WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s first act as president was to put the world on notice.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power,” Trump charged in his inauguration address. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”
With that decree, the nation’s 45th commander-in-chief shook America’s closest allies. European leaders issued warnings that their continent is now on its own. Arab media outlets warned of a period of hostility toward Muslims worldwide. And even newspapers in Moscow – where officials are generally optimistic that Trump will align America’s foreign policy with Russian interests – cautioned that a period of uncertainty is at hand.
For decades, American presidents have convinced foreign governments to look to Washington for guidance and stability. It was thought to be a symbiotic relationship. Foreign governments sought the partnership of the world’s only liberal superpower, and presidents have believed, since World War II, that a structured, peaceful and interconnected world would serve to benefit their own people, most of all.
In practice, allies have sometimes been disappointed in America’s leadership – including throughout Barack Obama’s tenure as president, when historic friends across the Middle East felt as if Washington was intentionally distancing itself from the region. And Americans have felt that their taxpayer dollars have disproportionately funded international peace efforts.
But Trump’s policy break is stark in comparison: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” he said of his plans to turn inward. He vowed to proceed with America’s alliances “with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
Adding to the uncertainty, there’s the risk of instability within America itself. Trump entered office as the least popular president-elect of modern times, with most national polls showing his approval numbers under 40%. Riots against Trump turned violent in the capital on Friday, and hundreds of thousands marched across the nation on Saturday in a challenge to his legitimacy. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly nine in 10 Americans feel the nation is more divided than ever.
Trump’s speech was surprising simply because he was delivering it as president – a surreal moment for those critics who never believed this moment could ever come. But its contents were unsurprising, because they were consistent with the worldview Trump shared throughout his insurgent presidential campaign and throughout much of his career in the public spotlight.
The new president will test a new proposition: That he can upend the existing global order to greatly benefit the American worker while maintaining peace and stability in a volatile world. He is surrounded by skeptics – in Washington and around the globe. Now is his time to prove them wrong, as campaigning ends and the grueling work of governing begins.