: in other words, both the bottom line resulting from any deal with the US as well as the underlying values buttressing the president’s own ideology or intuition of American greatness.

How to talk to Trump

One of the takeaways from an 8 February round-table discussion in the European Parliament was the extent to which a bottom-line approach to President Trump had improved the standing of countries like the Baltic states, Poland, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, all of which had rightly understood, early on, the importance of bringing forward clear and practical demands (European Ideas Network and Hudson Institute 2017). Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo demonstrated a similar awareness in his March 2017 address to the Detroit Economic Club (Butters 2017). Chinese President Xi, in a recent state visit to Mar-a-Lago, seems to have parleyed very explicitly, and with success, his nation’s influence over North Korea for more favourable status regarding currency and trade (Trump 2017; Dickerson 2017).

Perhaps an even more specific, and instructive, example in this vein is that of Chancellor Merkel and her team during their first visit to the White House, on 17 March. Despite Trump’s apparent unwillingness to shake the chancellor’s hand, and despite his apparently handing her a ‘bill’ for overdue NATO contributions, the two leaders’ first meeting seems to have been an overall success (Vinocur 2017). Significantly, the president has lately moderated his public criticism of NATO, the EU and Germany itself. Indeed, Ivanka Trump and the chancellor even seem to have hit it off; and the president’s influential daughter travelled to Germany in the final week of April, at Merkel’s special invitation, to attend the W20 Summit.

This personal connection merely speaks to the broader point. Chancellor Merkel’s on-the-record round-table discussion with the president on vocational training was notable for two distinct themes: first, a clear demonstration of the specific benefits which German investment and trade have contributed to the American economy; and second, a focus on specific, personal stories of real Americans whose lives have been improved by these contributions. Regarding the former, Chancellor Merkel cited 810,000 jobs created in the US by German firms, along with foreign direct investment of over $270 billion. Her remarks were followed by those of leaders from companies like Siemens, Schaeffler, BMW and Dow, all touting specific investments and US production figures. (Notably, the states singled out—South Carolina, Michigan and Ohio—all voted for Trump in 2016, with Michigan and Ohio representing crucial swing states.) Also included in the round-table introductions were two young graduates of successful vocational training programmes: one from an IBM programme in Brooklyn, New York, the other from a BMW programme in South Carolina. Each told an inspirational story of skills training and expansive future possibilities. And it was the personal stories, in fact, more than the impressive numbers, which seemed to make the deepest mark on both President Trump and Vice-President Pence (The White House 2017).

The point here is to suggest that the president’s agenda, and not just regarding German vocational training, is likely to be guided both by hard, actionable numbers and by the personal connections he develops on a particular issue—rather than, say, by abstract theories, aggregate data or long-term projections. If this analysis is sound, it could help to inform constructive approaches by European leaders, potentially affecting several crucial policy areas.

Security and defence, handled diplomatically

One such area is security and defence. Even before the US election, NATO and EU member states alike were feeling pressure to increase what have, in many cases, been long-stagnant defence budgets. Even Germany, with a defence budget of only 1.2% of GDP, has now committed to meeting its 2% NATO commitment by 2024. But these frank discussions have not been without costs: fear remains in Germany, for example, with elections scheduled this September, that the Socialists could use the prospect of heightened militarisation against Merkel (Donahue 2017; Siebold et al. 2017). And at an even deeper, European, level, the language of boosting defence capacity has called into question long-standing EU priorities for diplomacy and development aid. President Juncker and Chancellor Merkel themselves have both argued that the military is not, and should not be seen as, the sole contributor to security (Farmer 2017).

Unsurprisingly, by contrast, on the US side the Trump administration has proposed significant long-term cuts, of up to 31%, to the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development, tilting even further an existing imbalance in favour of the Department of Defense and signalling an even greater, and problematic, militarisation of culture and policy (Schwartz 2017; Brooks 2016).

It is certainly clear that European countries must do more to pull their fair share of the security load, both for their own sake as well as to convince the US not to ‘moderate’ its own commitment to NATO, as Secretary Mattis suggested in Europe in February (Lamothe and Birnbaum 2017). Although a rising China and a belligerent, and nuclear, North Korea threaten Europe less directly than they do the US and various US allies, this is not the case for several other looming threats: from jihadist terrorism, from a revanchist Russia, from a potentially nuclear Iran or from ungoverned cyberspace (Cohen 2016).

Despite this, however, it is not clear that Europe should abandon altogether its arguments in favour of robust investment in diplomacy and aid as necessary parts of a holistic security strategy. Indeed, this investment, in the form, for example, of new trust funds for Africa and Syria, is providing resources important in addressing the root causes of instability. But perhaps the case must be differently framed. For starters, as Michael Benhamou (2017) pointed out in a February piece in Foreign Affairs, EU development funds on the whole can and should be more strategically deployed in support of EU goals and objectives, rather than those of individual member states or of the UN writ large. This, indeed, is part and parcel of developing coherent EU foreign and security policies.

Further, what must become clear from such a defence of EU soft power, vis-à-vis the Trump administration, is what tangible, measurable difference such power is actually making—and how it complements, rather than detracts from, ongoing US efforts. Ultimately, the argument may need to include examples, at the level of personal anecdote even, of how European development work, humanitarian aid, educational exchanges and the like are serving to make Americans themselves safer and more secure. That is to say, this family, in this district, is the reason we should accept refugees. The case of this individual demonstrates the vital importance of international law.

Creativity in responding to climate change

Another major area where a nuanced approach could prove helpful is climate change. While President Trump has at times seemed to soften his position on the Paris Agreement since his election, his commitment remains highly uncertain. It seems unlikely he will be convinced to take more serious action by scientific projections or by scathing editorials. (In line with my general argument, Leonardo di Caprio may actually stand a better chance—and Ivanka Trump better still—at changing the president’s mind.) What may prove more constructive, however, is the approach outlined by Oren Cass (2017), former domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign: a positive, as opposed to a negative, approach to the whole issue, an approach focused on innovative new solutions rather than worst-case scenarios. This kind of pragmatism would, for instance, generally support fracking as an improvement over coal, and it would focus at least as much on adapting to climate change as on preventing it.

A more localised approach may also be in order. In their 2017 book Climate of Hope, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Executive Director of the Sierra Club Carl Pope argue that top-down, Washington-based solutions to climate change have ultimately contributed little to the overall reduction in greenhouse gases, whereas tremendous progress has been made at the municipal level (Bloomberg and Pope 2017). It is cities, after all, they argue, which produce by far the greatest share of greenhouse gases—yet also, ironically, the places most equipped to implement ingenious new solutions. It is cities which represent by far the largest percentage of world GDP. And even more significantly, they argue, it is cities themselves, in the digital economy, which are now competing for talent—not the other way around—such that local governments have strong economic and political incentives to push for cleaner air and water and for more efficient buildings and public transportation systems.

The European Committee of the Regions could play a pivotal leading role here. Reporting on its Conference of the Parties 22 Climate Summit for Local and Regional Leaders, which gathered over 1500 local and regional leaders from around the world, the Committee of the Regions touted initiatives such as the Global Covenant of Mayors and stressed that ‘local governments surpass national government targets’—with ‘local and regional authorities… responsible for executing around 70% of climate change reduction measures and up to 90% of climate adaption actions’ (European Commission 2016; European Committee of the Regions 2016).

As just one case in point here, both Climate of Hope and National Geographic’s 2016 film Before the Flood (National Geographic 2016), featuring Leonardo di Caprio, highlight the ongoing damage which rising sea levels are already inflicting on Miami, Florida. The personal stories of Americans adversely affected by this phenomenon, in addition to the stories of those innovators learning how to overcome it, may prove essential in garnering real support from the administration. And it does not hurt, after all, that Miami finds itself in a crucial swing state.

Trading on success: the opportunity for EU leadership

Finally, when simple deal-making or inspirational anecdotes do not suffice, the EU will still have an opportunity to appeal to President Trump in the name of global leadership. Even if his intuitions on a number of issues remain forever antithetical to those of pro-EU parties and citizens, Trump will value strength and leadership. He has built his public persona and political career on being perceived in these terms.

Thus, though President Trump has decried the negative effects of unfair trade policies on American workers, it remains highly uncertain to what extent his own policies will be able to generate long-term gains in American manufacturing. He has filled out his own administrative team only slowly, for various reasons; and with major legislative hurdles yet to be overcome with regard to tax reform and infrastructure, to say nothing of health care, major new initiatives on trade will likely prove daunting. So far, the president has focused on trade enforcement and on the renegotiation of existing agreements rather than on new deals. Meanwhile, his protectionist rhetoric has already caused several US partners, foremost Mexico, to begin looking to other markets (Beasley et al. 2017; Summers 2017; Webber 2017; AFP 2017a; Donnan 2017; Misculin 2017). At a global level, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO warn that heightened protectionism (and not just in the US) could impede or derail an otherwise favourable economic outlook over the medium term (AFP 2017b; WTO 2017).

The EU, meanwhile, has recently ratified provisional implementation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada. It is engaged with Mexico in intensive talks over modernising the bilateral free trade agreement concluded in 2000 (European Commission 2017d). EU negotiations with Mercosur have also intensified, and a deal is expected by the end of 2017 or early 2018 (Valero 2017). Talks with Japan have reached a similarly advanced stage (European Commission 2017c). The EU is set to begin trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand (European Commission 2017a, b). And it is exploring a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (European Commission 2017e).

In Asia, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, including both China and India, is moving forward. Despite major ongoing challenges, China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is projected to alter dramatically the infrastructure and trade patterns of both Europe and Asia over the next several decades (Khanna 2017; Jun 2017; The Economist 2017). Even the Trans-Pacific Partnership has shown signs of struggling back to life, despite the Americans’ withdrawal (Fujii et al. 2017).

The lesson here is that world trade has not stopped, whether or not the US plays a central role in shaping its course. US Congressman Paul Ryan (at the time not yet Speaker of the House) made this point forcefully in a speech on the House floor in June 2015—well before Donald Trump’s election (US House of Representatives: Ways and Means Committee 2015). With the new administration pulling back from pending negotiations and seeking to renegotiate existing deals, the EU and China will have an even greater opportunity to exert leadership in this area. If they get results—if they can actually sign and implement deals—President Trump may feel pressure to rejoin the multilateral fray, simply because he will see US leadership, and his own leadership, as more important in the long run than the margins of any particular balance sheet. Currently, he seems to believe he can exert global leadership unilaterally. The EU, in particular, will have a strong case to make for the inherent value of multilateral cooperation, especially on trade, based on a fundamental commitment to international law. President Trump will not want to appear to be following a trend.


While it will remain essential for European leaders to make the case, in clear and practical terms, as to why this or that policy will benefit not only the transatlantic partnership but the world order in general, there will be times when this approach may simply fall on deaf ears. For regardless of the extent to which any given assets may outnumber their corresponding liabilities, numbers alone will not inspire, will not elicit empathy, will not speak to deep-seated national or cultural identities. President Trump has often been dismissive of nitty–gritty or historical detail, but has shown himself deeply committed to narrative per se. Even aside from his metanarrative of ‘American carnage’ and, under his leadership, ‘American renewal’, it is clear that smaller-scale stories, human stories, often shape his thinking. European leaders should partner with the new US president fully prepared to engage his own idiosyncratic vision of American greatness—and fully prepared to lead in their own right.