Government, Industry Weigh in on Trump’s ‘America First’ Policies
Photo: Defense Dept.
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — President Donald Trump’s controversial “America First” policies were a major focus of discussions Dec. 2 at the Reagan National Defense Forum, as government officials and industry executives took stock of what has happened during his first year in office.
The annual conference held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, brings together top national security officials and industry executives to discuss some of the major challenges facing the United States. This year’s event was co-sponsored by dozens of defense companies and other organizations including the National Defense Industrial Association.
Trump laid out his America First vision during his inaugural address earlier this year and in subsequent executive orders.
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he declared in his inauguration speech. “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.”
Trump later signed an executive order directing the Defense Department to buy U.S.-made products wherever possible and reduce its dependence on overseas suppliers.
Some observers have worried that the policies would be viewed as protectionist and isolationist, and weaken U.S. alliances and international business partnerships.
“What the rest of the world hears when they hear ‘America First’ is basically, ‘Screw you, we’re looking out for ourselves,’” said. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., during a panel discussion at the Reagan forum. “My take in talking with people from other parts of the world is they’re a little nervous,” the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee added.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, executive chairman of AM General, offered a different assessment, saying the Trump administration has taken steps to reassure allies especially in the Middle East. The president has touted a number of major arms sales agreements with countries in the region since he took office.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, chairman of the KKR Global Institute, said U.S. national security policy hasn’t really changed much this year, despite Trump’s rhetoric.
“Don’t get mesmerized by the [president’s] tweets,” he said. “If you follow the troops, follow the money and follow the substance of the [foreign] policy, you’ll actually conclude that we are pursuing a national security strategy policy that is more characterized by continuity than by change.”
Some early critics of Trump’s trade policies worried that other nations would retaliate by adopting protectionist policies that discriminated against U.S. companies. There was also concern that they could disrupt the global supply chain for defense items.
Wes Bush, the chairman, president and CEO of Northrop Grumman, told National Defense that his company has seen no ill effects stemming from Trump’s America First policies.
“We have a very strong set of partnerships across the globe and … the perspective that has been shared with me many times is American leadership — when it comes to security matters — is critically important,” he said. “And our partnerships are actually strengthening right now. So I’m excited about it.”
During a panel discussion, he said long-standing restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles surrounding overseas military sales are a much greater concern. Export control regimes are still rooted in a Cold War mentality, he said.
“That mentality was we have all the best stuff, we’re going to draw a big moat around it [and] we’re going to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere,” he said. That view “makes it really hard for other nations to feel comfortable at all in partnering with us on technology because they’re concerned that they’ll land here and never get out,” he added.
Reforms in export policies are needed to alleviate those concerns and facilitate partnering on technology development, he said. “We can see in a number of our allied nations some innovations that we really need to leverage here, so we need to make it easier to do that,” he said.
Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said U.S. policies constraining exports to the Middle East over the last five years have made Russia and China “partners of choice” for countries in the region. The new administration is committed to changing that paradigm and making the foreign military sales process easier in general, she said.
Phebe Novakovic, chairman and CEO of General Dynamics, said her company continues to see growing opportunities in Asia, despite the change in administration. The military actions of China and North Korea in recent years and months have been raising alarms among U.S. partners in the region.
“We have seen in the last year, year and a half, increased demands signals coming out of Asia, and I suspect that if you talk to my colleagues they would tell you much the same,” she said. “People spend money on defense when they’re worried, and I think there are many of our allies in Asia who are justifiably worried.”
Looking at Europe, Trump in the past has disparaged NATO and threatened to reduce the U.S. commitment to the alliance if other members didn’t contribute more resources to collective defense. NATO countries are now in talks about increasing their defense spending amid greater concerns about Russia’s military posture in Europe, Lord noted. She said the United States would benefit from greater European investment in platforms and other technologies.
Mike McNamara, CEO of Flex, a firm which specializes in supply chains and logistics, said he supports Trump’s goal of trying to create more industry jobs in the United States through his America First policies. But he sounded a note of caution.
“Whether we like it or not, the world supply chain is a global supply chain and we actually have to be careful that we don’t create policies” that don’t take that into account, he said.
For example, much of the supply chain for electronics is based in Asia, he noted. That is not going to change even if high taxes are imposed on those foreign-made products, he said.
“We just have to make sure that we’re balancing … the America First agenda with sensible policies so that they actually create actionable moves,” he said. “Some supply chains can’t move [back to the United States], and if you just tax them then you’ll get inflation and that’s not good for the American people.”