It’s perfectly understandable that any government would worry about the domestic and foreign consequences of projecting standoffishness vis-à-vis countries and issues accorded some significance. Much less understandable are the long string of stated official American concerns about messages they fear are sent (including to domestic audiences) by projecting standoffishness vis-à-vis countries and issues widely regarded as peripheral—of selfishness, narrow-mindedness, parochialism or mere indolence.
As unseemly as these traits might be in individuals, and as problematic when perceived in high stakes diplomacy, the dangers they pose when alleged in low- or no-stakes situations are anything but obvious. Nonetheless, the mainstream dissenters’ determination to dissociate themselves from such charges has further reinforced their adamant opposition to noninterventionist positions.
An America First–type alternative to internationalism, therefore, needs to overcome both strategic and political challenges. Strategically, it needs to enable American leaders to avoid being gamed by allied and other free riders both in the security and economic spheres. Politically, it needs to explain compellingly the substantive virtues of noninvolvement in various foreign situations, and to remove the stigma so typically attached to inaction.
To accomplish these objectives, the case for America First must refute internationalism’s root strategic assumptions, and in the process transform the nation’s definition of foreign policy success. Specifically, America Firsters have to debunk the claims that America’s fate is always or even usually inseparable from that of the international environment both in security and economic terms, and that this environment’s comprehensive, continuous and conspicuously energetic global management is imperative. Their counterargument need not depict all or most of America’s international connections as dangerous or marginal—a habit that feeds the establishment’s insistence that the only internationalist alternatives are naively isolationist.
Instead, it will need to make clear that: (1) the nation enjoys numerous geopolitical and economic advantages that are intrinsic, or that have resulted overwhelmingly from domestic achievements, and are therefore completely unrelated to diplomacy or other forms of overseas engagement; (2) that these advantages are so impressive that, whatever their precise extent, they cannot fail to carry immense, often decisive and favorable strategic implications that no American leader who truly prioritizes his own country’s interests would ignore; and (3) that the nature of these advantages permit a much more selective, less risky and less expensive approach to engagement in overseas situations than demanded by internationalism.
The sources of these advantages are so uncontroversial that they are central features of stock definitions and characterizations of the United States. Yet they are rarely credited with any strategic significance, and almost never with positive strategic significance. In fact, the conditions that militate for a less ambitious foreign policy are most often decried as the international system’s version of sirens that continually tempt Americans into a dangerous complacency.
They fall into two broad, but often overlapping groupings: those that undergird U.S. national security, and those that underlie U.S. prosperity. Both groupings, in turn, undergird the nation’s political independence.
Of all the widely discussed national security conditions, none has been more widely belittled, and for a longer period of time, than the country’s geographic isolation. Yet no strategic asset remains more important. Of course, the protective power of the Atlantic and the Pacific has been compromised by the development of intercontinental weapons and the emergence of threats that “respect no borders,” like climate change and pollution. And despite its relatively friendly (and relatively weak) North American neighbors, the United States has still needed to pay attention to continental issues like immigration.
But great transoceanic distances are anything but worthless. They have still surely accounted for the relative paucity of Islam-related terrorist attacks on American soil, and remain formidable, if not impenetrable, barriers to the transmission of epidemics. The oceans and benign neighbors, moreover, continue to help free Americans of worries about conventional military pressure or attack from hostile powers—which have been longstanding nightmares for Eurasian populations.
Further, as dangerous to Americans as those foreign ocean-spanning nuclear weapons remain in principle, the prospect of a first or retaliatory strike by nuclear-armed rivals has been reduced to the greatest extent possible by another strategic asset with no inherent relation to international activism—the country’s immense military strength. In this case, America’s own nuclear weapons and delivery systems with global range per se create the shield. The nation’s armed forces and their long-range striking power, again combined with the oceans’ width, also have virtually eliminated another threat common throughout history—land and naval invasion forces. American nuclear weapons could destroy invaders completely as soon as they left base or port.
This unsurpassed military strength is just one product of America’s other major strategic assets whose relationship with international activism is stronger, but hardly decisive—those that have created history’s most prosperous economy. The United States is of course a major global trade and investment player, and its currency has been the world’s dominant medium of exchange for decades. Yet history clearly shows that this success overwhelmingly resulted from the country’s development of a vast internal economy that steadily grew to continental dimensions.
Indeed, for most of the nineteenth century, both the export and import shares of GDP fell significantly and neither ever came close to topping 10 percent in pre-inflation or inflation-adjusted terms. Domestic output, therefore, was growing faster than trade.
Immigration figures prominently in America’s development, but its magnitude was as much consequence as cause of robust domestic production; as U.S. farm exports flooded Europe, these helped to displace agricultural jobs in particular and sent the new labor surplus westward. And, although America’s post–Civil War industrialization certainly was aided by investment from abroad (especially from Britain), net capital inflow into the country rarely exceeded small fractions of gross capital formation during the nineteenth century.
In other words, the American economy has historically been a strong, domestic-driven growth engine. It’s been a model of diversity as well, thanks to a combination of manufacturing prowess, innovation and abundant natural resources. In many ways, it is so variegated that it’s a remarkably good approximation of the global economy in (huge) microcosm. Thanks to this unique diversity and scale, the United States’ level of economic self-sufficiency has always been lofty, and the potential for self-sufficiency remains great today—especially considering how hard its leaders have worked in recent decades to increase its ties with and therefore dependence on the rest of the economic world.
The strategic maxims of a non-internationalist, America First foreign policy all flow directly from the insistence that internationalism fundamentally misunderstands these geopolitical and economic realities, and the most effective assets it can bring to bear on overseas challenges and opportunities.
The first concerns internationalism’s defining claim that the United States is the nation-state version of the Andersen fairy tale princess so exquisitely sensitive that she could feel a pea under a tower of mattresses. America Firsters would recognize that the United States is not acutely vulnerable to the slightest perturbations of the global ether. In fact, the country already enjoys high levels of—and greater potential for—security, independence and prosperity. As a result, its policymakers are liberated both from the Herculean labors of comprehensive global management; and from the need to keep a wide quiver of institutional tools in good working order over the long haul. So U.S. leaders enjoy the luxury of viewing large swathes of the world with indifference.
When some form of engagement is unavoidable, America First–focused policymakers can set priorities based not on objectives that resist precise calculation—such as maintaining internationalist mechanisms and their supposedly impartial rules of behavior over the longest possible haul. Instead, true America Firsters would emphasize securing much shorter-term objectives that are much more easily calculated. These would entail discrete advantages and disadvantages to the United States of specific engagement decisions that reflect criteria such as the wealth, power, strategic location and other intrinsic qualities of the country or region in question. These qualities, of course, would be valued according to their abilities to create specific benefits or pose specific problems for the United States—if not immediately, then within finite and roughly estimable time frames.
As for the institutional tools themselves, an America First approach would by no means rule out their value or potential and immediately call it quits. But it would judge them in the same manner, in terms of their performance in defending or promoting discrete U.S. interests, and delivering payoffs sooner rather than later. It’s true that the results would be institutional tools less legally or automatically reliable than today’s. But even assuming that current alliances and international organizations deserve this reputation, America’s own advantages and capabilities would curb the downside for U.S. policymakers, while the opportunities created for greater flexibility, and more and better options, would raise the upside. In other words, American foreign policy both inside and outside institutions would become explicitly utilitarian—or, as internationalists sneeringly describe it, “transactional.”
Second, and just as important, since the America First approach attributes the country’s security, independence and prosperity primarily to its intrinsic characteristics and circumstances—and not to shaping the international environment actively—it holds that the main guarantor of its well-being is maximizing those intrinsic advantages. Thus, it sets as its paramount goals the creation and augmentation of power in all of its dimensions, as well as the maintenance and enhancement of its favored geopolitical position and its capacity for self-sufficiency.