Standing in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump declared, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Commensurate with his campaign rhetoric, this proclamation was followed by a description of the actors who have eroded American power under his predecessors’ rule: foreigners, the establishment, other nations, and a globalized economy. The Trump Administration’s guiding principle of “America first” is problematic for two reasons: it will not lead to the desired effect and more importantly, it is a slogan with a dangerous history and potentially dangerous consequences. Trump says America first, but he means America only. To him, America should be unconcerned by the important role that it plays as a global leader in the international system.
To some Trump supporters, the concept of “America first,” and perhaps the idea of “America only,” is exactly what they want—a welcome reprieve from the international liberalism and the more recent embrace of globalization that has come to define the post-World War II international order. Sadly, this isolationist position maintained by Trump is woefully miscalculated and dangerous to the security of the United States and the world.
What would happen if the globe’s largest economy and largest military disengage with the world? It is impossible to answer with certainty given that the United States did not become a true superpower until after World War II and has led the international system ever since. However, one can assume that American disengagement will create a sizable power vacuum within the international community. In an international system where there is no supranational government regulating the behavior of states and non-state actors, the security of the international system depends upon a delicate balance of power, with a certain level of trust between states as codified by international law and practiced by way of adherence to international norms.
While the validity of the hegemonic stability theory—which posits that the world is most stable when one state exists within the international system—is debatable, the distribution of power among states is always asymmetrical, and since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained a significant portion of that power. America has not always wielded that power responsibly, but temporarily banning immigrants and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees, dissolving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and favoring Russian President Vladimir Putin are actions that are both irresponsible and reckless. It has the potential to catalyze our enemies to action, distance our allies, and condone the annexation of one state by another, rupturing the fabric of the current international order.
Trump’s vision for America is one in which the nation is unburdened by alliances, trade deals, and treaties and succeeds under a quasi-import substitution industrialization model (“We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.”). Immigration is deterred, trade is decreased, and international humanitarian law is dismissed. While free trade liberalism leaves much to be desired and while international relations is different in theory than in practice, Trump’s vision is misguided because it frames meaningful engagement with the outside world as a drain on American power rather than an opportunity for growth and progress.
Immigration contributes to the growth and strength of the economy. NATO’s obsolescence is grievously overstated given the importance of maintaining alliances that promote cooperation rather than a geopolitical fissure. Free trade agreements (FTAs) promote innovation and benefit Americans in more ways than protectionist economic policy ever would. All three of these foreign policy issues require reform, but if immigrants are demonized, if NATO is dismissed, and if FTAs are dismantled, the United States, its allies, and partners will be injured as a result.
Over the course of eight years in office, President Barack Obama created policies that had potentially undermined both American security and the security of the international system. While the whirlwind of executive orders issued in Trump’s first week in office has alarmed many Americans—justifiably so—Obama was no stranger to the executive order itch either, issuing a total of 279 executive orders throughout his presidency. And within the parameters of the counter-terrorism drone program, he was the final arbiter of life and death. It was his decision to target and kill terrorist and American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, with a drone strike in 2011. Obama also expanded the drone program started by President George W. Bush, and thusly expanded the already legally-questionable War on Terror. These unilateral actions taken by Obama were problematic and concerning in their own right, so why have Trump’s actions caused so much more apprehension?
One could argue that the dizzying intensification of political polarization is the primary explanatory factor for the divergent reactions of liberal Americans to these two presidents. That argument would not be wrong. However, one could also argue that despite an aggressive counter-terrorism record, Obama’s foreign policy was one that also embraced further global integration and contributed to the maintenance of the current international order through the exertion of soft power within the international community. Additionally, the differences in the rhetoric between Obama and Trump is immense, and the consequences of dangerous rhetoric cannot be underestimated.
The potentially hazardous consequences of an “America first” and “America only” attitude are matched and perhaps surpassed only by the dangerous reality of the phrase’s past. Not only was the phrase used to promote an isolationist mindset during the lead-up to World War II, but it was the rallying cry of the America First Committee, a group which believed “since Germany was unlikely to invade the U.S. directly, the best response to the war was for the U.S. to remain neutral in all respects, even if that meant doing business with the Nazis.” Charles Lindbergh was a member and spokesperson for the committee, and his role allowed him to promote anti-Semitic fearmongering.
Fear was the foundation of the “America first” mentality of the World War II era, and it is the foundation of Trump’s idea of “America first.” Fear of outsiders, fear of other countries, fear of change, and fear of engagement will be detrimental to the United States in the long run. As a global leader, the United States cannot lead with fear. Formulating policy from a place of anxiety encourages a breakdown in trust and promulgation of disorder in the international system. In the face of the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Trump’s idea of “America first” represents the fear that Roosevelt described over eighty years ago. Now that Trump has assumed the office of the President of the United States, the goal for those who oppose this fear is to resist this dangerous, isolationist rhetoric and “convert retreat into advance,” as Roosevelt forcefully exclaimed, by working ceaselessly to maintain and cultivate the tradition of openness and pluralism that has made America strong.