What does an “America first” foreign policy look like? On Monday afternoon, President Donald J. Trump tried to answer that question, in a speech in Washington, D.C., and in his administration’s widely anticipated National Security Strategy statement. Although the phrase “America first” conjures up the isolationists of the late 1930s, who believed that the United States could survive and prosper regardless of what was happening in Europe and Asia, the “America first” strategy described in the NSS is far from isolationist. It engages every region of the world, articulates support of the global commons, and even acknowledges the importance of U.S. leadership in multilateral institutions. In fact, as many commentators have noted, the substance of the statement is not so different from many of its predecessors.
But for all its superficial similarity to and rhetorical embrace of a long, bipartisan tradition of U.S. leadership, the NSS misses the most important elements of that history—and as a result fundamentally misunderstands what made the United States a great power in the first place. The language of the document may in many ways sound familiar. But the grim worldview at its core threatens to undermine the strategies that have long made U.S. global leadership work.
A HOBBESIAN WORLD
Trump’s advisers characterize their strategy as “principled realism”—“principled” because it holds that advancing American values spreads peace and prosperity around the globe, “realism” because it acknowledges the centrality of power in international politics, clearly articulates national interests, and affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for global peace and stability. In its last section, the NSS deftly genuflects to American values—the rule of law, democracy, freedom—but it leaves no doubt about the Trump administration’s priorities. The interests of the American people “constitute our true North Star,” it says. And the United States, it continues, will not impose its values or let them get in the way of efforts to confront challenges and compete fiercely. “
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