In 1830 the United States had a total population of 12,806,702 spread among 24 states. New York City was our largest urban area with 202,589 people, Baltimore was second with 80,620. [Cen] There was nothing about the American economy, which lurched from crisis to crisis during the 1830s, that would cause European powers to see the US as a power player:
“During this time, English traders could not collect on their sales in America, and many of them went bankrupt. Cotton mills closed in England, and American planters saw their markets disappear. By the summer of 1837, business was paralyzed, and it was not until the early 1840s that a semblance of confidence in business was restored.” [RU.edu]
We’re not, obviously, in the same category as we were 180 years ago, but we aren’t on the trajectory we were following a matter of months ago. This, for Americans, isn’t normal. Out of the economic and social debris of the American Civil War came an industrial nation, fully prepared to compete with European nations, far ahead of some nations in terms of industrialization, financial markets (not that we were free from speculation and its results), and growing into importance as a world leader. After booms and busts, periods of isolationism and nativism, and two world wars the US emerged as a super-power. By 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower could say,”Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.” [NA]
Former General Eisenhower had another line which should resonate with us today: “Now I think, speaking roughly, by leadership we mean the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority.” [NA]
A Quick Review
Other presidents following in this tradition sought to use American leadership in this manner. President Kennedy’s foreign policy problems were legion, but he did manage to take a step towards arms control in the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency is associated with the Vietnam War, however during his tenure the US negotiated the Outer Space Treaty with the Soviet Union and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Nixon followed through with the SALT talks and the ABM Treaty. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Accords. President Carter is remembered for the Camp David Accords. President Reagan changed the SALT formula to the START format: Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, and the tension evident in 1983 ended with Reagan’s trip to Moscow toward the end of his term in office. President George H.W. Bush managed to steer a steady course when relations with China threatened to implode over Chinese reactions to popular demonstrations, and his careful commentary in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet-era regime in Germany is said to have mitigated the reaction of hardliners in Eastern Europe. President Bill Clinton pursued what he called his Policy of Enlargement, i.e. a policy based on promoting democracy and human rights abroad. President George Bush’s foray into Iraq has encumbered the US with several foreign policy challenges, as did Clinton’s failure to deal assertively with Rwanda, however it would be remiss to omit Bush’s initiatives to deal with global HIV/AIDS programs and treatment. The presidency of Barack Obama included negotiations concerning climate change (Paris Accords) and the limitations on the Iranian weapons program.
However mixed the policies and results of American world leadership since the Eisenhower Administration one aspect has remained fairly constant. Every president has sought to get someone else to do what we want because they want to do it. This was normal American foreign policy. Until now.
America First America Alone
The first speech was a clear signal:
“President Trump’s speech Friday will go down as one of the shorter inaugural addresses, but it will also be remembered for its populist and often dark tone.“From this day forward,” Trump said at one point, “it’s going to be only America first. America first.” Trump appears to have first used the phrase last March in an interview with The New York Times when he denied he was an isolationist. “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First,’” he said. “So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’” [Atlantic]
He appears to understand the dark origins of the America First movement, but adds a transactional element to the implied isolationism:
“Not isolationist, but I am America First,” he said. “I like the expression.” He said he was willing to reconsider traditional American alliances if partners were not willing to pay, in cash or troop commitments, for the presence of American forces around the world. “We will not be ripped off anymore,” he said.”[NYT]
He may like the expression, but it is irrevocably associated with the infamous Lindbergh Speech delivered on September 11, 1941:
“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration. Behind these groups, but of lesser importance, are a number of capitalists, Anglophiles, and intellectuals who believe that the future of mankind depends upon the domination of the British empire. Add to these the Communistic groups who were opposed to intervention until a few weeks ago, and I believe I have named the major war agitators in this country.”
Putting America First, Lindbergh rushed past the fact that the British were blitzed in the Summer and Fall of 1940, and the Jews were the subject of Nazi genocide. His rationale was that neither the British nor the Jews were “American” and therefore they were promoting their interests at the expense of American interests. At the time Lindbergh delivered his speech in Des Moines the British weren’t fighting for their empire — they were fighting for their existence; and, the Jews were fighting for their lives. Given this context, the expression “America First” should have been assigned to the great trash heap of really bad phrases, however in Trumpian terms it’s a banner to be waved in front of our adversaries, and unfortunately our allies as well. This isn’t normal.
Normal recognizes that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty states an attack on one ally means an attack on all — no strings, no demands for payment, no second guessing — as when it was invoked after September 11, 2001 on behalf of the United States. It is not normal to address a gathering of NATO allies and delete a reference to the article.
Normal recognizes that voluntary accords such as the Paris Climate Agreement aren’t binding, but do express the aspirations of the global community toward adopting policies and practices which do not impinge on the health of our shared planet. It is not normal to unilaterally discard an agreement most of the changes to which (from the Kyoto version) were made at American insistence.
Normal recognizes that the deployment of U.S. forces around the world is a deterrent to adventurism and the disruption of financial and commercial functions in the global domain. It is not normal to view these expenses as being “ripped off” by other nations. It is truly beyond normal to decry these expenses and then advocate for a $700 billion increase in the U.S. military budget.
Normal recognizes that not everyone gets exactly what is wanted from any international agreement, but that small steps can often lead to greater improvements. The SALT talks begat the START talks and the START talks begat a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is not normal to demand that the treaty with Iran contain precisely what the American government wants when it wants it — without securing international agreement as to the terms of the specific treaty.
Normal recognizes that it is necessary for a nation to be perceived as cooperative and willing to be held to one’s word. It is not normal to have allies questioning whether or not the U.S. will sustain its support for NATO, cooperate with global initiatives on trade, health, and climate change, and keep its word concerning threats to global peace.
Normal recognizes that the foreign policy of other nations, such as Russia, is not in alignment with American interests. Normal recognizes that the creation of a “Russian Century” is not in the best interest of the United States. It is not normal to have an American president deny or try to minimize the significance of a Russian assault on American democratic practices and institutions. It is not normal to have an American president omit reference to what is occurring in the Crimea, in Ukraine, and along the borders of western Europe.
The United States of America cannot allow the abnormal to become the new normal.