David Sanger: Trump’s Dark Vision of “America First”

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For those of us old enough to remember the origins of the term “America First,” it reminds us of Charles Lindbergh (the political part of him), Nazism, anti-Semitism, and a determination to let Hitler seize all of Europe.


Trump made “America First” a theme of his inaugural speech. It seems to be the definition of his foreign policy and his economic policy too.


David Sanger, veteran reporter for the New York Times, delves into the radical change that lies ahead, with the implication that Trump intends to abandon our European allies.


President Trump could have used his inaugural address to define one of the touchstone phrases of his campaign in the most inclusive way, arguing, as did many of his predecessors, that as the world’s greatest superpower rises, its partners will also prosper.


Instead, he chose a dark, hard-line alternative, one that appeared to herald the end of a 70-year American experiment to shape a world that would be eager to follow its lead. In Mr. Trump’s vision, America’s new strategy is to win every transaction and confrontation. Gone are the days, he said, when America extended its defensive umbrella without compensation, or spent billions to try to lift the fortune of foreign nations, with no easy-to-measure strategic benefits for the United States.


“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” he said, in a line that resonated around the world as soon as he uttered it from the steps of the Capitol. “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”


The United States, he said, will no longer subsidize “the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”


While all American presidents pledge to defend America’s interests first — that is the core of the presidential oath — presidents of both parties since the end of World War II have wrapped that effort in an expansion of the liberal democratic order. Until today, American policy has been a complete rejection of the America First rallying cry that the famed flier Charles Lindbergh championed when, in the late 1930s, he became one of the most prominent voices to keep the United States out of Europe’s wars, even if it meant abandoning the country’s closest allies.


Mr. Trump has rejected comparisons with the earlier movement, with its taint of Nazism and anti-Semitism.
After World War II, the United States buried the Lindbergh vision of America First. The United Nations was born in San Francisco and raised on the East River of Manhattan, an ambitious, if still unfulfilled, experiment in shaping a liberal order. Lifting the vanquished nations of World War II into democratic allies was the idea behind the Marshall Plan, the creation of the World Bank and institutions to spread American aid, technology and expertise around the world. And NATO was created to instill a commitment to common defense, though Mr. Trump has accurately observed that nearly seven decades later, many of its member nations do not pull their weight.


Mr. Trump’s defiant address made abundantly clear that his threat to pull out of those institutions, if they continue to take advantage of the United States’ willingness to subsidize them, could soon be translated into policy. All those decades of generosity, he said, punching the air for emphasis, had turned America into a loser.


“We’ve made other countries rich,” he said, “while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” The American middle class has suffered the most, he said, finding its slice of the American dream “redistributed across the entire world.”


To those who helped build that global order, Mr. Trump’s vow was at best shortsighted. “Truman and Acheson, and everyone who followed, based our policy on a ‘world-first,’ not an ‘America-first,’ basis,” said Richard N. Haass, whose new book, “A World in Disarray,” argues that a more granular, short-term view of American interests will ultimately fail.


“A narrow America First posture will prompt other countries to pursue an equally narrow, independent foreign policy,” he said after Mr. Trump’s speech, “which will diminish U.S. influence and detract from global prosperity.”




For 70 years, the United States has had a bipartisan consensus that it is in our national interest to encourage cooperation among the nations of Europe. Europe, in fact, is our biggest trading partner.


Last night someone tweeted congratulations to Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, as she is now the leader of the free world. America has abandoned that role and embarked on a path of isolationism and protectionism.

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