Donald Trump invoked the image of a U.S. plagued by weak borders, lopsided alliances and bad trade deals in an inauguration speech that hammered on his “America First” view of foreign policy and undermined hopes abroad that the new president would moderate his protectionist tone.
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” Trump said. “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.”
The speech reaffirmed campaign themes that had unnerved foreign leaders fearful the U.S. would back away from its role as the “indispensable nation” and put less stock in traditional alliances, globalism and free trade. On the revamped White House website, the Trump administration vowed to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“It was Trump and his populist base against the world — including every other country and the Washington establishment, and that surprised me,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “What really struck me the most was the dark tenor of the speech. This was ‘Midnight in America,’” he added, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s optimistic “Morning in America” theme.
A key message in the speech was the need to protect U.S. jobs and borders, and Trump also vowed the U.S. would “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism.”
Initial reaction to Trump’s inauguration speech in Mexico was swift. Trump has sparred with Mexico over the need to rework Nafta, which endangers the approximately 80 percent of Mexican exports that are sent to the U.S.
“We will take the position of putting Mexico’s interests first,” said Marcela Guerra, a senator from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party who heads the chamber’s committee on North American relations. “We’ll establish negotiations of mutual respect and benefits, and at no point will we agree to anything that puts our sovereignty at risk.”
Pena Nieto struck a more diplomatic tone, saying on Twitter that he’ll work to establish a “respectful dialogue” with the U.S. guided by “sovereignty” and “national interests.” A delegation of senior Mexican officials will travel to Washington next week to meet with Trump’s advisers.
Like Pena Nieto, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was conciliatory, pledging to work with the new American president.
“Together, we benefit from robust trade and investment ties, and integrated economies, that support millions of Canadian and American jobs,” Trudeau said. “We both want to build economies where the middle class, and those working hard to join it, have a fair shot at success.”
China had no immediate official reaction. A commentary in the official Xinhua News Agency struck a balanced tone, touting the merits of cooperation on the economy and security issues like denuclearizing the Korean peninsula while also warning of consequences if Trump crosses China’s red lines on core interests like Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“Cooperation also demands reciprocal flexibility instead of a beggar-thy-neighbor mentality,” the Xinhua commentary said. “Among all his alternatives, the least desirable for Trump is to act on his previous threats to slap punitive tariffs on his country’s largest trading partner and label China a ‘currency manipulator’ as protectionism only stirs up retaliation.”
Congratulations to Trump also rolled in from world leaders including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In Lebanon, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, expressed hope Trump would reverse course on his promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, saying the negative consequences would otherwise “be profound.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was in Washington for the inauguration, said after the ceremony that he’d spoken with several Trump nominees, including prospective Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to the official Turkish news agency Anadolu.
Cavusoglu said all the officials he spoke with promised a stronger U.S.-Turkish relationship after a series of “crises of confidence” under the previous administration. He said he hoped differences over U.S. support for Kurdish militants in Syria, and a dispute about extradition of the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen — blamed by Turkey for instigating a failed coup — can be overcome under Trump.
While Trump emphasized his plan to buy and hire American, he also said the U.S. will “seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world.” Yet it was his dark tone and focus on “America First” that left the biggest initial impression abroad.
“I had hoped it wasn’t going to be a reiteration of his campaign speeches, that it would be a really fresh and hopeful beginning to his presidency,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It wasn’t that, though it was very true to those who voted for him.”