Put America first by leading again
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President Donald Trump’s promise to put “America First” has precipitated arguably the most consequential rethinking of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Taking its cues from a populist groundswell of deglobalization, America First repudiates Washington’s accustomed role since 1945 at the helm of an international order backed by its military and economic leadership, a global network of alliances, and multilateral institutions responsible for enforcing the rule of law and common liberal values.
The subject of both extreme derision and devotion, induced partly by the controversy surrounding Trump himself, America First carries the imprimatur of isolationist opponents of the Washington “blob.” These bipartisan critics of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, constituting a diverse group of both fringe and mainstream elements, protest the irresponsibility of America’s endless wars and transnational crony capitalism.
But for proponents of the established “Washington consensus,” America First worryingly disavows many of the achievements of neoliberal internationalism. These successes include its unleashing of human ingenuity through multinational private enterprise, and, on balance, its measured defense of global public goods such as democracy, human rights, and the free flow of goods, people and ideas.
Proponents of the established system additionally worry that America First’s dismissal of multilateral alliances, institutions and public goods weakens Washington’s command over geopolitics. With neoliberal internationalism increasingly under siege from a distended group of authoritarian regimes led by China and Russia, America First has caused perceptions of U.S. credibility to dim, and left multilateral institutions vulnerable to the malign influence of powerful donors like the Chinese Communist Party. Independent barometers of U.S. soft power, such as Pew Research Center and the Soft Power 30 index, have corroborated America First’s negative impact on Washington’s international standing. Today we are witnessing the debilitating effects of America First in real time, as the U.S. struggles to formulate a constructive international response to COVID-19.
America’s prioritization of domestic interests may seem myopic next to the challenges of climate change, deadly pandemics and other potentially existential threats. But whether Trump is reelected or a Biden administration that attempts to hit the reset button replaces him, Washington will continue struggling to balance its competing national and global commitments. This is because America First speaks more poignantly to the needs of an impoverished underclass worried about being hung out to dry by globalization.
The problem with Trump’s articulation of America First, however, is that it rejects certain features of the postwar order critical for winning today’s great-power competition. Even critics of neoliberal internationalism like Andrew Bacevich, a decorated Army colonel and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, admit that “the challenge is to save ‘America First’ from Trump.” Accordingly, a more responsible formulation of America First than Trump’s might begin by doing the following:
1) Reestablish U.S. leadership in multilateral organizations. Despite early indications to the contrary, multilateral frameworks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, World Trade Organization and Paris climate accord have been relegated to the sidelines in favor of unilateral and bilateral approaches under America First. COVID-19, however, affirms the enduring need for proactive U.S. leadership in global institutions. While Trump’s decision to defund the World Health Organization is regrettable, the administration’s concerns regarding the WHO are not unfounded. German intelligence from January indicates that the CCP pressured the WHO to hold off on publicly responding to the coronavirus for as long as six weeks. Going forward, it won’t be enough for the U.S. to remain the majority shareholder at multilateral organizations. The U.S. will need to be even more vigilant in ensuring that these institutions uphold their mandate instead of playing politics or showing bad faith.
2) Discern friends from rivals in geopolitical competition. Since before the pandemic, China has worked relentlessly to exploit a loosening U.S. alliance network through intimidation and appeasement. However, instead of immediately closing ranks with like-minded nations in response, Trump pursued a self-destructive trade war with China that caused spillover harm to trading partners, while also playing hardball in burden-sharing negotiations with South Korea, Japan and NATO. Thanks, however, to the strong COVID-19 responses of U.S. allies like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, Washington has an opportunity to shift the focus of U.S.-China relations away from a futile game of conspiracy mud-slinging to a meaningful demonstration of how democracies function better during nontraditional crises than authoritarian states. Trump is finally starting to rally like-minded nations, for example, through a new Economic Prosperity Network intended to help allies diversify their supply chains from China. More of the same will gradually correct America’s trust deficit.
America is already a great nation. However, America is exceptional not simply due to its military might or democratic values, but because 75 years ago it took upon itself the monumental task of underwriting an international system of rules, norms and institutions that, on balance, have contributed to global stability and prosperity ever since. Though Trump’s central concern for U.S. interests is worthy, America First must not be allowed to absolve Washington of its indispensable role in global governance.
Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a nonresident fellow at Pacific Forum in Hawaii. Andrew Injoo Park is president of the Sejong Society. He is a political consultant in Washington and a former interpreter with the U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command in Seoul.