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.”
As a result, these reform internationalists have also bought into the fundamental policy conclusion drawn by internationalists. This has not—as widely thought—been the mission of containing the spread of the top Cold War–era threats to this global security, freedom and prosperity: Soviet and/or Chinese Communism and their offshoots. For as is clear from active American post–Cold War engagement in seemingly marginal regions, underlying this imperative all along was the deeper conviction that the entire global environment needed to be managed adequately to achieve internationalism’s ambitious goals and their crucial benefits for the United States.
And since the dissenters have endorsed the inescapability of worldwide stewardship, they have also endorsed the instruments not only logically proclaimed as essential to turn an historically anarchic and violent international system into something more orderly—and in fact more akin to a domestic political community—but whose nurturing itself just as logically has approached the vital interest level. Hence the insistence by internationalists and these dissenters alike that American purposes over any meaningful time span positively demand prioritizing the maintenance of both military alliances for the common defense, as well as institutions and rules and norms for governing relations within this emerging community, over insisting on any particular balances of risks and costs within these arrangements.
Hence also the failure of numerous burden-sharing efforts. Even hard-nosed reform internationalists like Nixon time and again ignored lessons taught in Bargaining 101 or by game theory—namely, that prevailing in negotiations is difficult without a willingness to walk away. Even worse, when this unwillingness is advertised, as per a frequent internationalist practice, success becomes far less likely.
Not even failure in Vietnam spurred a qualitative strategic reassessment by internationalists or mainstream dissenters. But they could hardly ignore the strains and flaws it revealed. Since internationalism’s adoption, U.S. leaders faced a challenge in bridging the gap between the doctrine’s theoretically open-ended goals and the inevitable limits on the nation’s material power, and on the public’s appetite for risk and cost. With the gap seeming wider than ever in Vietnam’s wake, new ways to square these circles were urgently needed. So in addition to established force multipliers—like alliances, international organizations, the multilateral approaches these institutions represent and even nuclear weapons themselves (long viewed as equalizers against superior communist conventional forces)—internationalists and mainstream dissenters touted a long string of supposed surrogates for American blood and treasure that have been as creative as they’ve been unsuccessful.
As a result, post-Vietnam internationalism has rested on a new doctrine shared by the mainstream dissidents as well—that although the United States is no longer strong, wealthy and wise enough to achieve on its own internationalism’s formidable global management goals, it is more than strong, wealthy and wise enough to achieve these goals in tandem with those varied surrogates.
Equally important, dissenters themselves tend to reject as emphatically as the internationalists the idea that, on a regular basis, non-intervention and outright indifference might ever be the best of the sub-optimal choices that often face foreign policymakers of any country. Even in the case of countries so marginal that most Americans—understandably—can’t find them on a map, the dissenters have regarded such inaction as a third-rail position supported by only minor voices on the libertarian Right and the guilt-saturated Left.
Just as damaging to the dissenters’ cause has been a second major mistake: accepting a dimension of internationalism that is fundamentally stylistic—and even aesthetic—but whose political and emotional power shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, these optics have comprised much of the nation’s definition of foreign policy success, and they flow from an equally important idea advanced by numerous international relations scholars: that countries deserving the title “great power” are defined largely by activity itself and by the ambitions they prize. That is, the initiative demonstrated and the instruments employed by foreign policymakers have been endowed with a significance independent of the agenda they serve, but one that naturally grows from internationalism’s view of the world as endlessly threatening but also highly malleable.
In fact, this stylistic dimension of internationalism has both greatly strengthened the bias against international inaction that pervades American politics and also endowed it with a moral significance. Specifically, diplomatic passivity is dismissed as unacceptable, or at best a last resort, not only because of particular dangers it might permit to fester or opportunities it might leave unexploited, but because of the message it allegedly sends—to domestic and foreign audiences—about defects in the nation’s character.