During both his campaign for president and throughout his presidency, Donald Trump reminded his followers that they could expect him to always “put America first.” Thus far, the phrase has been applied to foreign policy initiatives based on American nationalism. In April 2016, Trump announced “that my foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else…That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make. ‘America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
Trump’s plan links economic prosperity on the domestic front with American influence overseas, but it has also played out in his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his plan to build a wall on the United States border with Mexico to protect the interests of American citizens from illegal immigrants, and his travel ban on Muslims entering the country. “America first” was a major theme of his inaugural address on January 20, 2017.
In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I noted that the phrase “America first” has echoes of the America First Committee, a student organization begun at Yale University in 1940, which petitioned the United States to stay out of World War II and to try, instead, to negotiate a peace settlement with Adolf Hitler. In 1941, Charles Lindbergh, who was internationally known for piloting the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, became the public face of the committee.
Soon the America First Committee became known for, more than anything else, its racism and anti-Semitism. Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company fame, and Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, were removed from leadership positions because of their public anti-Semitism. Other committee members referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “Jewish” and Winston Churchill as a “half-Jew.” In September 1941, roughly three months before Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh told an audience in Des Moines, Iowa, that it was the Jews, “for reasons which are not American,” who were trying to push the United States into World War II. Jews were a “foreign race” who controlled the entertainment industry and were in the process of infiltrating America’s “political institutions.” Commentators could not miss the connections between Lindbergh’s isolationism and Hitler’s concentration camps. One New York Herald Tribune columnist wrote: “I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi.
The America First Committee ended when the United States entered World War II, but the phrase has made a few brief appearances in recent American history. It was the slogan of conservative Pat Buchanan’s 2000 Reform Party presidential campaign, a campaign that advocated for the United States to pull out of the World Trade Organization, the North America Free Trade Agreement, and to end U.S. military intervention in the world. (Trump, who also competed for the Reform Party nomination in 2000, called Buchanan a “Hitler lover” and a candidate who appealed to the “really staunch-right wacko vote.” Today Trump says that he never thought about the way “America first” was used in the past and he does not really seem to care.
The National Security Strategy that President Donald Trump published during his first year in office describes an “America First foreign policy in action.” In an introductory message, the president declares, “We are prioritizing the interests of our citizens and protecting our sovereign rights as a nation.” He insists that “‘America First’ is not America alone.” His national security adviser and chief economic adviser at the time assured the public, “America will not lead from behind. This administration will restore confidence in American leadership as we serve the American people.”
While there have been reasons previously to question the approach, the coronavirus has posed the first real international crisis of Trump’s presidency. And judging by the administration’s actions, America First foreign policy in action isn’t restoring confidence in American leadership, and it isn’t serving the American people particularly well.
Rather than lead a cooperative international response, Trump has sought to blame the outbreak on China and then on Europe. America’s NATO allies were given no advance warning of the travel ban on their countries. A virtual meeting of the G-7 came at French President Emmanuel Macron’s instigation, not at Trump’s, even though the United States is chairing that group of the world’s leading economies. China’s leaders are gleefully running up their score in the great power competition by being generous where we are stingy.
Diplomatically, we’re not even doing the easy stuff, like broadcasting solidarity with other countries struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks or congratulating countries that appear to have broken the back of their epidemic. We don’t appear to have concern that poor countries with weak public-health systems might eventually bear the brunt of the pandemic. We seem only to resent Chinese philanthropists for sending medical supplies to us, rather than thanking them for providing much-needed assistance.
In addition to the systemic damage to America’s soft power, the president’s smug unilateralism has encouraged others to act just as selfishly. The European Commission is prohibiting export of coronavirus-related medicines and equipment to preserve them for EU use. India, where many of the world’s generic drugs are made, is prohibiting export both of medicines and of their constituent ingredients. Even the countries of Europe’s Schengen Area, which permits passport-free travel, are shutting their national borders in response to the pandemic. Rather than a coordinated international response that forestalls panic by sharing information and assistance, the United States has led a stampede to narrow national responses. And everyone in the world will be less safe for it.
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