IT’S INCREASINGLY OBVIOUS that Donald Trump is talking a much better America First foreign policy game than he’s playing.
Like his campaign and his inaugural address, his presidency so far has featured plenty of rhetoric lambasting the “globalism” of his predecessors, and threatening a decisive break with their diplomatic approach. Some important policy decisions do seem consistent with the inward-looking America First approach that was taken by the United States before Pearl Harbor, and that was marked by the grim, classically realist view that all the world’s countries are condemned to struggle for power and wealth, and that allies are much less long-lasting than interests. The leading examples are Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear deal; his crackdowns on illegal immigration and on refugee admissions from allegedly dangerous countries; and his relative indifference to human rights abuses abroad.
But in security affairs, the president has also reaffirmed America’s major European and Asian alliance commitments—including the nuclear risk they create. He has continued a Middle East policy that assumes Washington can use military force skillfully enough, and is supported by reliable regional partners, to end the Islamic terrorist threat to the region’s stability and to the United States. Trump and senior aides have repeatedly endorsed the standard globalist view that the nation’s security and prosperity depend critically on maintaining its “global leadership.”
Economically, his administration has signaled considerable willingness to grant U.S.-based businesses trade protection, and has certainly rattled Canada, Mexico and many American companies by playing hardball on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. But he’s so far refrained from imposing or supporting sweeping tariffs (e.g., to punish China for currency manipulation or intellectual property theft, or to discourage production offshoring via the border adjustment levy included in the Republican House’s original version of the recently passed tax bill). He’s worked strictly, though aggressively, within the existing U.S. trade law system to deal with most corporate complaints. And his aides speak of reforming, not leaving, the World Trade Organization (WTO).
In fact, President Trump has even engaged in a practice that he’s described as being as characteristic of globalism (which most analysts call “internationalism”) as it is dangerously shortsighted: “trading away its security for prosperity.” What other explanation could there be for his offer of better trade deals for China if it helps Washington resolve the North Korea crisis?
All told, far from rejecting post–World War II internationalism either conceptually or operationally, Trump’s foreign policy seems focused on improving its core arrangements from the standpoint of hard-pressed Main Street Americans. In this respect, Trump’s positions evoke nothing so much as the policies of a White House predecessor whose internationalist credentials are rarely questioned: Richard Nixon. Ironically, though, the current president has (so far) done far less damage to postwar institutions than Nixon’s New Economic Policy, which actually brought down the Bretton Woods international monetary system.
Nonetheless, though he stopped well short of genuine America Firstism, there are plenty of reasons for the president and the nation at large to ponder its potential virtues. First, few of the challenges that have prompted the search for dramatic alternatives have subsided much, if at all—whether it’s Islamic-related terrorism, Chinese expansionism, job offshoring, illegal immigration or the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states. So even if the lure of a more modest role in the world is resisted during this presidency, chances are it will return in the next.
Second, the Nixon experience and the ensuing decades warn powerfully against seeking internationalism on the cheap—numerous efforts to do so have all failed. Just recall Nixon’s own initiatives, left-of-center calls to “Come Home, America,” the noninterventionism pushed by libertarians at the Cato Institute and paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan, the similar entreaties from leading establishmentarian realists like George F. Kennan, and William G. Hyland and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick—especially once the Cold War ended. These proposals have both been rejected by the rest of the professional foreign policy community, and have also failed to convince many elected officials that they are key to winning elections.
The best way for America Firsters to start thoroughly revamping U.S. foreign policy is by identifying the fatal mistakes that have repeatedly—and inevitably—scuttled reform internationalists in the past, and thereby identifying how best to avoid them. Two in particular stand out.
First, precisely because they have been, in the end, internationalists, these mainstream foreign policy dissenters have endorsed internationalism’s root assumption, which has stemmed from the ostensibly timeless lessons of the nation’s 1930s indifference to aggression in Europe and Asia: that America’s security, freedom and prosperity are inseparable from the security, freedom and prosperity of a critical mass of the rest of the world in which trouble anywhere is sure to spread like wildfire unless checked. Hence, the longstanding dominance in American foreign policy rhetoric of images like fire brigades, contagion, falling dominoes and of slogans like “peace is indivisible.”