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.


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. “The future we face is ours to win or lose,” it asserts.

Conflict is the document’s dominant trope: “A central continuity in history is the contest for power.” And in this contest, victory is not assured. “There is no arc of history that ensures that America’s free political and economic system will automatically prevail.” According to Trump and his advisers, the country has been asleep since the end of the Cold War, while threats have been mounting around the globe. The NSS insists that the United States will no longer be “complacent” when it comes to these “growing political, economic, and military competitions.”

All of this makes for a picture of a Hobbesian world, with threats emanating from nonstate actors (jihadists and international criminal organizations), revisionist powers (China and Russia), and rogue dictatorships (Iran and North Korea). In the face of such threats, the document asserts, the United States government should pursue four overriding interests: protecting the homeland and the “American way of life”; promoting prosperity; preserving peace through strength; and advancing American influence around the world.

To address these interests, Trump’s NSS builds on themes that have appeared in strategy statements of previous administrations. Economic strength is the key to military power. Weakness invites challenge, and the United States must therefore preserve its military superiority, lead the world, and negotiate from strength—themes that hark back to NSC-68, the country’s most famous Cold War strategy paper. And since the United States is no longer concerned about a single power dominating the resources of Europe and Asia, Trump’s NSS, like other post–Cold War strategy statements, stresses that the United States must focus on regional balances and prevent unfavorable geopolitical shifts in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East. It also calls for doing more to target terror threats and transnational criminal organizations at their sources and to counter potential threats before they reach the American homeland—assertions that resemble the language in Clinton administration national security directives and cleave closely to the preventative and preemptive thinking of the George W. Bush administration.

To accomplish these objectives, the NSS concludes that military capabilities must operate “across a full spectrum of conflict, across multiple domains at once.” This phrasing is strikingly similar to the talk about full spectrum superiority during the Clinton years. And the purpose of these “overmatch” military capabilities is not simply to deter and prevail but to “shape the international environment and to protect our interests,” phrasing that mirrors the rhetoric of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, and influential U.S. policymakers Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby, when they first started configuring the United States’ military forces for the post–Cold War era in 1991 and 1992.


For all these continuities, however, the tenor of this NSS is a striking departure. It mentions values and ideals, but there is no idealism. “Principled realism,” as the document asserts, is “guided by outcomes, not ideology.” Wilsonian appeals for a community of power do not appear; hopes for a democratic peace vanish; aspirations for hegemonic stability are out of the picture; there is not even an allusion to the impact of climate change. Trump’s international order is anarchic, characterized by scheming and aggressive rival powers and ruthless nonstate actors. Struggle is the name of the game; only the most fit survive. There is confidence, but no optimism.

And this confidence seems oddly misplaced because the strategy statement abounds with ambiguities and contradictions. It enumerates interests, but fails to delineate priorities. Threats are defined, but not ranked. Strategy is about linking means and ends, resources and commitments. But Trump’s strategists do not explain how this will occur. Achieving prosperity, they suggest, is the key to power and security. But the section on prosperity is rife with inconsistencies. Trump’s NSS stresses tax reform (not tax cuts) and fiscal responsibility, but the president is about to sign legislation that will add over a trillion dollars to the deficit over the next ten years. It calls for leadership in research and technology when the administration is cutting governmental support for these very purposes. And it emphasizes “fair,” “reciprocal,” and “bilateral” trade, when such a strategy harks back to the commercial practices that contributed to the closed trading blocs and autarchic practices that led to World War II. In practice, the administration is pursuing a strategy of strife and impoverishment, not prosperity.

Unfortunately, Trump seems oblivious to the gap between his administration’s strategy statement and his own rhetoric and actions. His NSS stresses again and again that Russia is not only a revisionist power but also a nation that seeks to “interfere in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.” Yet in his comments introducing the document, Trump went out of his way to elide such Russian behavior and to stress the efficacy of sharing intelligence information with the Kremlin. Likewise, the NSS stresses the value of diplomacy and the upgrading of diplomatic capabilities, even though many key State Department positions remain unfilled and the president wants to cut the State Department’s budget by a third. And it emphasizes economic diplomacy, the utility of sanctions, and the need to reinforce economic ties with allies and partners, despite the fact that the president has opposed sanctions against Russia, disparaged the free trade agreement with South Korea, and repeatedly threatened to suspend NAFTA.

Trump and his strategists do not grasp the strategies that actually made America great after World War II.


The bigger problem, however, is that Trump and his strategists do not grasp the strategies that actually made America great after World War II. During the administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, Democrats and Republicans alike recognized that the international arena was not a zero sum game. They saw that the world was interdependent as well as competitive; that prosperity at home depended on economic growth abroad; that sovereignty had to be honored yet curbed; and that allies had to be reassured even while adversaries were deterred. They also realized that the role of the state had to be reconciled with the dynamics of the marketplace in order to provide personal security at home and safeguard national security abroad. Nor did they delude themselves about the magical benefits of free markets. Rather than celebrating deregulation as the key to prosperity—as Trump does—they recognized the structural problems that had led tens of millions of demoralized citizens throughout the world to support authoritarian and totalitarian movements during the 1930s. Grappling with the problems that had precipitated two world wars and a great depression, they and their successors struggled to balance the benefits of a dynamic marketplace with the injustices and inequities that it produced. These administrations understood that governments had to not only structure and liberalize market forces but also regulate and compensate for the dislocations they caused.

The Trump administration assumes that its “America first” strategy will garner respect abroad and win adherents at home. This is delusional. Since Trump took office, the United States’ standing in the world has plummeted. Polls in 37 countries reveal that only 22 percent of people abroad now think they can rely on the United States to do the right thing, compared to 64 percent just a year before. The domestic picture is no more reassuring. In November 2017, according to Gallup, 72 percent of the American people said they were dissatisfied with the way things were going at home, up from 62 percent in 2016. If Trump truly hopes to make America great, he will have to rethink his strategy.

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