America first?

Author:Heilbrunn, Jacob
Position:The Realist

In his inaugural address, Donald Trump vowed to shun globalism and follow a policy of America First. "We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone," Trump said, "but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow." His statement captured the division over American foreign policy since the founding of the republic, though it may be wondered whether Trump himself is closely acquainted with this divide. He has, after all, declared his unfamiliarity with the tenebrous origins of America First, which was once the rallying cry of a motley crew of isolationists and anti-Semites who opposed American entry into World War II. Trump's embrace of the slogan, however, has revived a fundamental question that Americans have confronted since the founding. Should the United States intervene abroad to promote liberty and prosperity? Or should it look inward, focusing on rebuilding at home?

Despite its aversion to becoming entangled in European affairs, the republic, for much of its early history, largely adhered to Talleyrand's famous maxim pas trop de zele--not too much zeal. While many contemporary neocons might like to bid farewell to Washington's Farewell Address, it had a lasting impact. Thus, in 1821, when Greek revolutionaries sought to overthrow Ottoman rule, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned against American intervention. He admonished that America should not go

in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. Over a century later, Walter Lippmann, who had drafted the Fourteen Points for Woodrow Wilson, sounded a sober note in his 1943 book U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic that was far removed from his youthful Wilsonianism:

We must consider first and last the American national interest. If we do not, if we construct our foreign policy on some kind of abstract theory of rights and duties, we shall build castles in the air. We shall formulate policies which in fact the nation will not support with its blood, its sweat, and its tears. For all the talk of crusades during the Cold War, it was, by and large, a pragmatic realpolitik that prevailed, leavened by periodic calls for democracy and human rights abroad. There was no rollback of Communism. Instead, a de facto sphere of influence obtained in both Europe and Asia. Germany and Korea were each divided. The sixteenth-century European dictum--Cuius regio, eius religio--prevailed. Confrontations with the Soviet Union were mostly indirect and confined to the Third World, where the United States, more often than not, backed ideological freebooters and launched coups, whether in the Middle East, Africa or Central America. The essential mantra of the Cold War, for both superpowers, was stability, even as they sought to nudge the correlation of forces in their own favor.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, a triumphalist narrative emerged in Washington in which any caution about the deployment of American power was cast aside. Stability was out. Revolution was in. The controversy about America's destiny was really initiated by Francis Fukuyama, whose essay "The End of History?"--the question mark is often forgotten--appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of the National Interest. Owen Harries, TNI's founding editor, and himself a realist thinker, used Fukuyama's essay to jump-start the magazine, though he, like Irving Kristol, the publisher, can scarcely have...

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