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Dissecting “America First”

By Summer Pappachen
17 Feb 2017

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been labeled everything from isolationist to realist and everything in between. In maneuvering through the clues of policy that Trump has left us throughout his campaign and his presidency, a common thread can be found. This metaphorical thread is in some ways revolutionary — not necessarily in its existence, but rather in its blatant acknowledgement in recent mainstream American politics. This overarching theme is as harrowing as it is simplistic: American nationalism. Trump has centered his interactions with the outside world around the idea that Americans are the best, must be respected, are superior, and deserve more than their foreign counterparts — solely because of the land they happened to be born on.

This is not a new concept, and is in fact one that is ingrained in our human society: maintaining loyalty to the nation-state. In his April 2016 foreign policy speech, Trump said, “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony,” laying his allegiances with the interests of the American nation over those of any other country or foreign citizen. The White House website now reads, “The world will be more peaceful and more prosperous with a stronger and more respected America.” Having established this nation-oriented foundation, Trump builds his foreign policy by holding together bits and pieces of the sometimes conflicting ideologies of isolationism and realism to adhere to what he believes is America’s inherent best-ness.

Before we consider whether such an America-first view is morally laudable or not, it would be helpful to outline the ways in which Trump seeks to manifest in reality this nationalist notion through isolationism and realism.  

Isolationism emphasizes the importance of non-intervention and keeping away from the affairs of other countries for the benefit of that country’s own domestic prosperity. Trump has expressed isolationist sentiments especially in relation to U.S. allies, trade, energy and international politics. He believes that America must pull back from allies who do not “prove their friendship”; must withdraw from free trade agreements to further bias American interests; must stop depending on foreign energy sources, taking advantage of our own natural resources; and stop imposing democracy upon other countries though liberalist policies. Trump believes such isolationism will help Americans, and though he does not suggest this himself, isolationism may help foreign countries and citizens as well. A lack of foreign intervention shows respect for a country’s sovereignty, allowing it to reach independence and stability on its own terms. As John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential minds of western philosophy, puts it, isolationism may encourage other countries to “fight for their freedom themselves so they may learn to value it.”

Yet Trump is far from loyal to an isolationist foreign policy ideology. He uses isolationism so long as it advances the American nation’s interests or its image of respectability. Thus, when it comes to the use of force and military intervention, Trump adopts a realist perspective.

Realism is the increasingly popular idea that on the international scale, all nations are in a Hobbesian state of nature — interactions guided by power dynamics and shows of real strength. This being a world in which the strong, like America, dominate the weak because they can. As long as this realist view serves Trump’s purpose of enforcing America’s inherent superiority, it may be irrelevant to him that such policies call for forceful and destabilizing military intervention into other sovereign nations. Quite contrary to isolationism, Trump has taken an aggressive stance against ISIS and vows to “bomb the hell” out of them so that “no one – and I mean no one – will mess with us” — a blatant show of force, power, and pride. He goes so far as to proclaim that the wives and children of terrorists must be killed as well — a gross violation not only of the family’s’ right to life but also of the sovereignty of the countries that America would invade. Already  Trump approved what has now been verified as a disastrous military raid into Yemen against al Qaeda — his very first military operation.

Trump seeks to make such realist power-driven decisions in realms other than military intervention as well, such as in immigration laws against Mexico; more coercive trade laws with NAFTA and TPP; and a pro-authoritarian approach to diplomacy with leaders like Vladimir Putin, who Trump views as a “strong man.”

Using both isolationism and realism to reach his goal of pursuing American interests, Trump’s actions bring up important questions about whether this goal worth reaching. Intuitively, it is perhaps true that the president of a nation has obligations only to the people of his country. As Machiavelli argued, the statesman of a country may have a different set of morals from that of a common citizen. Thus, while the citizens of America may feel obligated to care for the lives of Mexican workers or the Syrian civilians, the statesman may not be obliged in the same way since his or her priority is to one’s  countrymen.

If not to eliminate such sentiments of nation-centrism, it may be beneficial for us to be skeptical, and give weight to alternative perspectives on foreign affairs. For example, many Constructivists and moral philosophers find that nations mustn’t necessarily operate under pure self-interest. It is possible that we can find a way to address in foreign policy the common humanity in all humans no matter where they live, and pass this compassion on to those who represent us and our values in the government. As Daniel Beck of The Prindle Post explains in Demographics, Refugees, and Immigration, the philosopher Peter Singer proposes an expansion of our realms of compassion to more than just our immediate group, our country, or species, by pushing ourselves “to develop a universal and impartial system of morality.” To further this view, foreign policy constructionists argue that individuals have rights regardless of the laws of their country and that we must work to establish an international order to bring about stable, widespread peace.

Given Trump’s strategically outfitted foreign policy, he is inducing a kind of collective reminiscing of the glory of the nation state. While patriotism may be a virtue, blind loyalty to one’s nation is troublesome, something that Trump seems “historically illiterate” towards.  Coming to a close on the first month of a Trump presidency, all we can do is hope that, as Trump said himself, this “new national pride will [in fact] stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.”

Summer is a junior Hillman intern studying an interdisciplinary major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics with a minor in French. She is part of the Honors Scholar Program, Ethics Bowl, the Democratic Socialists of DePauw, and the Association of Asian Pacific islander and Desi Americans. Summer has interests in topics related to India, wealth inequality, women's rights, and governmental reform.
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