U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 2018.
Carlos Barria / REUTERS

When U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, he deliberately signaled a definitive break with the internationalist consensus that has guided U.S. grand strategy since World War II. “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy,” he proclaimed. “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.” He was dumping cold war water on multilateralism and global governance—and the commentary that followed duly noted just how sharply his message diverged from those of his predecessors.

But Trump’s brand of statecraft is not in fact out of step with much of U.S. history. Rather, he is discarding the key tenets of U.S. foreign policy since World War II in favor of an older strain of thinking about the United States’ role in the world. As I argued in the March/April 2018 issue of this magazine (“The Clash of Exceptionalisms”), “America first” has deep roots in the United States’ past. It’s a callback to a time before World War II—to an earlier iteration of American exceptionalism and an older brand of statecraft. The hostility to U.S. participation in international pacts, the economic protectionism, the aversion to democracy promotion, the racially tinged nationalism, the isolationist temptation—these aspects of Trump’s “America first” approach are right out of the playbook that anchored foreign policy for most of U.S. history prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Since Trump is not known for the depth and breadth of his historical knowledge, he is most likely not basing his foreign policy on a close reading of the United States’ past. But he does seem to have an uncanny ability to play to a heartland base that feels disadvantaged by globalization, immigration, and an expansive conception of international obligations—and which therefore yearns for the United States of yesteryear.

In his speech before the General Assembly, Trump attacked the multilateralism of the postwar era and emphasized that his top priority is to reclaim national sovereignty. He went on to aim one salvo after another at international institutions, including the International Criminal Court, the Global Compact for Migration, and the United Nations Human Rights Council. In his speech to the same body last year, his theme was the same: he repeatedly called for a world of “strong, sovereign nations,” each striving to put itself first.

Trump has backed this rhetoric with action. He has pulled out of one pact after another, from the Paris agreement to the Iran nuclear deal. He has appointed a national security adviser, John Bolton, well-known for his hostility to compacts that infringe on U.S. sovereignty. Trump is hostile even to institutions of which the United States is not a member: he supports the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and aligns himself with populist governments in Italy, Poland, and Hungary that are hostile to the project of European integration.

Trump’s unilateralism is a sharp break with most of the recent past, but that doesn’t make it new.

Trump’s unilateralism is a sharp break with most of the recent past, but that doesn’t make it new. Until World War II, the United States preferred to go it alone, shunning one international pact after another—including the League of Nations, a brainchild of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. As George Washington put it in his Farewell Address, “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

Trump indeed focuses on the nation’s commercial relations, but he prefers protectionism and reciprocity to free trade. At the UN yesterday, he insisted that trade must be “fair and reciprocal.” Trump has triggered a slew of trade wars by slapping tariffs on imports to protect U.S. manufacturers, and he wants trading partners to provide greater access to U.S. goods.

This too is nothing new. The Model Treaty, drafted primarily by John Adams and approved by the Continental Congress on September 17, 1776, called for reciprocal, not free, trade with other nations. And tariffs protected the United States’ growing industrial base from the founding era right through the nation’s emergence as a great power.

Trump’s view of democracy promotion, too, resembles that of an earlier era more than it does the post-World War II consensus. He has backed away from this kind of engagement and called for individual nations to chart their own political course. As he put it yesterday at the UN, “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.” Trump even seems to have a certain affection for autocracy, preferring Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to democratic allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The founders shared none of Trump’s fondness for autocracy. But they did share his skepticism toward interference in the domestic affairs of other nations: the United States would be a beacon of democracy, but not a crusader. Whether in Latin America in the 1820s or Europe in the 1840s, the United States passed up one opportunity after another to intervene in support of liberal causes. The rationale behind this was clear. Interfering in the affairs of others was inconsistent with U.S. values and risked miring the United States in complicated, distant conflicts. Trump would agree wholeheartedly.

Trump’s racially tinged conception of American identity and hostility to nonwhite immigrants has similarly deep roots in U.S. history. From the Revolutionary War through the era of Reconstruction, the United States made repeated attempts to annex Canada (all of which failed) in part because it was populated primarily by whites. But during the same decades, Congress turned back one attempt after another to extend the nation’s southward reach—for example, to Santo Domingo, Haiti, or Cuba—in no small part because it recoiled at the prospect of integrating “inferior peoples” into the body politic. Immigration policy followed suit.

The founders’ isolationism—their belief that the United States was best served by avoiding foreign entantlement—was of a piece with their vision of the United States as an exceptional nation. Preserving the nation’s security and protecting its unique democratic experiment required standing aloof from a dangerous world. Trump has by no means returned the nation to an isolationist posture. The United States has retained a global range of strategic commitments during his watch. But Trump’s instincts—and he does govern by instinct—are unmistakably isolationist. He constantly complains that allies are taking advantage of the United States. He has expressed his desire to pull out of NATO, South Korea, Afghanistan, and Syria. He has made good on none of these pledges—apparently his advisers convinced him that the costs of bringing the troops home outweigh the benefits. But Trump has proved pretty reliable when it comes to delivering on his promises. Let’s see what the rest of his presidency brings.

Trump’s political ascent clearly rests on his deft ability to appeal to a disaffected electorate by promising to turn back the clock to a more sovereign, whiter, more industrialized, and more geopolitically detached United States. Nonetheless, his effort to reorient U.S. strategy using an earlier version of exceptionalism is destined to fail. His isolationist instincts and his attack on multilateralism, globalization, democracy promotion, and immigration have provoked passionate opposition at home and abroad. And for good reason. A grand strategy crafted for the nineteenth century is ill-suited for the twenty-first.

Trump has opened an important debate about the United States’ role in the world. But the answer is not to go backwards. What the United States needs is an updated version of exceptionalism for the new times—and a grand strategy to match.

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  • CHARLES A. KUPCHAN is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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