Trump’s ‘America First’ Strategy Is Old Hat

Judging from their flurry of op-eds and tweets denouncing, dismissing or analyzing President Trump’s new National Security Strategy, America’s foreign policy mandarins would have you believe that the document is either dangerous, irrelevant or both. It is neither.

As many have noted, there is also a considerable gap in tone between the lengthy document itself and the stump speech Trump gave to unveil it. The speech was more truculent, the document somewhat more measured. The speech was also more selective in its emphasis. The president in his speech pointedly said less, for instance, about the threat to the United States from Russia, and more about the supposed fact that his haranguing has gotten NATO countries to spend more money on their own defense.

The core of both the document and the speech, however, was this: Trump’s foreign policy is hardly a radical departure from American tradition. In fact, it’s much more conventional than his many critics will acknowledge. At its heart is a strong affirmation that domestic security and international peace begin with sovereign nation states each attending to its own interests—America First….and Sweden First and China First and so on—and an equally firm conviction that the United States is locked in geopolitical struggles with North Korea, radical Islamic terrorism, Iran, China and Russia.

What is perhaps more striking is the degree to which this administration explicitly links domestic economic health with global interests and security. “For the first time, American strategy recognizes that economic security is national security,” Trump said in his speech. “Economic vitality, growth and prosperity at home is absolutely necessary for American power and influence abroad. Any nation that trades away its prosperity for security will end up losing both.”

Like most Trump assertions of “first time ever,” that one is a fib. This is hardly the first time an American president has linked national security with economic might. The 2015 Obama national security strategy document certainly emphasized economic growth, and that was hardly a break from the past. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton unveiled an “economic statecraft” initiative, in a speech so dull it barely qualified as news, by paying homage to Harry Truman’s creation of a new economic world order after World War II. “Our foreign and economic relations remain indivisible,” she said.” Only now, our great challenge is not deterring any single military foe, but advancing our global leadership at a time when power is more often measured and exercised in economic terms.”

Nor is Trump’s stark depiction of a world of nation-states in competition a departure from much of the postwar era. Any cursory glance at national security documents from the 1950s up until the late 1980s cannot help but be struck by the near-Manichean approach to global affairs as a deadly struggle between open democratic societies and avaricious communist and totalitarian ones. The famed NSC 68 document of 1950, the strategy summary of its day, outlined a view of diplomacy far harsher and bleaker than anything enunciated by Trump and his national security team.

The tone of this administration certainly echoes the hard line of the Cold War more than the liberal internationalism of the past few years of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It also echoes some of the stern starkness of the first term of George W. Bush. Because it is the hyperbolic Trump, there is the inevitable tendency to react hyperbolically, but in substance, the strategy laid out departs less from the past than its tone suggests. Yes, Trump’s rhetoric is more explicitly bellicose and confrontational than Obama’s. But he has changed less than his chest-beating tweets would seem to indicate.

Take China, which Trump accused of “raping” the United States during the 2016 campaign. The Obama administration certainly wanted to work with China on areas of common agreement, such as the Paris climate accord, and on greater access to the Chinese market, but was equally opposed to Beijing’s attempts to become the hegemon in East Asia. Containing China was the rationale, rarely spoken aloud, behind Obama’s “pivot to Asia” as well as his embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump railed against and jettisoned as soon as he took office.

And just because it is Trump, there is a widespread tendency to criticize what would otherwise be seen as wise. The drive to place domestic economics at the forefront of national security is a case in point. While not new, the emphasis on the home front as the linchpin of global power is greater than in the past, and especially needed. The United States did indeed squander the opportunities afforded by the end of the Cold War in the 1990s; we failed to invest heavily in remaking and revitalizing the country’s industry and infrastructure. As for trade deals like the TPP, however much they have immeasurably added to global and overall domestic prosperity, they’ve also lost political support because they disrupted the lives of millions in exchange for benefits that are much more diffuse, unclear or experienced by others.

Trump promises to fix what the immediate post-Cold War era broke. It’s true that many of his specific pledges—build a wall, tear up past trade pacts, confront adversaries—are symbolic, or if actually implemented would likely fail in their stated goal of restoring or enhancing domestic economic security. But he was right about one big thing: Americans in vast swathes of the country are angry, and they blame the choices their leaders made for their plight. And they aren’t especially motivated by foreign policy, for good reason: The United States is arguably less in danger from threats abroad than at any point in the past 70 years, notwithstanding the climate of fear and anxiety about North Korea and terrorism. The nuclear fear of the Cold War from the late 1950s through the early 1980s was based on a real possibility of global nuclear winter, a threat far more dire than the ones we face today.

But the danger of domestic economic erosion is real. On aggregate, the United States remains rich, prosperous, innovative and powerful. Rarely, however, has there been such wide gulfs between regions and demographics such that a significant portion of the country is thriving more than ever while another significant albeit smaller portion is struggling more than at any point since the 1930s. The yawning wage gap, with so much wealth pooling at the top of the economic pyramid is one symptom; the opioid crisis in what was once the industrial heartland another. And the juxtaposition between thriving and dynamic cities such as Austin and Boston and shrinking ones such as Youngtown and Detroit or between the communities of coastal California from San Diego through the Valley and on north compared to West Virginia or central Pennsylvania is sobering. Without that gap being addressed, the dynamism of the United States is compromised. Trump’s policies might only make it harder to fix the problems that best us, but the recognition that those domestic problems are what will most jeopardize our ability to function internationally is a sound and important one.

So yes, we now have a national security document that paints a picture of countries locked in a global competition for power and influence, and economic strength as the coin of the realm. That is a different view than one that says that an international order that addresses climate change and forges trade ties will strengthen each nation domestically, but again, the United States has spent decades tilting back and forth between liberal internationalism and America First. Trump and Obama represent different tilts, but neither invented either.

But we also have an ardent recognition that national security and economic security are and must be conjoined. One of the lost opportunities of the past was the decision early in the 1950s to segregate economic policy from national security policy. The structure of the National Security Council reinforced that, with officials with an economic mandate granted different or lesser security clearances and not at the table when matters of men, bombs and politics were front and center. If one result of this administration going forward is the integration of domestic and global economic concerns into the fabric of national security policy, that will have been a very good thing.

As with everything else, what will matter most is not the words but the deeds. In all things Trump, words have spurred intense and divisive reactions domestically and globally. There have been fewer actions, and we should be skeptical that there will be in the years ahead. But for the moment, the United States is departing less from its ambiguous past than many think, and in at least one respect is picking up a thread of economic security that should long ago have received more focus. If those words lead to greater investment and focus on the American economy of the future, that will be all for the best.

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