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Trump’s ‘America First’ approach is not new

“America First” was the central overriding theme of President Trump’s Inaugural Address. “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength…We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world ─ but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

“America First” is a slogan that has been used by both Democratic and Republican politicians in past. It was the battle cry of arch conservative Pat Buchanan in his 2000 Reform Party bid for the Presidency. In that campaign Buchanan called for the U.S to pull out of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the North America Free Trade Agreement and opposed various United States military interventions overseas.

Buchanan is a staunch isolationist with a revisionist view of World War II that includes defending the America First Committee (AFC), the largest national organization opposing America’s entry into World War II prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Dr. David Gordon of the History Department at Bronx Community College, the AFC opposed entry in the war for various reasons including a “concern for American lives [and] as a way of attacking President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Still others had more sinister reasons. The evolution of the American First movement in the eighteen months of debate proceeding Pearl Harbor revealed xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments both with the AFC leadership and among its supporters.”

America First has emerged as the embracing principle of President Trump’s foreign policy. The major pillars of it are a deep-seated emphasis on American nationalism, economic nationalism, anti-interventionism, protectionism and restricting immigration. From a budgetary perspective, it has translated into increase expenditures for the military, homeland security and veteran services and cuts to spending that goes towards foreign aid.

President Trump does not buy into the notion that it is America’s role to be the global protector of fledgling democracies. Nor does he believe as Jake Sullivan wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Despite its flaws, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.” President Trump has a narrower more nationalistic approach. Nations decide their own destinies and those choices are not the business of the United States if they do not threaten the United States. In a recent speech at the United Nations President Trump said, “The U.S. won’t tell you how to live, work, or worship.”

Supporters of the Trump doctrine will say that our foreign policy, first and foremost, should be focused on America’s national interest and security and the well-being of our own country. Under this view, we should abandon our interventionist foreign policy, reduce our support to the United Nations and dramatically reduce our foreign aid. Furthermore, we probably should not have gotten involved in many places around the world. It also brings into question whether the United States should adhere to the provisions of the NATO alliances and risk a nuclear war with Russia if they were to attempt to take over another country.

According to President Trump, when it comes to their defenses, our historic allies need to look out for themselves and stop putting the onus on the United States to protect them. Under the Trump doctrine, it is not our role to defend democracy around the world or to shoulder the burden as others enjoy the benefits.

The problem with the President’s non-interventionist America First approach is it that when the world’s most powerful military and economic power retreats from the world scene, it leaves a dangerous void that allows for the world’s anti-democratic autocratic tyrants like Russian President Vladimir Putin to fill.

Each intervention needs to be studied and evaluated on a case by case basis, but we can not in an era of globalization retreat from the world or allow Russia to gobble up its former Soviet satellites. It’s okay to ask our NATO allies to contribute more for their own defense, it not okay to have blinders on with regard authoritarian dictators who have no regard for human rights or democratic values as witnessed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s barbaric killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Former President Clinton struck the right cord when he said “Look at the history of the twentieth century. Every time America turned away from the world, we had to clean up and win at far greater costs than if we stayed involved in a responsible manner.” We must strike a nuanced balance between being the world’s policeman, reshaping countries in our own image, getting overly involved in domestic disputes and allowing anti-democratic tyrants to destroy the rule of law, basic human rights and the inherent dignity of every individual.

It is through this lens that the Trump administration should determine whether now the right time to pull our troops from Syria. There seems to be a consensus that if we withdraw now remnants of ISIS will be emboldened and rear their ugly heads. However, they are not the only threat – without our presence in the region the horrendous dictator Bashar al Assad will have carte blanche to brutalize the Syrian people and solidify his power.