America First versus American Exceptionalism
My biggest fear when Donald Trump became president was that he was serious about America First, and therefore he would abandon American Exceptionalism. One of his first acts as president was to withdraw the United States from the Trans Pacific Trade Pact, confirming my fear. However, seventeen months into his presidency it is clear that he is not abandoning American Exceptionalism, despite his continuing America First rhetoric.
So what do these two terms mean, and why is it important that American Exceptionalism be maintained? American Exceptionalism, despite the phrase’s implication, is not a selfish political philosophy. Exceptionalists believe that the United States has a uniquely positive purpose, which is to globally spread democracy and freedom, while not igniting WWIII. Accomplishing this purpose has required, and continues to require, the sacrifice of American lives and resources without gaining anything in return other than possibly accomplishing the purpose.
America First, on the other hand, is focused strictly on American concerns. The phrase ‘America First’ was initially used in 1917 by those opposed to the United States entry into WWI, and it was revived in the 1930s by Americans opposed to our entry into WWII to fight fascism. Opponents believed that the United States had no self-interest or moral obligation to get involved in the political squabbles of the ‘Old World’. The political philosophy represented by America Firsters is known as Isolationism, and an implicit underlying isolationist assumption is that the United States will be unaffected by global events.
The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed the credibility of Isolationism for several generations. Now, after 76 years of United States foreign policy dominance by American Exceptionalism, America First and isolationism have made a comeback with the political arrival of Donald Trump. Why? Americans are tired of carrying the global burdens of Exceptionalism, and Trump articulated this fatigue during the campaign. However, now he is in office getting a reality check on our interconnected world. President Trump is abandoning the America First position, without actually saying so.
What is the evidence for his abandonment America First and his backhanded embrace of American Exceptionalism? The evidence is more about what he has not done than what he has done. If Trump truly embraced the isolationism, he would have done the following: He would have withdrawn the United States from NATO; he would have withdrawn American military forces from all foreign deployments, including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq; he would have withdrawn the United States from the United Nations and other international organizations; he would have stopped giving foreign aid to any country, including Israel; he would have withdrawn from all international trade agreements, starting with NAFTA. Trump has done none of these things.
Yes, he initially had ‘bromances’ with dictatorial thugs like Putin and Xi, but in the last six months Trump’s administration has increasingly taken a hard line against both Russia and China. Apparently President Trump is beginning to recognize that dictators are inherently and inevitably enemies of the world’s leading democracy. What led to this turnaround?
Trump staffed many of the top military and foreign policy administrative positions with people who have spent their entire careers supporting American Exceptionalism, such as CWU-graduate General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. If Trump was a complete supporter of America First he would have never done this. And, by now Trump has had many meetings with the leaders of the other Western democracies. Despite European grumbling about American international behavior, these leaders understand the stabilizing importance of continued American global involvement.
Perhaps they have convinced Trump that American isolationist withdrawal would lead to disastrous global consequences.
President Trump, compared to candidate Trump, is not finding it easy to go against the entrenched American Exceptionalism philosophy that has guided American foreign policy through thirteen Democrat and Republican administrations. Trump, like previous presidents, knows that our allies could do more to share in the global burden. Other presidents have nicely asked our allies to increase their contributions, and have been ignored. Trump’s bombastic threats of isolationist withdrawal may finally get our allies to actually carry their fair share, and thereby reducing our share of the burden. If Trump wants to be able to say that he did something for average Americans, this could be it.
Anthony Stahelski can be reached at [email protected]