“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” President Donald Trump said in his inauguration speech on Friday, a phrase he used many times throughout the election.
“For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” Trump said early in his speech. “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own. And we’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
Trump’s America First philosophy includes protectionist trade policies and restrictionist immigration positions.
But it also includes foreign policy, as it’s a phrase born of foreign policy.
The term “America First” was originally used by Americans who didn’t want the U.S. to enter World War II, a sentiment that enjoyed wide and mainstream popular support at the time. They also had good reason to want to avoid another war. “You probably remember the Clinton years. The America Firsters remembered World War I,” observes The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty. “There was an honest debate to be had about whether America should fight at all,” notes The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano.
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, obviously the movement evaporated.
But the sentiment is still common sense: America is an exemplary global leader but that does not mean we can or should be the world’s policeman.
Particularly when it is not in the interest of the U.S.
The Iraq War, in retrospect, was not in America’s interest, or even the Middle East’s. It destabilized that region and gave space for extremists to flourish. That war was President George W. Bush’s legacy—and fault.
The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya was a mini-version of the same mistakes made in Iraq—the overthrow of a tyrannical regime with little thought given to what might follow. What followed was chaos and the rise of ISIS. That war was President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s fault.
Why did we do either? Today, even former President Obama wonders the same thing.
Trump said on Friday, “Finally, in pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”
Right now President Trump is being criticized by Washington hawks in both parties for not being aggressive enough with Russia. Perhaps he should be, or perhaps he shouldn’t. But note: These are the same Washington hawks who, by and large, thought the Iraq and Libyan interventions were absolute necessities, and too many of them still defend those decisions.
The foreign policy elites don’t learn from their mistakes, because many refuse to admit they make them. These are the people who supposedly have a more sober worldview than Donald Trump. Based on what?
President Trump is saying we’re going to try something different in our foreign policy—that before we have our vision obfuscated by outstanding tensions with foreign powers, by what the foreign policy establishment insists is must-do, or even what political elites might benefit from U.S. military action—we instead look at what is good for America’s interests. Not second, fourth, or if it all—but first.
That’s refreshing. It goes beyond left, right and ideology. It’s sounds so elementary, but too often such an approach has been ignored in how the U.S. conducts its foreign affairs.
Trump said Friday, “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.” This has unquestionably been true in Iraq and Libya, where elites congratulated themselves while still exacerbating the problem of Islamic extremism.
Right now, at least in foreign policy, it is indeed refreshing that instead of merely bending to the wishes of Washington who continue to get so many things so disastrously wrong, we might now have a president who puts the interests of the country he was elected to serve first.