With its vote to leave the European Union, Britain has cut a gaping hole in European commercial and political solidarity. While mainline politicians in England, Europe and the U.S. argued against the Brexit vote, it has been cheered by Donald Trump as an example of people taking their country back from the elites. Trump has also expressed the view that NATO may be "obsolete" and that, in any case, the U.S. should rethink its financial commitment to that mutual defense pact.
Trump's "America First" approach explains both his willingness to pull back from international agreements - not just in Europe but in the Pacific as well - and his applause for those in other countries who take a similar view about the value of going it alone.
In Scotland at the time of the Brexit vote, Trump told reporters that the foreign policy experts usually get it wrong. In a foreign policy speech in Washington, DC the week before, he expressed his disdain for those "who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war." He added that "[T]he nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony" and that "I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down."
Given these views, it may be helpful to recall a time when international unions did not tie us up and the United States did focus on "American First." That would be 1914. There were military alliances then, but no union among European states. The military alliances divided Europe and, in honoring them, Europeans slaughtered each other for the next four years. The United States thought it could stay out of that war, only to learn it could not, and so rescued western civilization for the first time. The peace that ended World War I continued to divide Europe, by carving it up in the interests of the victors. The League of Nations, a poorly constructed yet hoped for antidote to another world war, failed - in part because American refused to join it. World War II was the next instance where America thought it could avoid an international union, only to learn - at great cost again - that it must in order to save western civilization a second time.
In 1947, with Europe in shambles two years after the end of the war, foreign policy experts in the United States made a strategic decision, fully supported by President Truman, that American isolationism should not be tried again. The result was the Marshall Plan, which sparked the recovery of Europe and its ability to stem the rush to communism as the alternative to market capitalism. George Marshall. in launching that effort, required that the "program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all, European nations." Europe, he insisted, must act together since each nation, acting in its own self-interest, had produced two world wars. The Marshall Plan was the forerunner to the European Union, which now seems on the verge of breaking apart.
In 1949, European nations, the United States, and the United Kingdom formed NATO, an international agreement to come to their mutual defense if any member state was attacked by an external party. Designed chiefly at the time as a mutual defense pact against the threat of the Soviet Union, NATO played a critical part in the containment of communism, enabling Europe to get on its feet both economically and militarily.
These international unions, which Donald Trump so disdains, have led to 71 years without global war. While economic prosperity has waxed and waned, as it has for hundreds of years, there is little doubt that most Europeans are better off economically, more independent politically, and safer militarily as a result of working together, with American leadership and support.
Nor is there much doubt that the United States also profited from European economic and military integration. Our economic prosperity depends on a Europe able to buy our goods and services, and our security depends on European nations acting in concert. American greatness, we should remember, has come not from isolationism and the avoidance of productive international alliances but from those that are carefully constructed and faithfully maintained and strengthened.
We tried "America first" and "America alone" twice in the twentieth century. The result was 1.4 million killed and wounded Americans in two world wars. If every European nation were to go it alone again, acting its assumed self-interest despite its collective need, the costs to America could be much greater than they are today, especially with a resurgent Russia who no doubt cheers the breakup of European solidarity. It is easy to tear down international unions, especially when you take no responsibility for articulating how else to achieve the same ends they are designed to address. These are dangers that foreign policy experts, who Trump so easily dismisses, do not dismiss so easily.