In his inaugural address, Donald Trump stated, “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” Trump apparently first used his catchphrase in a March 2016 interview with the New York Times in the context of foreign policy. The interviewer suggested that Trump was taking something of an “‘America First’ kind of approach, a mistrust of many foreigners, both our adversaries and some of our allies, a sense that they’ve been freeloading off of us for many years.” Trump replied, “Not isolationist, I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’” Trump’s catchphrase actually has a long history.
Historic America First
The America First Committee was organized in 1940 to keep America out of another European war. It was formed to keep the United States from repeating the terrible mistake of intervening in World War I. The organization’s 800,000 members included Robert Wood of Sears-Roebuck, Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, future presidents John Kennedy and Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, American Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, and progressives Charles Beard, John Dewey, Bernard Baruch, and Robert La Follette. Perhaps the America First Committee’s most notable member was aviator Charles Lindbergh, who, in a speech in 1941 after the Lend-Lease Act was passed, explained that the America First policy
is based upon the belief that the security of a nation lies in the strength and character of its own people. It recommends the maintenance of armed forces sufficient to defend this hemisphere from attack by any combination of foreign powers. It demands faith in an independent American destiny. This is the policy of the America First Committee today. It is a policy not of isolation, but of independence; not of defeat, but of courage. It is a policy that led this nation to success during the most trying years of our history, and it is a policy that will lead us to success again. We have weakened ourselves for many months, and still worse, we have divided our own people by this dabbling in Europe’s wars. While we should have been concentrating on American defense we have been forced to argue over foreign quarrels. We must turn our eyes and our faith back to our own country before it is too late.
The America First Committee disbanded after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
America First sentiments predate the America First Committee. After World War I, the U.S. Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations. The America First slogan was used in the 1920 Republican presidential election campaign. One candidate, progressive Sen. Hiram Johnson, had said in 1919, “Bring home American soldiers. Rescue our own democracy. Restore its free expression. Get American business into normal channels. Let American life, social and economic, be American again.” The Anti-Imperialist League was formed in 1898 in the midst of the Spanish-American War in response to what was perceived as U.S. imperialism and colonial ambition. It included among its members former president Grover Cleveland, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, labor leader Samuel Gompers, and author Mark Twain.
Trump’s America First
In his interview with the New York Times, Trump went on to explain his vision of America First: “We’re going to be friendly with everybody, but we’re not going to be taken advantage of by anybody. We won’t be isolationists — I don’t want to go there because I don’t believe in that. I think we’ll be very worldview, but we’re not going to be ripped off anymore by all of these countries.”
On the White House website under “Issues,” there is a section titled “America First Foreign Policy” that begins well: “The Trump Administration is committed to a foreign policy focused on American interests and American national security. Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” But then we see that Trump’s idea of an “America First Foreign Policy” includes a large military buildup with foreign military actions:
Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.
Next, we will rebuild the American military. Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one-third smaller than in 1991. President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned.
What started on a good note ends on a good note as well: “Finally, in pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”
This concept of America First was a major theme of Trump’s presidential campaign. In a major address on foreign policy delivered on the campaign trail at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., he stated,
My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else.
America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.
Trump talked about the need to “rebuild our military,” “deploy military force,” modernize and renew the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal, contain “the spread of radical Islam,” and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But he also included some good things in his vision of U.S. foreign policy:
We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.
Our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction. The best way to achieve those goals is through a disciplined, deliberate, and consistent foreign policy.
Under my administration, we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.
I will seek a foreign policy that all Americans, whatever their party, can support — so important — and which our friends and allies will respect and totally welcome.
Trump’s foreign-policy vision is random, unpredictable, and contradictory. Under the Trump administration, American foreign policy is not returning to the “isolationism” of the historical America First movement. His actions thus far show him to be a militarist. According to U.S. Central Command, on the first three days of his presidency, he authorized drone strikes in central Yemen and conducted air strikes on targets in Syria and Iraq.
A cornerstone of Trump’s America First foreign policy is trade. Although he claims to be a free-trader, for him free trade is good only when it is “fair.” His vision of free trade is for the U.S. government to “negotiate fair trade deals that create American jobs, increase American wages, and reduce America’s trade deficit.” “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries’ making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” said the president in his inaugural address.
An America First foreign policy
If Trump has a flawed, inconsistent, and incomplete America First foreign policy, then the question that must naturally be asked is this: What would a real America First foreign policy look like? What follows is a number of issues related to American foreign policy along with a brief description of what they would look like under a real America First foreign policy; that is, a foreign policy that benefits Americans as a whole, not just those individuals and businesses who benefit from government policies, have some grievance with the government or the people of another country, want the government to protect them from competition, receive government contracts, or depend on the government in some way.
An America First foreign policy would not send other countries foreign aid. Foreign assistance can take the form of cash transfers, food commodities, weapons systems, military assistance, equipment such as generators or computers, infrastructure projects, school and health-clinic construction, loan-guarantee programs, or technical assistance. Aid is provided almost exclusively on a grant basis. But foreign aid is simply the forced looting of American taxpayers. If any American objects to his money’s being taken from him and given to foreigners, there is nothing he can do about it. But not only is it not the proper role of government in one country to take money from its citizens and give it to governments and organizations in other countries, it certainly doesn’t make sense for the U.S. government to send taxpayer money overseas to alleviate poverty, help the unemployed, and invest in education and infrastructure, when those things are problems here in America. If it is not a proper function of the U.S. government to dispense welfare to its own citizens, then it is certainly inappropriate to bestow welfare on foreigners. All foreign aid should be individual, private, and voluntary. Doling out foreign aid does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would not restrict Americans’ freedom to travel abroad. Right now there are travel categories that Americans must fit into before they are allowed to travel to certain countries. And then there are travel restrictions and spending limits that must be followed if they want to visit those countries. In a free society, any American would have the right to travel to any country that would take him by any means for any reason for any period of time, spend any amount of his money while he is there, and bring back any number of goods without having to pay for the privilege. The type of government some country has, or what the policies of that government are, are irrelevant. Restricting Americans’ freedom to travel abroad does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would have free trade. Real free trade, not “fair” trade or managed trade, and certainly not protectionism. A country that deprives itself of foreign goods because of protective tariffs is voluntarily impoverishing itself. Reducing or eliminating foreign commerce is exactly what countries attempt to do to each other during times of war. Trade always makes both buyer and seller better off or else they wouldn’t bother to trade in the first place. More choices and cheaper goods always benefit American consumers. In his classic work Socialism, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted how protectionist policies benefit select individuals at the expense of society: “A system which protects the immediate interests of particular groups limits productivity in general and, in the end, injures everybody — even those whom it began by favoring…. The greater protection afforded to particular interests, the greater the damage to the community as a whole, and to that extent the smaller the probability that single individuals gain thereby more than they lose.” Protectionism does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would not provide relief in other countries. That is true whether it is food during famines, HIV/AIDS initiatives, humanitarian aid, medicine during epidemics, or disaster relief. Americans regularly donate millions of dollars to charitable organizations to provide relief in foreign countries whenever there is some humanitarian crisis or natural disaster. The world doesn’t need U.S. government largesse. Government relief crowds out private relief efforts. And it is simply not the proper role of government to provide relief. No American should be forced to “contribute” to relief efforts. The decision to do so — like the decision to help one’s family, friends, neighbors, or community — should be entirely voluntary. If it is not the proper role of the U.S. government to provide relief to its own citizens, then no country should receive relief from the U.S. government in any amount, at any time, for any reason. Providing relief in other countries does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would be noninterventionist. Current U.S. foreign policy is aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling. The history of U.S. foreign policy is the history of hegemony, nation building, bribes, regime change, imperialism, and jingoism. With its empire of troops and bases around the world, the United States acts as the self-appointed policeman of the world. That only benefits the military/industrial complex. All foreign bases should be closed, all U.S. troops should come home, and the U.S. military should be strictly limited to defense. But a noninterventionist foreign policy would not be isolationist. No advocate of nonintervention in foreign affairs wants to build a fence around the United States and retreat behind it. Having a noninterventionist foreign policy doesn’t mean that the United States should refuse to participate in the Olympics, make treaties, issue visas, trade, allow foreign investment, extradite criminals, exchange diplomats, allow cultural exchanges, allow travel abroad, or refuse to allow immigration. A noninterventionist foreign policy simply means no more invasions, threats, bombs, bullets, maiming, killing, widows, orphans, sanctions, embargoes, spies, meddling, bullying, policing the world, military advisors, troops and bases on foreign soil, nation building, peacekeeping operations, spreading democracy at the point of a gun, regime changes, covert actions, forcibly opening markets, enforcing UN resolutions, liberations, preemptive strikes, or foreign wars. Intervening in other countries does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would be one of neutrality. The United States regularly takes sides in civil wars, territorial disputes, and controversies in other nations, in addition to picking winners and losers. It should instead remain neutral. Neutrality guarantees a noninterventionist foreign policy. It checks presidential power, it prevents hatred of America and Americans, it doesn’t create enemies and terrorists, it respects the sovereignty of other nations, it keeps U.S. soldiers from dying unnecessarily, it doesn’t cost anything, and it ensures that the military is not misused. Not remaining neutral does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would not have entangling alliances. The United States has committed itself to coming to the defense of scores of countries. These commitments are the epitome of the entangling alliances the Founding Fathers warned against making. The U.S. military should be used only for the defense of the United States. Each country should provide for its own defense. No agreements to defend other countries are in the interests of the American people as a whole and they should all therefore be rescinded. Making entangling alliances does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would not fight the drug war in other countries. The U.S. government takes tens of millions of dollars a year from American citizens to do so. It is bad enough that the U.S. government wages war against drugs in America, but even if it were proper for the U.S. government to stamp out vice and keep people from harming themselves in America, it is absurd to think that it should be doing those things in other countries. And, of course, since there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that authorizes the federal government to declare war on drugs or even to fight crime, there is certainly nothing in that document that authorizes the federal government to help any other country do them. Even Americans who fully support drug prohibition laws in the United States should have a problem with that. Fighting the drug war in other countries does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would not have an Export-Import Bank. The Export-Import Bank is the official export credit agency of the United States. Its mission is “to assist in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets” by providing “working capital guarantees (pre-export financing); export credit insurance; and loan guarantees and direct loans (buyer financing).” It “assumes credit and country risks that the private sector is unable or unwilling to accept” and matches “the financing that other governments provide to their exporters.” In the words of the Club for Growth, a conservative free-enterprise advocacy group, the Export-Import Bank is a “corporate welfare slush fund.” The Export-Import Bank is an unconstitutional and illegitimate function of the federal government that breeds crony capitalism. Having an Export-Import Bank does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would reject membership in NATO. The main purpose of NATO was to deter Soviet expansionism. But since the Soviet Union has collapsed, the communist governments of Eastern Europe have been deposed, the Berlin Wall has been taken down, and the Warsaw Pact has been disbanded, NATO is obsolete. Membership in NATO is an unnecessary expense. NATO is the quintessential entangling alliance warned against by George Washington in his Farewell Address. NATO does not exist for the defense of the United States. A NATO military action could needlessly cost American lives. Membership in NATO does not put America first.
An America First foreign policy would not preclude individual Americans from refusing to buy products not made in America, refusing to buy products made in certain countries, supporting foreign disaster-relief efforts, refusing to do business in certain countries, being apathetic toward Third World poverty, giving aid to foreign governments, not hiring immigrants, refusing to travel to certain countries, refusing to vacation in certain countries, working in other countries, not working in other countries, joining foreign armies, rooting for one side in a country’s civil war, being unconcerned about the plight of refugees, criticizing a foreign government’s human-rights record, seeking to improve the living conditions of people in other countries, volunteering in organizations working in other countries, supporting NGOs operating in other countries, being indifferent to oppressed groups in other countries, or wishing ill-will upon the leaders or the people of another country. But such Americans would have to do those things as individuals or as voluntary organizations without relying on the force of the U.S. government or money taken from other Americans who don’t share their opinions.
An America First foreign policy also means that Americans who travel, work in, or live in other countries, or engage in commerce with governments or entities in other countries, are responsible for themselves. They cannot expect the U.S. government to send in the Marines should they be kidnapped, defrauded, or assaulted, or otherwise get themselves in trouble. American businesses that wish to sell their products in overseas markets should bear all the risks of doing do, not American taxpayers.
If the U.S. government had a neutral, nonthreatening, noninterventionist foreign policy, it would greatly reduce hatred toward America and Americans and the threats they might face when traveling, living, or doing business abroad.
The America First pattern
The pattern for an America First foreign policy goes back before the Anti-Imperialist League. It was set by our nation’s first secretary of State, second vice president, and third president, Thomas Jefferson — the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. In his first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1801, Jefferson announced what he deemed “the essential principles of our government.” As concerning foreign policy, he called for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” He echoed these sentiments throughout his life:
“The state of peace is that which most improves the manners and morals, the prosperity and happiness of mankind.”
“Instead of embarrassing commerce under piles of regulating laws, duties and prohibitions, could it be relieved from all its shackles in all parts of the world, could every country be employed in producing that which nature has best fitted it to produce, and each be free to exchange with others mutual surpluses for mutual wants, the greatest mass possible would then be produced of those things which contribute to human life and human happiness; the numbers of mankind would be increased and their condition bettered.”
“I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment.”
“We wish to cultivate peace and friendship with all nations, believing that course most conducive to the welfare of our own.”
Jefferson often advocated the concept of neutrality:
“I have used my best endeavors to keep our country uncommitted in the troubles which afflict Europe, and which assail us on every side.”
“Since this happy separation, our nation has wisely avoided entangling itself in the system of European interests, has taken no side between its rival powers, attached itself to none of its ever-changing confederacies.”
“We ask for peace and justice from all nations; and we will remain uprightly neutral in fact.”
“We have produced proofs, from the most enlightened and approved writers on the subject, that a neutral nation must, in all things relating to the war, observe an exact impartiality towards the parties.”
Jefferson also recognized America’s unique geographical situation:
“At such a distance from Europe and with such an ocean between us, we hope to meddle little in its quarrels or combinations. Its peace and its commerce are what we shall court.”
“The insulated state in which nature has placed the American continent should so far avail it that no spark of war kindled in the other quarters of the globe should be wafted across the wide oceans which separate us from them.”
An America First foreign policy is simply a Jeffersonian foreign policy. A real America First foreign policy would look nothing like the pseudo–America First foreign policy articulated by Donald Trump.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.