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Let's Not Get Distracted by "Shiny Objects," President Trump's "America First" Foreign Policy is Out of Sync with the Problems of the 21st Century
by Dr. John R. Murnane

The 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump has certainly heightened public interest in national politics, sparking debate about American values, social justice, and the role of the United States in world affairs. Arguments have been all over the map. Is Trump a break with the past or somehow a continuation of earlier trends and traditions? Is he charting a new and prosperous future for the country, or is he driving it off of a cliff? Trump's inflammatory and often contradictory tweets have added to the confusion, helping to make the discussion of major issues contentious and chaotic. Trying to make sense of national politics in the Trump era, some analysists have claimed that the billionaire-turned-president is not only totally new in American politics, but is repudiating all that the nation has stood for; others have found precedents extending back to colonial times and see the new president as a champion of American traditions, a bold leader destined to "make America great again." Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg, for example, found the new president's January 20, 2017 inaugural address a jarring break with the past: "Unlike all who came before him, the new president painted a grim portrait of the nation he now leads as a hopeless and decaying land of blight and carnage, where gangs run rampant and students are 'deprived of all knowledge.'"1 Conversely, historian Kevin Mattson called Trump's inaugural address "a flawed jeremiad—or, at least, it had roots in the jeremiad tradition founded by the Puritans during the 17th century."2 He saw Trump as following in the footsteps of fire-and-brimstone preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and other leaders of the First Great Awakening during the mid-1700s. Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, declared "he [Trump] has abandoned our nation's commitment to religious freedom, and he's turning away those seeking safe harbor and a better life. This action is fundamentally un-American." 3 He was referring to an Executive Order Trump signed within days of his inauguration halting immigration from seven majority Muslim countries. Yet journalist Mark Shields reminded readers shortly after candidate Trump made headlines referring to Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "criminals" and vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that "Trump sounds an anti-immigrant theme that has a long ugly tradition in American politics."4

Wherever historians ultimately land in assessing Trump the man—as a personality type or in terms of his leadership style—Trump's "America First" foreign policy is clearly both a break with and a continuation with the past. During the presidential campaign, Trump boldly defied American foreign policy norms, expressing hostility for international agreements and diplomacy in general. He talked about withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement signed during the Clinton administration (NAFTA), and two treaties signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, a multilateral agreement to halt Iran's nuclear program and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement signed by twelve Pacific-rim countries. In addition, Trump vowed to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, crack down on illegal immigrants, and to get tough on the Islamic State (ISIS), Iran, North Korea, and China and to reevaluate the usefulness of the decades-old cold war security alliance, NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization). These promises coalesced in the new president's "America First" policy, as he explained during his inauguration:

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it's going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.5

Shortly after being sworn in as president on, Trump made good on many of his promises. During his first 10 days in office, he cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership; issued a ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries; engaged in a blustery exchange on Twitter with Mexico's president over the construction of the wall (the new American president even threatened to slap a 20% tariff on Mexican goods in order to pay for a wall likely to cost billions of dollars); and sent out a twitter message aimed at Iran, saying Iran was "formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile."6

Trump's isolationist impulses along with his blatant disregard for international cooperation is certainly at odds with the American approach to world affairs over the last 70 years. Since the Great Depression and World War Two, American foreign relations and trade policies have been based on the acknowledgment that the U.S. has too much at stake in the world to turn inward. Since 1945 Americans have diligently worked for "free trade" and a reduction of trade barriers and tariffs, believing that a rising tide lifts all boats when it comes to economic growth. And the U.S. played the leadership role in helping to forge and support organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, to name a few. The U.S. has not always played a benevolent role of course—CIA coups, proxy wars and a deadly arms race were a part of America's postwar foreign policy as well. Nevertheless, U.S. involvement in world affairs has been a cornerstone of American thinking for nearly a century. In addition to undergirding international institutions and global security, the U.S. has become tightly woven into the international system in other ways too, part of what Thomas Freidman called a "flat world," a global process of growing economic interdependence and ease of worldwide communications and travel making the flow of ideas and people unstoppable.7  Trump seems to think that none of this really matters. It is as if the new president hopes to put a bubble over the United States or somehow insulate the country from everything from global market forces to the flow of people and ideas and climate change, as if instability and suffering in the world has nothing to do with the health and security of the United States. Pretending such problems don't exist (Trump has called global warming a "hoax") is not an effective strategy. In short, Trump's vision is not only out of step with the 21st century, but he seems to be turning his back on decades of hard-won wisdom about the need for powerful countries like the United States to remain involved in the world and to help build a cooperative global order.

While Trump's "America First" policy is a break with the past in terms of America's global leadership role, at its core his "us" versus "them" model of how the world works is nothing new. The president's statement "we must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries" fits squarely into a kind of binary approach to the world that has shaped American foreign policy and American thinking at various moments in the past. In fact, zero-sum methods of thinking seem to be deeply rooted in human biology, in our evolution as a species, in cognitive processes, and our psychological development. Judeo-Christian traditions and the culture of the West play a role as well (the idea of "good" and "evil" is deeply ingrained in Western thought, as are feelings of nationalism); us/them thinking is contained in the ideas of American exceptionalism stretching back to the days of John Winthrop and the earliest settlers (the idea that American are "a chosen people" with a "mission" to remake the world); this type of thinking has been honed by centuries spent disparaging and dehumanizing Native Americans and African Americans. When Europeans began arriving in the New World, they had overwhelming power to destroy Native American cultures—wielding "guns, germs, and steel" as part of a lethal juggernaut8. Such power allowed early settles to enslave millions of Africans as well. Racist models for understanding this lopsided interaction, for explaining "us" and "them," became embedded in American thinking and American culture. And despite the postwar commitment to international organizations, approaching problems in a zero-sum fashion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy as well—the dark opposite side of the coin to the postwar approach of building multilateral institutions aimed at producing global stability. For example, such thinking fueled what one historian has called the "war without mercy"9 between the United States and Japan during the 1940s, a war that saw unspeakable atrocities on both sides including mutilation of war dead, torture, the firebombing of Japanese cities and the first use of nuclear weapons in history. "Us" versus "them" methods of thinking also provided the foundation of the Cold War, as U.S. policymakers framed the struggle against the Soviet Union as a contest between "the free world" and the "slave world." The War on Terror took on a similar tone. In announcing his plan to combat terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., for example, President George W. Bush declared "you are either with us or against us" as he launched two major wars in the Middle East. When Trump blamed Mexico, China and Muslim refugees for many of the country's problems during his 2016 campaign for president, he was tapping into this long us/them tradition in American culture. His "America First" policy is nothing new in this regard.

Whatever the origins of the Trump administration's foreign policy ideas, they are out of sync with the times and are ill-suited for solving the problems that confront the world in the 21st century. Seeing the world as a battle between "us" and "them" while trying to isolate the U.S. from the world and disengage from international agreements and organizations is not likely to succeed. Cooperation, not confrontation, is needed to face the complex problems that threaten people everywhere today. Americans in particular must fully participate in international dialog geared toward finding solutions to problems such as global warming, the spread of pandemics, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction, or the plight of refugees—issues that impact every region of the globe and cast a dark shadow over the future health and stability of the world. And as to Trump's go-it-alone proclivities, these problems cannot be tackled by one country acting alone. What impact would efforts at curbing CO2 emissions have in one country if other countries ignored the problem? Greenhouse gases are not somehow contained within national boundaries, able to somehow skirt around political lines on the map. They are, instead, creating a world-wide warming trend which will impact every region of the world in one way or another. The same is true of infectious diseases. They don't stop at the border. In an interconnected world, viruses and other types of germs spread, mutate and spread again across complex networks involving everything from international travel and trade to the migration patterns of birds, insects and other animal species constantly traveling and adapt to new habitats. As a recent Institute of Medicine report explained: "We live in a time of unprecedented human movement and interaction. As transborder mobility of humans, animals, food, and feed products increases, so does the threat of the spread of infectious disease. While new global markets have created economic opportunities and growth, the benefits have not been equally distributed, and the risks—especially the health risks—of our increasingly interconnected and fast-paced world continue to grow. Although the burden is greatest for the developing world, infectious diseases are a growing threat to all nations."10 Clearly, problems of this sort require a concerted, global effort. Given the economic, military and political power of the United States (still the world's only superpower, with much at stake and much to contribute) American engagement is critical. The United States must play a constructive and cooperative role in order to overcome the many problems facing humanity in the decades ahead.

Unfortunately, the drama surrounding Trump, as he tweets one shocking and combative statement after another, dominates the news instead of a clear-eyed assessment of the new administration's policies. As Jared Bernstein, former adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, recently recommended "our job is… not to be distracted by shiny objects, to keep our eye on the power, the budget, the social insurance, the facts, the numbers, the vulnerable, the safety net and the public good."11 Let's added the president's wrongheaded "America First" policy to that list.bluestar

1. James T. Kloppenberg, "Trump's Inaugural Address Was a Radical Break with American Tradition," The Washington Post, January 20, 2017.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/ 2017/01/20/trumps-inaugural-address-was-a-radical-break-with-american-tradition/?utm_term=.fd659166f5e8. Visited February 20, 2017.

2. Kevin Mattson, "President Trump's "American Carnage Speech Fits into a Long American Tradition," Vox, January 28, 2017.  http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/26/14393288/trump-inaugural-american-carnage-speech. Visited February 20, 2017.

3.Press Release, American United for the Separation of Church and State, January 27, 2017.  https://www.au.org/media/press-releases/trump-executive-order-on-refugees-and-immigrants-undercuts-america-s-tradition Visited February 20, 2017.

4. Mark Shields, "Donald Trump in the 'American' Tradition," Creators Syndicate, July 15, 2015. https://www.creators.com/read/mark-shields/07/15/donald-trump-in-the-american-tradition. Visited February 20, 2017

5. "The Inaugural Address," The White House, January 20, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address. Visited February 15, 2017.

6. Anne Gearan and Erin Cunningham, "Trump Cites Warning Against Iran; Tehran Shrugs Off Pressures from 'Inexperienced President,'" The Washington Post, February 2, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/with-flynn-putting-iran-on-notice-the-first-days-of-president-trumps-foreign-policy-set-a-combative-tone/2017/02/01/0645f248-e709-11e6-b82f-687d6e6a3e7c_story.html?utm_term=.6c47f8da5353. Visited February 2, 2017. Reuters, "Trump's Early Moves Spark Alarm, Resistance Within the Government," The New York Times, February 1, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/02/01/us/politics/01reuters-usa-trump-dissent.html. Visited February 2, 2017.

7. Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). 

8. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1999).

9. John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).

10. "The Impact of Globalization on Infectious Disease Emergence and Control: Exploring the Consequences and Opportunities," Institute of Medicine of The National Academies, eds. Stacey Knobler, Adel Mahmoud, Stanly Lemon, Leslie Pray (2006). https://www.nap.edu/catalog/11588/the-impact-of-globalization-on-infectious-disease-emergence-and-control. Visited January 3, 2017.

11. Jared Bernstein, "You Can't Believe What Trump Says," The Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2017. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-donald-trump-lies-20170123-story.html. Visited February 26, 2017.

 



Author Dr. John R. Murnane completed his doctoral work in U.S. foreign policy at Clark University, Massachusetts, under the direction of Prof. Douglas J. Little. He taught history in a New England prep-school for 20 years and is now a volunteer at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. He has published on History and foreign policy in the History Teacher, World History Connected and the New England Journal of History. He is currently working on a book on U.S. foreign policy since 1941.

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