Donald Trump and "America First": Where U.S. Foreign Policy Went Wrong

If there was one moment in the 2016 election campaign that both encapsulated the rage felt towards the elite as well as Donald Trump’s own iconoclastic worldview, it took place at the GOP debate last February. Early in the evening, the CBS Newsman and moderator John Dickerson asked Jeb Bush whether fighting Bashar al-Assad of Syria was akin to starting a war with Russia. Bush answered that Assad had to be defeated first, and that it was “ludicrous” for Trump to suggest that Vladimir Putin could be accommodated.

Trump’s turn came next. Over the boos of Republican stalwarts in the room, the realtor went on the offensive. “If you listen to Jeb,” Trump said, angrily stabbing his finger in Bush’s direction, “and you listen to some of the folks I’ve been listening to—that’s why we’ve been in the Middle East and we haven’t won anything!”

There were more boos, more jeers.

Then things got really interesting, as Trump went further. “Obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake!” he shouted. “They lied! They said there were weapons of mass destruction! There were none, and they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction!”

Jeb Bush looked stunned, as did most of the other candidates. It was as though some sacred rule had been broken by airing this unfiltered truth. When Bush reverted to politician form and repeated the holiest of Republican shibboleths—that his brother George W. Bush kept America safe—Trump torpedoed this myth as well: “The World Trade Center came down under your brother’s reign. That’s not keeping us safe.”

For viewers watching at home, Trump was expressing the common person’s contempt for the intellectual arrogance that got the United States, the most powerful country on earth, into so many quagmires. He was channeling the disdain felt across the country for the professional foreign policy elite that had stubbornly refused to learn anything from these failures—a disdain, by the way, that President Obama shares. Here was Jeb representing the establishment, still muttering discredited ideas, an archetype of hubris and hypocrisy later embodied by Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, Trump claimed to champion the American taxpayer and called his foreign policy approach America First, a neo-isolationist position that tied American involvement abroad to the enrichment of Americans at home. Like most things Trump, his message was simple: These men and women who have been running things, they and their foolhardy ideology of “globalism” have weakened the United States: vote for them if you want more of the same.

This was not typical Trumpian bluster. Unlike in domestic policy where he is rightly viewed as a vacuous opportunist who will say or do anything to advance his personal interests, in foreign policy the president-elect has a core set of beliefs. In 1987, he took out a full page ad in the New York Times and other papers calling on the United States to tax allies that were taking advantage of America or drop them.

Implicitly then, and explicitly in 2016, Trump promoted the idea that the United States could walk away from its commitments, disengage from the world, retreat into isolationism, and be just fine. Trump’s America First foreign policy rebuked a bipartisan tradition going back seventy years, when the United States as chief architect of international institutions (the World Bank, the United Nations, the IMF), alliances (NATO), and laws (nuclear non-proliferation), underwrote the international system with its military and economic might.

Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton could defend the foreign policy establishment during the 2016 campaign, and neither really tried. Now that an isolationist is about to take office—surrounded by unrepentant hardliners—it is time to ask where things went wrong, and whether the world is in for a reckoning.

From “America First” to the Global Order

George F. Kennan, the legendary American diplomat, once told a group of students that “a political society does not live to conduct foreign policy; it would be more correct to say that it conducts foreign policy in order to live.”

That a country’s foreign relations are existential in nature is a feeling shared in capitals around this world, but this precariousness and fear of overreach has always been particularly acute in America. A strain of thought that America’s destiny depended on what it accomplished at home, and a dim awareness of the peril beyond the frontier and the ocean, ran through Washington’s Farewell address, Adams’s warning not to go in search of monsters to destroy, the opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War One, and the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s.

Trump is continuing this tradition. The very term “America First”—a poisonous piece of propaganda, because it implies that people who disagree with President-elect Trump are unpatriotic—is a direct reference to the America First Committee of the interwar years, the largest antiwar organization in American history. It was started at Yale Law School in 1940 by R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., whose father established the Quaker Oats company, and included as its other student-leaders future-president Gerald Ford, future-Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. AFC’s aim was to build up America’s defenses, refuse aid to foreign nations, and most importantly, keep the United States out of World War Two. The Committee was deeply distrustful of Franklin Roosevelt’s internationalism and attracted a motley crew of Nazi sympathizers, fascists, antiwar liberals, traditional conservatives, pacifists, and socialists.

The America First Committee disbanded when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As World War Two dragged on, it became clear to American leaders that the United States had made a terrible mistake after the first world war by spurning the League of Nations—an American idea—and isolating itself. When Senator Harry S. Truman went on a speaking tour through Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas in 1943, he spoke about the folly of isolationism. “History has bestowed on us a solemn responsibility,” said the improbable man who would soon be president: “We failed before to give a genuine peace—we dare not fail this time. We must not repeat the blunders of the past.”

Truman understood that the United States, as a superpower, would have to take the lead in designing a set of rules and institutions that would minimize the risk of another war. Just as a society needed some degree of enforceable order to make civilization possible, the world needed rules of the road to tame the naturally violent instincts of states. The United Nations Security Council became the conference table around which great powers would settle their disputes; the Marshall Plan saved Western Europe from economic ruin; the NATO alliance was forged to defend what was then-called the free world.

By leading the world, Truman and his successors recognized that America was also serving its own interests.

Under the American-led order, a vanquished Germany became prosperous, Japan became the second-largest economy in the world, and China, a poor and mostly rural country in 1949, became an economic behemoth. Yet, there was a tragic, unavoidable flaw in all of this: America may have written the rules and gotten buy-in from other countries, but it was also the rules’ policeman. When North Korea (1950) or Iraq (1990) violated these rules, for example, it fell to the United States to organize coalitions to enforce them and maintain the system.

The United States officially Signs the UN Charter.  President Harry S. Truman looks on from left.
The United States officially Signs the UN Charter. President Harry S. Truman looks on from left.

Like every country on earth, however, America had its own interests. When they conflicted with the rules-based order, the country either exploited the rules or broke them. The United States bombed or invaded Vietnam (1965-1975), Cambodia (1969), Laos (1973), and entire swaths of Latin America with the most noble, freedom-loving rhetoric, when in reality it was the cold, hard logic of national interest that reigned.

This paradox, of operating within the world order and outside it, as a state like any other but also a superpower, came to the fore when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States as the only international gatekeeper and guardsman, unchallenged and unrestrained.

The Birth of “Globalism”

What Trump and his supporters derisively call “globalism” began in 1992. By then America had the world pretty much to itself. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer called it “the unipolar moment”; Francis Fukuyama’s book published that year hailed “The End of History.” The United States was the biggest country, with the biggest guns, and could point them in any direction. Whether America would discipline her power or become intoxicated by exercising it was the crucial question.

Unfortunately, the hubris of high-minded elites took over. The Times reported in 1992 that a policy document was circulating in the Pentagon outlining America’s post-Cold War approach. A version of this classified white paper, the Defense Planning Guidance, was leaked to the Times. The document called for nothing less than worldwide domination by the United States. “With its focus on the concept of benevolent domination by one power,” the Times reported, “the Pentagon document articulates the clearest rejection to date of collective internationalism, the strategy that emerged from World War Two.” The supervisor of this new policy was Paul Wolfowitz, a former Yale political science professor who was later one of the principal architects of bringing democracy to Iraq at gunpoint.

World domination was one-half of America’s new posture; the other half was unfettered markets, or letting loose the capitalist bull around the world. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Canada, and Mexico was finalized in 1992. According to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA “was the door through which American workers were shoved into the neoliberal global labor market.” NAFTA made it easier for corporations to relocate elsewhere—taking jobs with them—and sell to the United States, without adequately assisting workers who were left behind.

A creed known as the Washington Consensus (what better title for an economic program crafted by and for elites?) was imposed on poorer countries, forcing them to liberalize trade, privatize industries, and deregulate their economies—Reaganite solutions, which had devastated the American heartland, were exported abroad, without any care for environmental regulations or labor standards that would protect foreign workers, and through fairer competition, Americans, too.

It was only a matter of time before the whole thing blew wide open. First came the invasion of Iraq, which the US and UK undertook over the objections of the rest of the world, unilaterally marching into Baghdad and making a mockery of international law and institutions in the process. What the Iraq War discredited, other than the blinding arrogance of Washington policymakers and their journalistic courtiers, was the system America had built. What would the United States have said if Russia had invaded Iraq, under the pretense of disarming Saddam’s WMDs?

The famous “Mission Accomplished” speech from May 1, 2003.
The famous “Mission Accomplished” speech from May 1, 2003.

The establishment foreign policy elite seemed to forget these fiascos when it denounced Trump’s foreign policy views: Between Trump and Hillary Clinton, only Trump was fuming indignantly at this mega fraud perpetrated out of Washington, where the American people were lied to, their children sent to die, and the taxpayer handed a bill for up to six trillion dollars – all because of the fanciful delusions of the foreign policy establishment.

(Until this day, we still do not know how many Iraqis were killed since the invasion. It could be 100,000, it could be as much as one million. These dead, though they do not figure as prominently in the Western imagination, will continue to haunt the Middle East’s development for generations—mass graves, abandoned families, radicalized children, to say nothing of our own shame for bringing death disguised as democracy to a foreign country.)

The second implosion of the global order was the financial crisis, which took the logic of short-termism and hyper-greed and packaged, repackaged, and sold it around the world.

Consider the World Economic Forum meeting of February 2009, held in the alpine town of Davos, Switzerland. Davos is the pinnacle of one-percenter back-slapping, the annual ideas festival where CEOs, world leaders, and activists who can afford the $71,000-per-head ticket congregate to congratulate themselves on running the world magnificently. ($71,000 is the basic membership fee and ticket; as you go up the global elite chain, the price tag becomes heftier—up to $700,000 in some cases.) The late political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term “Davos Man” for those gold-collar “workers” whose purpose in life seemed to be bringing the world together, so long as this profited their bank accounts. What made the 2009 Davos meeting so grotesque was that the world economy was then in free-fall. America lost 724,000 jobs that month as the cosmocrats gathered to ruminate about “What Must Industry Do to Prevent a Broad Social Backlash?”

Trump’s victory last month and his promise of America First put an end (symbolically at least) to the United States underwriting a system that everyone, in theory, once benefitted from. When voters chose him, they rejected American engagement abroad and rebuked the long, bipartisan tradition of American foreign policy. The alternative they chose is as old as the republic itself.

It’s an enigma, however, that Trump’s administration-in-the-making is being staffed with military hardliners, but the plan could be for the hawks to beat their chests as they withdraw, or to withdraw while aggressively ramping up the use of force. People who care little for the world to begin with, who think that there is already too much of the world within America’s borders, will not be careful should they decide to burn it.

What makes this so worrying is that around the world, emboldened authoritarian leaders are rising, using revisionist rhetoric, and making bellicose demands on their neighbors. We see this with Erodgan of Turkey, Putin of Russia, Xi of China, Modi of India, Duterte of the Philippines, and even Abe of Japan. An American withdrawal would strike a mortal blow to the world order, one whose consequences are impossible to predict.

Over the next four years, US allies around the globe will ask, “If not America, then who?” Strongmen and autocrats may provide the answer: “If not America, then us.”

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