Let's Not Get Distracted by 'Shiny Objects,' President Trump's 'America First' Foreign Policy is Out of Sync with the Problems of the 21st Century.

Author:Murnane, John R.
Position:Commentary & Analysis - Essay

March/April 2017

The 2016 election of President Donald J. Trump has certainly heightened public interest in national politics, sparking debate about American values, social justice, and the role of the United States in world affairs. Arguments have been all over the map. Is Trump a break with the past or somehow a continuation of earlier trends and traditions? Is he charting a new and prosperous future for the country, or is he driving it off of a cliff? Trump's inflammatory and often contradictory tweets have added to the confusion, helping to make the discussion of major issues contentious and chaotic. Trying to make sense of national politics in the Trump era, some analysists have claimed that the billionaire-turned-president is not only totally new in American politics, but is repudiating all that the nation has stood for; others have found precedents extending back to colonial times and see the new president as a champion of American traditions, a bold leader destined to "make America great again." Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg, for example, found the new president's January 20, 2017 inaugural address a jarring break with the past: "Unlike all who came before him, the new president painted a grim portrait of the nation he now leads as a hopeless and decaying land of blight and carnage, where gangs run rampant and students are 'deprived of all knowledge.'" (1) Conversely, historian Kevin Mattson called Trump's inaugural address "a flawed jeremiad--or, at least, it had roots in the jeremiad tradition founded by the Puritans during the 17th century." (2) He saw Trump as following in the footsteps of fire-and-brimstone preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and other leaders of the First Great Awakening during the mid-1700s. Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, declared "he [Trump] has abandoned our nation's commitment to religious freedom, and he's turning away those seeking safe harbor and a better life. This action is fundamentally un-American." (3) He was referring to an Executive Order Trump signed within days of his inauguration halting immigration from seven majority Muslim countries. Yet journalist Mark Shields reminded readers shortly after candidate Trump made headlines referring to Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "criminals" and vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that "Trump sounds an anti-immigrant theme that has a long ugly tradition in American politics." (4)

Wherever historians ultimately land in assessing Trump the man--as a personality type or in terms of his leadership style--Trump's "America First" foreign policy is clearly both a break with and a continuation with the past. During the presidential campaign, Trump boldly defied American foreign policy norms, expressing hostility for international agreements and diplomacy in general. He talked about withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement signed during the Clinton administration (NAFTA), and two treaties signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, a multilateral agreement to halt Iran's nuclear program and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement signed by twelve Pacific-rim countries. In addition, Trump vowed to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, crack down on illegal immigrants, and to get tough on the Islamic State (ISIS), Iran, North Korea...

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