'America First': The troubling history of a dangerous phrase | Christopher Preble


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I think for those of us who have a certain skepticism of military intervention and focus on the last 15 to 20 years and really see—notwithstanding the heroic efforts of members of our military and the sacrifices they have made—just how difficult it is to achieve rather ambitious political objectives through the use of force, we have a tendency to focus therefore on what we’re against.
We’re against intervening in wars that do not serve a clear compelling national interest and have a clear and achievable military objective.
But it’s equally important for us to think about what type of engagement we are for. And I think that’s why it is so important to talk about trade, to talk about cultural engagement, to talk about why the United States is made stronger and better by regular interactions with the rest of the world.
Primacy was created during World War II and after World War II on the basis of an open international trading system, somewhat distinct from the trading system under the colonial empires or even in the 1930s where trade protectionism and a sort of beggar thy neighbor policy really drove and deepened the economic crisis, the global economic crisis.
So the lessons that came away from World War II were that the United States would sponsor a set of international institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and would serve as sort of a stabilizing force. It would also work to liberalize trading regimes and reduce tariff barriers through the general agreements on tariff and trade, which ultimately sort of evolved into the World Trade Organization. This was what we mean by the liberal international order as it exists today—it is these international institutions and these norms that encourage countries to trade with one another and discourage them from placing artificial barriers to other countries and businesses trading with them.
When we hear President Trump and others talk about “America first,” it raises a number of important questions.
The first is: the first time this was really used in the United States was in the interwar period in the 1930s, which is understandably rather fraught. A result of that isolationism and separation from affairs in Europe and Asia is seen as one of the great failings of U.S. foreign policy. And so not being aware of sort of the historical baggage that comes with the term “America first” is bad enough.
More importantly I think in the modern era, in the 21st century, it’s simply impossible and not wise for the United States to think that it cannot to be engaged with the rest of the world.
They’re probably was a time early in our history where we were so focused on developing our own internal affairs and sort of building our markets here in the United States that we could trade with others but mostly be focused here at home. I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario anymore, and frankly I don’t want to live in the United States that’s not actively engaged with the rest of the world. So the real question is not so much “America first,” but what brand of American engagement with the rest of the world do we want? How do we get there?
And I think that in many ways the way that President Trump talks about it it’s going in the wrong direction by throwing up trade barriers and sending a message to those who might wish to come to the United States they’re not welcome here; those who are here under dubious circumstances are being shown the door or being exported out of the country not always so gently. And I think it sends a pretty chilling message that the United States is not open for business. I know that’s not necessarily his intention, but I think that the notion that the United States can exist and thrive without being intricately connected with the rest of the world is simply false and dangerous.
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