President Trump’s foreign policy is often described by both his supporters and detractors as “America First”. That is not truly Trump’s position. As terrible as such a policy might be, it would still be better than Trump’s actual philosophy.
“America First” as defined by Trump’s supporters is that the immediate interests of our nation always take precedence over those of any other nation. It is, at its core, simply a declaration of intentional short-sightedness. Imagine a checkout line in which every patron, regardless of the amount of purchases or the time when they arrived, demanded immediate attention. Rather than speed through, extra time would be required due to all of the bickering as the cashier was forced to determine who was checked out and in what order; in the end, there would be hard feelings on the part of all parties with the same amount of purchases made over a longer span of time. Negative effects, no positives.
Alternately, consider a football game where every player demands the ball on every play. Even if the ball is consistently delivered to the most talented person, the opposition would quickly target them and render their skills useless. Every game played by such a team would be a catastrophic loss.
Those would be the best possible outcomes under a true “America First” banner, one in which we relegated military alliances, trade relationships, and international associations to a secondary concern. It is the policy of fools, one which was rejected even by the comparatively weak United States in its fledgling days. Two of the earliest actions by the Continental Congress were treaties signed with France and the Lenape Indians; both passed in 1778, during the early days of the Revolutionary War. The agreements were signed not because they were deemed beneficial to America but because they were seen as avenues for long-term gain for all involved.
The subsequent breakdown of the neutrality agreement with the Lenape set the stage for centuries of discord, while maintaining the French alliance reaped substantial military and trade benefit for decades.
In truth, the only way we have an “America First” policy today is if one defines the interests of America as being the interests of the President. In case after case, President Trump’s monetary gain or even boosts to his ego have been deemed more important than the physical or military gain of the country. In choosing this path we have embraced a policy that’s worse than even “America First”.
We are paying the price for our foolishness, but so are other nations.
America’s influence in the international community has been aggressively diminished under President Trump. It would have been destructive had he simply pulled away from allies and reduced our participation in international bodies, but such actions have been taken by past Presidents without causing pemanent damage. One of our national traits, resultant from our election cycles, is a tendency to whipsaw between international friendships. Every President has been seen as particularly fond of some nations and standoffish to others; typically, this is a function of the political leadership currently at the helm of other nations. In the case of Trump, his friendship seems directed toward three groups: those who exert an iron grip over their nations, something he is on the record as respecting; those who provide him with financial assets; and those who feed his ego by emulating him. By tying himself tightly to these nations he has made America the plaything of tyrants and ensured that our most preferred allies are nationalists who have been encouraged to sell out American interests the moment they are offered better deals elsewhere.
As a result, we have abandoned our call for international freedom. This was among several traits which were seen by Republicans as core characteristics of the party. The perceived willingness of Democrats to acquiesce to dictators kept some from seriously considering the merit of Democrats’ foreign policy. Every one of their conciliatory actions was considered another example of Democrats wanting “Peace in our time” over opposition to international threats. Whether it was abandoning our allies in Vietnam or Obama caught on a hot mic secretly softening his public stance against Putin, the Democrats were viewed as a party of capitulation and weakness.
The Democrats have not changed and will remain a party of soft reactions under Biden. Just because the Republicans have abandoned the notion of aggressively promoting freedom does not mean the Democrats seize that banner by default. Those among the Democrat party who truly desire world freedom typically prefer pursuing it by providing a positive example for the world and encouraging other nations to sign on with us rather than by fighting freedom’s enemies.
Hong Kong is seeing the result of the Republican shift away from human rights warriors to mercenaries. China is in the process of passing sweeping new legislation which will grant mainland forces effectively unlimited authority to identify and punish subversion. The city is home to more than seven million people and is the Asian home of many international corporations. For more than a hundred years it has been an example of how effective freedom can be at allowing industry, philosophy and people in general to prosper. If it has not been an ideal exemplar of the value of human rights, it has at least been a superior one.
While the United States is threatening sanctions, the threats are empty. China has spent the last few years developing alliances across the globe, even as America has pulled away from them. Even some of our greatest traditional allies like the UK and Italy have recently developed strong economic ties to China, as part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. Power vacuums are filled, and America’s retreat has been mirrored by China’s advance.
Hong Kong is about to fall, and with it will fall the dreams of millions of people as they are relegated to the status of subjects. It is the latest in a series of actions designed to consolidate and affirm Chinese dominance over other nations, such as Xi Jinping’s requirement that Chinese leadership images be placed in all Tibetan households. Taiwan will be watching, and they will know that their alliance with America is no longer adequate protection.
The Democratic and Republican parties provided a “carrot and a stick” approach to foreign policy…. offerings of favor if positive actions were taken, threats of injury otherwise. This mechanism has been broken, and for as long as Trumpist nationalism remains rooted in the Republican party it will remain so. Until such time as a new party can replace the Republicans or the Republicans can be effectively purged, our only recourse is to impress upon Biden and the Democrats the need for an aggressive, sometimes physical defense of human rights. I believe their centrists are open to such a message. I hope they can win the day within their party’s internal debates. If not, entire nations will be lost, because the Republicans will no longer stand against tyranny.