Trump’s ‘America first’ versus Xi Jinping’s ‘global community’: how China is outthinking the West

By Jude Woodward

Note: This article appeared first in Transform, Issue no 5, November 2018 which can be ordered from the Public Reading Rooms website at 

The general direction of Trump’s foreign policy was clear from the very beginning. His campaign slogans were well known: ‘America First’ in order to ‘Make America Great Again’; and rhetoric against multilateral agreements and threats of protectionist trade measures had been etched into his election campaign. And the promised sharpening of conflict with China in particular was evident from day one.

In his inaugural speech Trump formulated the US’s global role in terms starkly different from the traditional ‘one indispensable nation’ trope of post-1945 American exceptionalism.[1]

‘From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families…We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.’[2]

Trump also used Twitter to inveigh against all forms of multilateralism in international relations, attacking the UN, WTO and NATO, trade agreements like the TPP but also NAFTA, multilateral policies like the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, and berated the intrinsic unfairness of the EU in preventing the US negotiating one to one deals with Germany and France.

If Trump truly meant all this, then he was calling time on the whole post-1945 US approach to its role in the world.

Whether or not Trump would follow through on this new US unilateralism took some time to clarify due to the chaos in the first year of his White House – but such statements immediately created an ideological vacuum in the rest of the West, which remains committed to the benefits of multilateral agreements, free trade and globalisation. But no Western leader was prepared to speak out directly against Trump.

Prior to Trump’s election the fact that China had the world’s most rapidly growing economy and had overtaken the US to become the world’s largest economy in purchasing power parity terms meant that it was already having an increasing global impact. China had long been influential among developing countries but from the 2007 financial crisis onwards this influence began extending even to traditional US allies. The most telling example was when, in 2015, Britain enraged Obama by rushing to join China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank without even informing the White House in advance. After a little more hesitation Germany and Australia also signed up. Other initiatives – such as the Belt and Road, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the regular meeting of the BRICS countries, the establishment of the 16-country bloc of Central and Eastern European countries in the ‘16+1’ meetings with China, and China’s improved relations with traditionally less supportive countries such as Singapore, the Philippines and South Korea underlined this.

From early 2017 China began to take this to another level, by directly entering into the battle of ideas with Trump and his supporters by putting forward an alternative vision of global politics. This kicked off with Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2017 Davos forum, where he put forward a coherent defence of globalisation, contra Trump but without mentioning him:

‘Countries have extensive converging interests and are mutually dependent. All countries enjoy the right to development. At the same time, they should view their own interests in a broader context and refrain from pursuing them at the expense of others.’ [3]

The Western media fell over itself to praise the speech. Nor was the meaning lost on Trump’s team. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, urged that ‘…people [should] compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural…. You’ll see two different world views.’[4]

They would indeed. But between these two world views, most of the US’s chief friends and allies preferred that put forward by Xi Jinping rather than Donald Trump. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, put it succinctly: ‘Xi Jinping, president of China, made a speech last week on globalisation at the World Economic Forum that one would have expected to come from a US president. At his inauguration, Donald Trump made remarks on trade that one would never have expected to come from a US president. The contrast is astounding.’[5]

In May 2017 two senior Trump aides wrote a seminal piece for the Wall Street Journal that took the debate further. Jointly authored by National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, and director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, it clearly had the approval of the Oval Office. Most fundamentally the article directly countered Xi Jinping, also without naming him:

‘…the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage… Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.’[6]

In Britain we are familiar with such formulations, rooted in right-wing neo-classical economics, because Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s became notorious for the similar statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’, only ‘individual men and women’. This ideology was used as the basis for cutting welfare programmes, ending public housing, restricting trade unions and so on.

In foreign policy, as McMaster and Cohn draw out, this philosophy means the pursuit of American interests irrespective of others. ‘America First’, they argue, signals the intention ‘to use the diplomatic, economic and military resources of the US to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world’. 

This is different from the ideological underpinning of the US-led post-1945 international system, which is based on the pretension that the US would use its weight, in line with the common interests of all as expressed through institutions like the UN, to mitigate political conflicts, and further to provide resources to even out dangerous economic hiccups through its contributions to the IMF. The averred aim was to create a harmonious global community, in which – it was claimed – the strong protected the weak thus avoiding the type of conflict and economic crisis of the World Wars and the Great Depression.

Of course the definition of ‘common interests’ substituted the interests of maintaining the position of the US and its allies, particularly in preventing any advance of communism or even genuine post-colonial independence, for the real common interests of all in peace and development. But it was not an entirely empty ideology either. As Perry Anderson analysed, in the US-led world created in 1945, the US projected itself globally primarily ‘…as a guardian of the general interest of all capitals, sacrificing – where necessary, and for as long as needed – national gain for international advantage, in the confidence of ultimate pay-off’.[7]

For Trump, this was over: no longer affordable for a US in relative decline, if it ever had been.

But despite Trump’s statements and those of his key advisers, the liberal Western media, and probably most of their political masters, hung on to the hope that this was simply rhetoric to shore up his electoral base.

For the first six months it seemed this might be true; sturm und drang on Trump’s twitter-feed led to very little action. The early abandoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was not definitive proof of a general course, as Clinton had promised she would too. Demands that South Korea and Japan should pick up more of the US’s military costs in East Asia were dismissed as mainly bluster and anyway negotiable. Similarly Trump’s challenges to NATO were unwelcome, but no one believed the US would actually pull out of its main military alliance.

But Trump was not just letting off hot air. He is not a joke, but the outspoken representative of a powerful revanchist strand of opinion in the US ruling elites that believes the US has long made too many concessions to its allies, taken on too great a share of global military expenditure, and at the same time been squeezed on trade not just by China, but close allies as well. This is Trump’s explanation for the German and Chinese trade surpluses with the US, and, to a lesser extent, those of Korea and Japan.

Trump has been open that he wants a large share of these surpluses transferred to the US, through a combination of means: imposing terms of trade and insisting upon exchange rates that preference the US over its competitors; demanding successful economies invest in the US or take up more US debt; and insisting that allies increase their contribution to the West’s military budget.

This is already being met with resistance from key targets China and Germany, which have offered strikingly few concessions to Trump. Therefore it is clear that Trump’s project requires greater leverage than the state of the US economy or its present alliances can necessarily deliver. This is the context for Trump’s remarkably consistent pursuit of an opening to Putin’s Russia, despite huge opposition from Pentagon and foreign policy elites, and from within his own White House.

There has long been a serious current of opinion in the US and beyond, that argues that a US-Russia link up could be a reverse ‘Nixon goes to China’, with a US-Russia axis able to bring sufficient pressure to bear on China that it is forced to concede to US demands. In particular, Henry Kissinger, the original engineer of this 1970s Cold War tactic – whereby the US established diplomatic relations with China in order to isolate the USSR – urged the inverse of this tactic upon Trump in a series of meetings they held during the presidential transition.[8] But secondly, of course, such an alliance with Russia could encircle Germany, squeezing the EU from East and West; both Trump’s political agent, Steve Bannon and Putin have been actively aiding right wing and anti-EU political forces across the continent. This is why, Angela Merkel, by contrast with other Western leaders, was quick to realise that Trump and his advisors threats to Germany and the EU were not just rhetoric but constituted a dangerous, disintegrative force in Europe.

In mid-2017, with the new team in the White House finally more or less settled, residual hopes in the emergence of a tempered Trump were abruptly ended when he walked the US out of the hard-won Paris Climate Change Agreement. Amid global disapprobation of Trump’s wilful sabotage on such a vital issue, China again stepped into the vacuum. Xi Jinping used a major speech in October to stress that China would be ‘Taking a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change’, and that it would be a ‘torch-bearer in the global endeavour for ecological civilisation’.[9] In the same speech he again drew a line against Trump’s approach, remarking that: ‘No country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind; no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation.’

The unilateral move of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and abandoning the Iran nuclear agreement reduced multilateral approaches to the region to tatters. Withdrawal from UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council followed.

Finally in spring 2018, the threatened new US protectionism was launched with tariffs imposed on aluminium and steel not just from China, but also Canada, Mexico and the EU.

The growing ideological and political disorganisation in the West that flowed from these actions was reflected in the chaos at the June 2018 G7 summit in Canada; a meeting which happened to take place almost contemporaneously with the 2018 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao, China.[10] The smooth functioning and productive outcomes of the SCO meeting – the first to include India and Pakistan as full members meaning it represented a majority of the world’s population and countries responsible for a majority of annual GDP growth – was inevitably contrasted with the tensions and dysfunction at the G7.

The G7 meeting started in acrimony and ended in farce with Trump removing his signature from the proposed closing statement – meaning that the meeting dispersed without one for the first time since its inception – and trading insults with its host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who hep described as ‘very dishonest & weak’.

The ensuing media firestorm highlighted growing concerns for the future of the US-led Western world order, contrasting the G7 to the harmony at the SCO. So the Diplomat headlined its analysis ‘A West in crisis, and East rising?’; The Atlantic asked ‘Has the Western world started shunning America?’.[11]

This crisis of relations in the West as a result of Trump’s policies has pushed not only Europe (with the exception possibly of the UK) and Canada in particular closer to China, but has also begun to shake up Sino-Japanese relations. Trump’s current and projected tariffs, on European steel, but particularly the prospect of duties on German and Japanese cars, makes China’s growing market potentially even more important in the long term for both these countries. German relations with China had been generally good and improving for some time, but from the G7 summit onward Abe in Japan also made a turn to improving relations with China. Proposed reciprocal visits between Abe and Xi Jinping in Autumn 2018 have trade at their centre.[12]

Of course, the key target of Trump’s tariff war is China itself, which having been hit with 25% tariffs on $50bn of its exports to the US and 10% tariffs on a further $200bn worth of goods in September 2018, is threatened both with an increase in the 10% tariff to 25% (probably not until after the mid-terms) and the threat of tariffs on a further $267bn of goods at a later date ‘if China retaliates’. If all this is implemented it would effectively mean China’s entire export trade to the US was subject to tariffs. Trump embarked on this tariff war with China despite very reasonable alternative proposals from the Chinese and urging from key members of his administration to accept a deal.

China’s negotiators offered the US a ‘win-win’ compromise, aiding the US economically while not damaging China. Rather than tariffs or other measures to reduce its exports to the US, China proposed to reduce the trade deficit through increasing its own imports from the US in areas where there is rising demand in China, such as luxury foods – for example cherries, lobsters, beef. China also offered reduced tariffs on US cars. This deal would have aided the US’s farming and manufacturing sectors, presenting an attractive proposition from several perspectives.

Trump snubbed this proposal; demonstrating that ‘reducing the trade deficit’ is not the main goal of this tariff war with China; its real aims are to stifle its technological development, stall growth and therefore encourage political discontent and instability.

At the time of writing it is not clear what the final outcome of the trade dispute will be. The impact of the tariffs on the US consumer has only just begun to be felt, although earlier tariffs on imported washing machines has already led to a 17% price inflation for these white goods in spring 2018. Moreover the inflationary impact of the tariffs is currently mitigated by the fact that the US economy is still in the upswing of the business cycle, with employment high – although inflation is already beginning to impact on real wages. The economic upswing will however not last long into next year, so the political fallout will tend to become clearer later, as both prices push up as a result of the tariffs and the economy slows.

The mid-term elections are also likely to prove a turning point. First it will be an initial electoral judgement upon Trump, which may lead to the Democrats taking control of Congress – although the exact implications of that are also unclear as the Democrats have generally supported the tariffs on Chinese imports. But second, Trump is also likely to delay any further ramping up of the level of tariffs until after November, in order to avoid any larger negative electoral impact.

As for China, on the one hand it is less vulnerable to domestic inflation resulting from the tariffs it has imposed on US goods, as fewer goods are involved. Even the tariff on US soybeans has so far had little impact. However, rather than domestic inflation, China faces the problem of finding new markets as its exports to the US slow; and the danger that many manufacturing companies will cut their losses and simply move elsewhere – although that is a costly option and not all countries can offer China’s experienced and skilled workforce. Mitigating these threats is the fact that China controls its own banking and finance system and many of its major industries meaning that its government has more options for intervention to relieve the impact of the trade war through shifting production into new areas and other measures, which are not available to the small-state ideologues of the West.

But while the outcome of the trade war remains an open question, it is already clear who is winning the overall propaganda and ideological war, and that is China.

While the other Western leaders have been more or less silent, it has been left to China to assume the mantle of global ‘thought leadership’ that the US is abandoning, at each point advancing, in words and in deeds, an alternative vision of a ‘global community’ run on the basis of mutual benefit and ‘win-win’ diplomacy.

The reason that China is increasingly thrust into the ideological leadership of the response to Trump is not simply because the Western countries are too mired economically and strategically with the US to take on Trump, even though they know he represents a coherent, aggressive and ultimately deeply dangerous international force. But it is also because they do not have the philosophical and theoretical armoury to take on the neo-liberal, ‘winner takes all’ ideology that Trump and co avow.

This is the irony of why China is increasingly able to assume ‘thought leadership’, not just for the developing world, but even for the higher interests of the advanced West; because Xi’s thinking about the world rests not on the unscientific, neo-classical mumbo-jumbo of Trump, Cohn and Bannon, but on the understandings of Smith and Marx about the development of production and society.

Xi’s key concept for international relations is that of ‘a common future for humanity’, which is in turn based on the economic foundation of unequivocal support for globalisation. For example he notes: ‘economic globalisation is a result of growing social productivity, and a natural outcome of scientific and technological progress.’[13] He acknowledges there are problems with globalisation, from inequality to governance, but these are outweighed by the benefits, therefore, following an old Chinese proverb: ‘One should not stop eating for fear of choking’.[14]

This is a coherent view, and is drawn from the core ideas on economic development of Adam Smith, later developed by Marx. Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’, the founding work of modern economics, opens with the statement that the greatest development in human productivity seems ‘to have been the effect of the division of labour’. The rest of the work is built on this understanding. Marx took over this concept, which he later reformulated as the increasing ‘socialisation of labour’ being the crucial contribution to raising human productivity and economic growth.[15] Fully internationalised socialisation of labour – that is globalisation – is thus the greatest, most advanced scope that can be achieved by the socialisation of labour and the basis for the most productive development of human labour. In other words, Smith and Marx show that, rather than there is no such thing as society and that individualism of persons and countries is the only way forward, it is human beings as producers interacting in production that has been the basis for the entire advance in wealth and economic output in human history; upon which base is built culture, science and other advances. In other words collectively, socially organised production means that overall output is much greater than the sum of each person’s individual efforts.

Or as Xi put it: ‘one plus one can be greater than two.’[16] And that is why China is winning the battle of ideas with the Trump; because this is scientific and true, whereas the dog-eat-dog world of Trump will just lead to conflict and economic destruction.

* Jude Woodward is the author of The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?, MUP 2017. This article is an edited version of the introduction to the Dutch/Flemish edition of the book due out in December 2018

[1] See J. Woodward, The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War, MUP 2017, Chapter four

[2] Remarks Of President Donald J. Trump – as prepared for delivery, Inaugural Address, 20th January 2017, Washington, DC. Available at (Last accessed 8th August 2018)

[3] President Xi’s speech to Davos in full, World Economic Forum, 17th January 2017, (last accessed 12th September 2018)

[4] Costa, R. ‘Bannon calls Trump’s speech “Jacksonian”’, 21st January 2017, Washington Post, (last accessed 3rd August 2018)

[5] Wolf, M. ‘Donald Trump and Xi Jinping’s battle over globalisation’, 24th January 2017, Financial TImes

[6] McMaster, H. R. & Cohn, G. D. ‘ America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone ‘, 20th May 2017, Wall Street Journal

[7] P. Anderson, ‘Imperium and consilium’, New Left Review, 83, Sept–Oct 2013, p. 43

[8] A. Suebsaeng, A. Desiderio, S. Stein, B. Allen-Ebrahimian, ‘Henry Kissinger Pushed Trump to Work With Russia to Box In China’, The Daily Beast, 25th July 2018

[9] ‘CPC advocates joint building of a clean, beautiful world’, China Daily, 18th October 2017, (last accessed 4th September 2018)

[10] Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is the Eurasian political, security and economic alliance originally convened in Shanghai in 2001 and now comprising, as full members, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and observers, Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia. The UN and ASEAN, inter alia, attend as guests

[11] C. Putz, ‘‘A West in crisis, and East rising?’, the Diplomat, 12 June 2018; K. Calamur, ‘Has the Western world started shunning America?’, The Atlantic, 7th June 2018

[12] Reuters, ‘Japan’s Abe tells paper that relations with China are back on ‘normal track’, CNBC, 1st September 2018, (last accessed 8th September 2018)

[13] Xi, J. (2017, 17 January). Shoulder the Responsibilities of Our Time and Promote Global Growth Together. In J. Xi, The Governance of China Vol.2 (pp. 519-532). Beijng: Foreign Languages Press.

[14] ibid

[15] For a fuller exposition of these points see J. Ross, ‘How Xi Jinping’s Marxism outthinks the West’, L’Humanité in English, 7th May 2018, (last accessed 1st September 2018)

[16] Xi, J. (2014, 23 March). Follow the Trend of the Times and Promote Global Peace and Development. In J. Xi, The Governance of China (Kindle Edition) (pp. Location 3972-4094). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

The above article was previously published on Jude Woodward’s New Cold War blog.