Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

“America First” is a Lie

The Trump right fails to understand that U.S. leadership in defending a decent world order is also necessary to protect our own interests.
August 29, 2020
“America First” is a Lie
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 24: Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley stands on stage in an empty Mellon Auditorium while addressing the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on August 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced the Republican Party to move away from an in-person convention to a televised format, similar to the Democratic Party's convention a week earlier. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At this year’s pathetic and embarrassing Republican convention, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was hailed as the grownup speaking on behalf of President Trump. The presence of an adult would have been most welcome at this festival of delusional cultists paying homage to the president, but none was in evidence. Haley proved not so much an exception in this convention of unabashed Republican courtiers, but only the most demure among them.

Haley opened her remarks by invoking a phrase of Reagan’s feisty U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Drawing attention to the Democrats’ evolution away from the anti-totalitarian program that had characterized the party of Roosevelt and Truman, Kirkpatrick asserted that mainstream Democrats had bowed out of the global contest for freedom. After Vietnam, Kirkpatrick argued, most Democrats lost faith in American power and came to view the “long, twilight struggle” as a foolish confrontation foisted on the world by predatory American imperialism. The Democratic party no longer pledged to “bear any burden” in defense of liberty, but urged conciliation if not outright appeasement of the Soviet Union, whatever the cost to U.S. interests and the “captive nations” behind the Iron Curtain. In every significant East-West confrontation, Kirkpatrick said, Democrats “always blame America first.”

In her RNC speech last Monday, Haley reprised this view as if little had changed in the world since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But the latter phase of the Cold War is by now a distant memory. Even the political atmosphere of the post-Cold War era—characterized by economic globalization and American unipolarity in a world of abundant friends but few enemies—is manifestly no more.

Americans face an altogether bleaker situation today, with a fractured social order alongside a rapidly dissolving global order. The forces of social and geopolitical decomposition are taking hold, and left unchecked they will wreck the American order at home and the liberal order abroad. And the Republican party is—to put it no higher—no longer in the business of rallying the forces of composition. It has not even bothered to fashion a platform for the upcoming election.

By all appearances, Haley has not taken account of these changes. She continues to operate on the assumption that the Republican party provides the muscle and sinews that enable America to exercise its global leadership. “Joe Biden and the Democrats are still blaming America first. Donald Trump has always put America first. He has earned four more years as president.”

It must be pretty to think so. The more disturbing truth is that the Republican party, which long upheld the role of the United States as the guarantor of world order and relished America’s leadership of the free world, has lately made a sharp turn away from global responsibility. The Republican nomination of Donald Trump as the nation’s commander-in-chief—not once but twice—would have been unthinkable in a party with a broad measure of faith in a grand mission of moral and political world leadership.

Notwithstanding Haley’s servile curtsying and outdated assumptions, there can be no doubt that under Trump’s tenure the United States has lost sway in the world. (If, as Churchill said, the price of greatness is responsibility, then the wages of irresponsibility are diminished respect and influence.) Although Trump’s foreign policy has not been the product of rigorous analysis, it has reflected certain assumptions about America’s role in the world. Adopting the amoral program of “America First,” this administration has little use for coalitions and alliances, and has no interest—either strategic or moral—in building a more free world. Without any special regard for democratic values, it has reliably made common cause with powerful and odious forces that hope to overthrow the liberal order. The exuberant faith in the liberalizing powers of commerce and technology that animated U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War has given way to pervasive pessimism that in a zero-sum world all nations must go their own way.

Days after entering office, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, clearing the way for the People’s Republic of China to press its influence across the Pacific without much countervailing force. Since then, the Trump administration has willfully betrayed partners in battle and openly kowtowed to menacing dictators. Some enemies of civilization—from Omar al-Baghdadi to Qassem Soleimani—have met their deserved end, as they tend to do under presidents of either party, but larger strategic questions have been neglected and impaired to the advantage of America’s foes.

It is therefore impossible, on an astute analysis, to conclude that Trump has put America first. Indeed, the claim is sufficiently risible to discredit anyone who makes it. Trump incurred the dishonor of impeachment owing to his decision to make congressionally authorized military aid for Ukraine conditional on a commitment from Kyiv to fabricate dirt on his chief political rival. Congressional Republicans, save one, incurred the dishonor of voting neither to impeach nor convict him. Upon learning about Russian bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Trump responded that the United States armed the mujahideen against the Red Army in the 1980s. One might be forgiven for thinking that “America First” has become awfully hard to distinguish from “Blame America First.”

It has always been apparent that Trump is not a man interested in serving any cause but his own. Little wonder that the cause of American power and American principle, which Trump’s daft surrogates hold to be mutually exclusive, atrophies every day he occupies the presidential chair. Republicans who believe in American exceptionalism should’ve been the first to spot this danger. For Trump has consistently impugned the concept, echoing Vladimir Putin’s contempt for the view that the United States was a nation unlike any other.

It’s no accident that this betrayal of American purposes coincides with the habit of contemporary Republicans to speak contemptuously of the “Democrat” party. These boorish partisans would presumably be surprised to learn that during the Cold War, many Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, were marked by their former association with the world’s oldest political party and its erstwhile belief that American power needed to be employed in its various dimensions—and not merely in defense of narrow interests to defend our way of life throughout the world.

In another period of crisis for U.S. foreign policy, President Reagan and like-minded internationalists of both parties hoped to restore American purpose and strength in the world. The Reagan White House revived a broad ideological and strategic offensive against Soviet totalitarianism, which did not end with increasing the defense budget. Reagan supported the cause of democracy, helping to found quasi-governmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, which encouraged political freedoms in autocratic countries. He armed anti-Communist insurgencies across the globe (including the one in Afghanistan that so offended Trump’s delicate sensibilities).

This was possible because Reagan, like Kirkpatrick, understood that the Democratic party had become unmoored from its proper place as a champion of human liberty and universal rights. As he was fond of saying, “I didn’t leave my party, my party left me.” Reagan knew that if Republicans were to join Democrats in affirming that American interests were inherently incompatible with the world’s, it would spell the end of American global leadership.

In his engaging book The Strange Death of American Liberalism, H.W. Brands writes that after the trauma of Vietnam, “those rare liberals who were willing or able to remember that the American Cold War had originally been a liberal enterprise might have trotted out such early Cold War heroes as Harry Truman and Dean Acheson if the conservatives hadn’t long since claimed them for their own.” The Trump-aligned right today would scarcely recognize, let alone venerate, the names of Truman and Acheson.

In contrast to Trump, Truman believed in American exceptionalism, and worked to fulfill America’s solemn obligation to promote and defend a decent world order. In 1961, a young academic named Henry Kissinger paid a visit to the former president in Missouri. To the question of what in his presidency had made him most proud, Truman replied, “That we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations as equals. I would like to think that only America would have done this.”

Trump will never speak like this—he doesn’t have it in him—and, as long as he remains in executive office, America will not behave like the great power uniquely capable of such unsordid action on the world stage.

A former ambassador to the U.N. once instructed Americans to face the truth about themselves, “no matter how pleasant it is.” To do that again, Americans must repudiate the president and his enablers who have sullied and profaned that truth, and who risk making it very unpleasant indeed.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.