At this historical turning point, with the free world hungry for renewed American leadership, President Donald Trump’s foreboding inaugural address was as troubling for what it didn’t say as what it did.
It was the mirror image of John Kennedy’s stirring address of 1961, which focused almost entirely on America’s struggle to defend freedom around the world and mentioned domestic policy only in passing. More than half a century later, with America’s global leadership just as vital and far more widely doubted, Trump focused overwhelmingly on domestic affairs, citing foreign policy only in passing.
Ultimately, Trump’s promise to “make America great again” is unachievable through a vision, as encapsulated by his “America first” tagline, of a nation that responds to an ever-more connected world by turning inward, eschewing leadership and differentiating little between free and unfree nations.
“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,” the new president declared. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.”
The message has a superficial logic, for who would argue that our policy should be “America second”? But scratch just below the surface, and the contradictions of America first-ism appear quickly.
Well-worn phrases can evoke powerful images, particularly when they’re rooted in a dark past. “America first” stirs memories of the pre-World War II “America First Committee,” as personified by the isolationist Charles Lindbergh, which dismissed any thought that the United States should worry about Germany’s sweep across Europe or help Great Britain withstand the Nazi onslaught.
That Trump brought this campaign phrase to inaugural prominence was no accident, for his brief discussion of foreign affairs in his address mirrored the strains of isolationism with which the America Firsters of yesteryear were associated.
“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world,” Trump stated, “but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.”
The main problems with this foreign policy brush-off are two-fold. First, of the mounting challenges to U.S. national security from abroad, he mentioned only radical Islamic terror. Though a serious problem, terrorism surely isn’t more threatening to U.S. security than Russia’s resurgence in its region and beyond, China’s aggression in the Pacific or Iran’s hegemonic activities, military build-up and questionable allegiance to the global nuclear deal.
That Trump mentioned none of those challenges reinforces fears that he cares little about longstanding U.S. responsibilities to lead the liberal order or that he doesn’t understand why we fulfill them in the first place.
Second, in this connected world, the true path to pursuing “America first” – to ensuring that the nation and its people prosper as much as possible – is not to turn away from the world but, instead, to turn toward it with renewed gusto, to restore our traditional role of defending freedom and promoting democracy.
That’s because the more that nations have free-market economies, the more that businesses have opportunities to sell goods across borders. This provides Americans with more consumer goods from abroad and creates trade-driven jobs at home that – despite claims to the contrary – tend to pay more than the jobs they displace.
In addition, the more that nations have democratic systems, the safer and more secure the world is for the United States because, with few exceptions, democracies tend not to make war against one another.
Unfortunately, the Great Recession shook global confidence in free market capitalism, empowering Beijing, Moscow and other autocratic regimes to promote an alternative model of government-driven authoritarian capitalism. In addition, the non-profit Freedom House reports that political freedom – as defined by political rights and civil liberties – has declined around the world for 10 straight years, the longest stretch since the group began its tracking in 1973.
Post-war presidents have often framed America’s role in defending freedom and promoting democracy around the world in moral terms, reflecting the special role of a special nation. Fine, but it’s also the most selfish thing that the United States can do if it really wants to enable all of its people to prosper.
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.