America First?

As President-elect Donald Trump walks back his most controversial campaign pledges on such issues as immigration and trade, the most important question is whether he’ll do the same on the all-encompassing issue of U.S. global leadership.

At stake is nothing less than the liberal international order – the military, diplomatic and economic institutions, treaties and doctrines through which the United States plays the leading role in ensuring global stability, defending freedom and democracy and promoting prosperity.

This architecture – which President Roosevelt envisioned up through World War II, President Truman implemented after the war and successive presidents have supported and expanded – has served us well for 70 years, and a U.S. retreat of the kind Trump has suggested would create a global vacuum that hostile authoritarian governments in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere would be happy to fill.

During the campaign, Trump questioned the value of NATO, sometimes calling it “obsolete” and sometimes saying that Europe’s members should contribute more to it; suggested that countries like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia should develop their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves; and praised Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a strong leader with whom he’d like better relations.

Were he to pursue an agenda reflecting those sentiments, our allies could find themselves no longer protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella – with our Asian allies more vulnerable to China and North Korea and our European allies facing an emboldened Russia. In addition, the global nuclear nonproliferation regime that’s already threatened by the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs could break down more fully.

On U.S. global leadership, Trump has sent mixed signals about his intentions in the aftermath of victory.

On one hand, he continues to use the “America First” label to describe his outlook, spurring comparisons to the fiercely isolationist pre-World War II “America First” movement that decried FDR’s efforts to help Great Britain hold off Nazi Germany and that’s closely associated with Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh.

That Trump just appointed Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News who is closely associated with the anti-Semitic “alt-right” movement, as his White House senior strategist and senior counselor – and that he has done little to rein in the ugly anti-Semitic displays of his supporters since Election Day – will do little to ease fears of renewed 1930s-style isolationism.

On the other hand, Trump and his team have taken some reassuring steps that suggest that, on foreign affairs as on other issues, he may govern significantly differently than he had suggested during the campaign.

Trump, for instance, told South Korean President Park Geun-hye by phone last week that he will maintain the U.S. commitment to defend our Asian ally, while an unnamed advisor played down Trump’s campaign comment that he wanted South Korea to pay a larger share of the U.S. cost of that commitment.

Meanwhile, Trump sounded more like a neoconservative than an isolationist when he praised Israel last week as “the one true democracy and defender of human rights in the Middle East” and “a beacon of hope to countless people.” A Trump advisor added that he doesn’t view Israeli settlements as an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Finally, Trump’s short list for such top military and diplomatic positions as secretary of state and of defense hardly reflect an isolationist outlook. They suggest a return to a more robust U.S. role in the world after eight years of retrenchment under President Obama in the Middle East and elsewhere.

As Trump calibrates his approach to foreign affairs, here are two things that he should keep in mind.

First, America leads the liberal international order, defending freedom and democracy, out of not only generosity but self-interest. A freer world provides more opportunity for U.S. trade and investment, fueling American prosperity. A more democratic world reduces U.S. security concerns because, with rare exception, democratic nations almost never go to war with one another.

Second, due in part to U.S. reticence about promoting freedom and democracy in recent years, Freedom House reports that freedom has declined around the world for 10 straight years – the longest stretch since it started tracking such trends in the early 1970s. Renewed U.S. support would encourage democratic activists abroad.

Explaining his “America First” policy, Trump said in April, “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first.”

Fine. But the path to those interests and that security is through renewed U.S. leadership, not an isolationist retreat.

Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.


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