James Jay CARAFANO, PhD
Not long after then candidate Donald J. Trump used the term ”America First”, in a major campaign address, he bounded into a policy briefing meeting – obviously proud of his new catch phrase. Afterwards, there was a brief discussion over whether his team understood the historical baggage associated with the slogan.
THEY DID. THEY DIDN’T CARE.
Most voters had never heard of the America First Movement (remembered for promoting ”isolationism” in the campaign against entry into the Second World War). And, anyway, that wasn’t what Trump meant.
That said, over the course of the long campaign little was done to explain exactly what Trump actually did mean. The candidate spent scant time on the campaign trail laying out a fulsome security and foreign policy agenda. That created no little uncertainty.
Well into his presidency, even after the administration has established policies on all the big foreign policy issues, confusion persists. Recently, ”America First” has been described as ”America alone”. Others call it as the opposite.1
Unpacking the past and present of the Trump doctrine tells a different story. Trump’s approach threads a traditional Republican approach to foreign affairs with Trump’s original style. This makes the Trump unsettling, but decidedly mainstream.
RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE
Trump, who announced he was running for president on June 16, 2015, was well into his campaign for the nomination of the Republican Party as their candidate for the president of the United States, when he first rolled out ”America First”, as the descriptor of his foreign policy. One report of an April 27, 2016 campaign address noted:
”America first will be the overriding theme of my administration”, Trump said in his remarks at Washington’s Mayflower hotel, delivered from a prepared text and in a subdued fashion starkly at odds with the free-wheeling rhetorical style that has powered his political rise on the campaign trail.
”Under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries”, Trump said. He. added,
”My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security first.”2
Trump did not use the term again, or make a major foreign policy address until well after he garnered enough convention delegates in the Republican primaries to secure the party’s nomination.
On May 26, 2016, Trump was established as the presumptive Republican nominee for US presidency. He did not mention the term again in a campaign speech until June 7.3 On June 14, 2016, he marked ”Flag Day” in the United States by tweeting the tag line ”AMERICA First!” on Twitter. A week later, on June 22, 2016, candidate Trump talked about the slogan during a campaign address in New York.4 After that, the term became a ubiquitous part of the campaign.
THE FIRST AMERICA FIRST
Comparisons were made to the America First Movement of the 1940s. ”Whatever you think of Trump’s interpretation of ‘America First’ what interests me as a historian is his use of this particular phrase to summarize his views”, wrote David Stebenne, professor at The Ohio State University in the United States, ”[t]he main reason in this instance was because ‘America First’… chosen as a name by leading isolationists for an organization they created to lobby against American entry into World War II.” He was, at the time, one of many to draw the analogy between the anti-war movement and Trump’s attitude towards foreign and security affairs. Stebenne warned, that regardless of what the candidate intended, the term would invoke memories of ”a revived form of American isolationism (with respect to security and trade policies) or, even worse, anti-foreign sentiment in general.”5 While, that is the legacy of the America First Movement, the actual history is more ambivalent.
In the years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that sparked America’s entry into the Second World War, The America First Committee and its most recognizable spokesperson famed-aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, along with public figures like Iowa businessman and World War I veteran Hanford MacNider, as well as a cadre of non-interventionist leaders in the Congress, spearheaded political opposition to trimming the official US stance of neutrality. ”Most of us in our generation”, recalled a young law student at Yale who helped organize the America First Committee, ”learned that the U.S. didn’t accomplish very much in committing troops to the First World War… a terrible slaughter of the talent of the Western world – an internecine conflagration….”6 Many were wary of joining another war to end all wars.
America First was a not fringe political movement. On the other hand, it did not reflect a cohesive body of opinion other than being circumspect about US entry into the war. Americans were deeply conflicted over the role the United States should play in the swelling global conflict. ”The pall of the war seems to hang over us today. More and more people are simply giving in to it. Many say we are as good as in already. The attitude of the country seems to waver back and forth”, Lindbergh wrote in his diary on January 6, 1941, ”[o]ur greatest hope lies in the fact eighty-five percent of the people in the United States (according to the latest polls) are against intervention.” At the time, public opinion supported the movement’s overall aim.7
Nor was the movement isolationist, per se. Lindberg was not the only prominent American growing increasingly anxious over the possibility of United States joining the war. MacNider, a combat veteran and former assistant Secretary of War was just as vociferous. In a January 22, 1941 radio address he declared he was:”unwilling to commit my sons or any America’s sons to the policing of the rest of the world, or the maintenance of the British Empire… The first respon-sibility of every American is his fellows Americans. The first responsibility of our government is the American people; not to the rest of the world, no matter how sorely beleaguered it may be.”8
MacNider was typical of the organization’s leaders. He was not an isolationist. MacNider did not believe that the US, as a matter of principal, should remain non-interventionist for all times.
He just believed, like Lindbergh, that America’s vital interests would best be served by staying out of this particular war.
The issue and the movement were the subject of intense debate. Typical of controversial political movements, the America First Committee was subjected to unflattering characterizations and hatreds, sometimes fueled by its own inflammatory rhetoric such as Lindbergh’s infamous 1939 Reader’s Digest article.9 ”Our inheritance of European blood”, he argued, could be ”only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”10 To an audience today, and to some of his contemporaries, Lindbergh sounds isolationist, xenophobic and racist. The organization rebutted these charges.11 In turn, the leaders of the campaign also consciously sought to distance their cause from political extremists, including communists, pacifists, antisemitism and white supremacists.
Almost any discussion of the war sparked controversy. Lindbergh and the movement were frequent targets. ”One of the saddest products of these years on peace and war”, recalled Herbert Hoover, the former president who had remained active in national politics, ”was the passions aroused among our people. There were sincere persons on both sides, but emotion everywhere cloud reason.” He lamented the debate was overwhelmed with ”[s]mear and characterization”, including men like Lindbergh. Lindbergh’s critics were quick to label him an isolationist if it helped with the argument.12
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the America First quickly collapsed. The day after, Charles Lindbergh wrote in his diary, ”I can see nothing to do under these circum-stances except to fight. If I had been in Congress, I certainly would have voted for a declaration of war.”13 Lindbergh supported the war effort (as a military advisor and flying combat missions against the Japanese), as did many other leaders of the movement including MacNider who served in combat in the Pacific theater.
The rapid dissolution of America First reflected that it was not a doctrine, but a creature of a moment in American politics. Its ambivalent legacy makes a bad precedent for understanding much more than popular opinions of the time. Other than borrowing the words ”America” and ”First”, and the coincidence of shared notion that government’s first obligation is to put the vital interests of America first, the movement tells us virtually nothing about the roots of Trumpian statecraft. The America First Movement is the wrong past to look at for understanding the future of America First.
Trump gravitated to America First after he had secured the nomination. It served as a convenient bumper-sticker, a catchy phrase for connecting with his populist base going into the general election. The campaign was indifferent to the historical legacy.
A far better bellwether for understanding the origins of the Trump approach to foreign and security policy is the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a standard-bearer of modern American Republican foreign policy. Trump saw Reagan as a model for the kind leader he wanted to be on the world stage.
In the mid-1980s, Trump came to prominence as real-estate developer and prominent figure. Among his most high-profile achievements was taking over the recon-struction of the dilapidated Wollman Rink, in New York City’s Central Park. Trump rebuilt the ice rink on-time and under budget, promoting the project as symbol of his ”can do” leadership style.14 The campaign highlighted the story during the primaries and at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, projecting the image of a practical results-oriented leader.
In the 1980s, as Trump was establishing his own national identity, the national leader at the time who matched Trump’s self-image was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was at the mid-point of his second term as president. On April 15, 1986, President Reagan directed the United States to launch a series of airstrikes against Libya in retaliation for terrorist attack at a Berlin discothèque targeting American servicemen. The incident was illustrative of Reagan’s ”peace through strength” approach to foreign and security policy, demonstrating the willingness to protect US interests, and show strength, but not become deeply engaged in protracted wars or debilitating commitments. Reagan’s mantra of ”peace through strength” appealed to Trump. Trump used the dictum as the centerpiece of his only major speech on defense policy during the campaign.15
Trump’s adoption of peace through strength also suggests where the president’s worldview fits in the pantheon of international relations theories. President Reagan’s ”peace through strength” approach has been described as ”defensive realism”, a conservative, but mainstream view common in Republican circles.16 National power was the principal instrument for protecting vital national interests. Reagan did not embrace an overly aggressive use of force to drive policy outcomes. Rather, his conviction was to demonstrate enough willingness to use power to protect vital interests. This particular model attracted Trump as he was, in a sense coming of age, in thinking about the role of the impactful strategic leader at the time Reagan was demonstrating real impact on the global stage – something that Trump could both admire and later emulate.
The influence of Reagan is clearly reflected in Trump’s National Security Strategy.17 Administration officials have referred to this concept as ”principled realism”.18 Notably, least of all does the Trump approach seem sympathetic with the views of ardent American isolationists like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.19 The Trump administration sees its approach to foreign affairs as more mainstream, midway between Bush and Obama, and reflecting a distinctly different but responsible view of world politics. The Bush administration approach has been described as ”offensive realism” or ”neo-conservativism”.20 Trump rejected this approach as overly muscular in asserting US interests. Likewise, he rejected what Trump described as the Obama administration’s attempt to withdraw from the world stage, a neo-liberal or structuralist course of ”leading from behind” that assumed the rules-based order could substitute for American power in protecting America’s interest. Trump wants to lean forward and protect America’s interests, but he has no interest remaking the world order.
That said, while Trump’s inclination is to adopt Reagan’s approach, his National Security Strategy doesn’t mimic Reagan’s Cold War strategy. Reagan saw the Soviet Union as an existential threat. Ultimately, US vital interests could only be protected by continually to pressure the Soviet Union until it collapsed. Trump holds the US needs a different response for today’s threats.
Contemporary major security concerns include competition with other powers including Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China. None of these, in and of themselves, represents an existential threat. Therefore, Trump’s goal is not to force his competitors to collapse but only mitigate their capacity to impact American vital interests. Thus, the strategy eschews notions like nation-building and regime-change, which the administration concludes are excessive and unnecessary. On the other hand, Trump is equally skeptical of relying on disengagement or international institutions to solve big problems. This is an approach to foreign affairs that clearly fits within the mainstream of modern Republican politics in the United States.
All that said, Trump is not Reagan. While Trump’s worldview may be conven-tional, his manner of employing statecraft is uniquely his own. Several characteristics of how Trump employs American power shape Trump’s doctrine.
Strategic Communications. There is little question that the president views strategic communications as an important tool in advancing his policies. Yet, Trump appears to have little interest in promoting a grand strategic narrative. In contrast, Reagan famously used his rhetoric to frame the struggle between the US and the Soviet Union as a battle between good and evil. Trump uses the voice of the presidency for a variety of near-term tactical purposes, including intentional gibes to drive the news cycle. Trump uses the pulpit of the presidency in this manner in part because he believes he is very good at it; in part because he believes it is effective; and in part because he believes he has to – it is his primary means to combat a hostile media and critics.21
Trump is anything but ill-disciplined in his public comments. For insistence, in August 2017 the president announced a new policy on Afghanistan.22 Part that strategy demand significant changes from Pakistan. The US gave the Pakistanis a firm timeline for implementing them. When they missed the New Year’s deadline, Trump called them out in his first tweet of 2018.23 The tweet was not impulsive act, but a deliberate choice to send Islamabad a high-profile message. The example is illustrative. Since Trump uses his public utterances for a variety of tactical purposes, the remarks can only be appreciated by understanding the context of the remarks, the intended audience and their purpose.
Deal-making. It is not surprising that Trump likes to do deals. Indeed, at one time or another with every major strategic competitor, the president has offered the prospect of negotiation. Even in his major address, withdrawing from The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump finished the speech offering Iran the prospects of further negotiations.24
It would, however, be incorrect to view Trump’s foreign policy as purely transac-tional and deal oriented. While dollars and cents might have been the metric by which Trump measured his business decisions, foreign and security policy are different. In matters of state deals are judged against US vital interests.
An example of Trump’s attitude towards deal-making was clearly apparent in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program. When the DPRK signaled reluctance to discuss complete and verifiable denuclearization, a key US objective, Trump sent the North Korean leader a letter canceling the proposed summit.25 When the talks were reinstated, the administration made clear not only its objectives, but set the expec-tations there would be benefits for the DPRK regime as well. Thus, the art of the Trump deal is that US vital interests had to be unequivocally protected, but that also it was not true sustainable unless the other party received tangible benefits as well – and as long as those benefits did not represent a threat to US vital interests a deal could be done.
Risk-taking. Managing risk is an important attribute Trump’s approach to foreign affairs. He is more than willing to challenge conventionality if it is not delivering results, if the prospects for an alternative action don’t incur undo risks.
The best example of informed risk-taking was the administration’s decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The president was repeatedly advised against the move. Conventional wisdom held that relocating the embassy would imperil the peace process, enflame the Arab street and turn the Arab states against the US. Trump determined that peace process was already going nowhere. The White House also believed that threats of an intense Arab reaction were overstated. In the end, the president it was worth taking a prudent risk and doing something different.
Activism. Trump’s policies are anything but passive or isolationist. If anything, the president seems to have an inexhaustible capacity to move on multi-fronts on multiple tracks simultaneously. Now that he has been president for a year; made all the big policy decisions; met all the key world leaders; and had all the high-level intelligence briefings he seems adamant to put US policy on ”Trump time”, implementing and executing at much faster pace; overwhelming his competitors with a blitzkrieg of activity.
No area of American policy more reflects Trump’s readiness to move on multiple fronts than managing the strategic relationship with China. The US has been active across the breath of diplomatic, economic, and security linkages at the same time. Washington is, for example, imposing economic sanctions, pressing Beijing on the South China Seas; enhancing its engagement with Taiwan; and attempting to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue all at once. Further, the US has seem reluctant to link any of these issues with one another in dealing with the Chinese government.
One way to summarize Trump’s doctrine is the willingness to try unconventional means to achieve conventional ends. Since Trump is at heart a defensive realist, there are real limits at how far he would stray from mainstream American foreign policy. The US is a global power with global interests. Stability, prosperity and security in the critical parts of the world that, like US, interests together – Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific are crucial to America. The US doesn’t have the power to ensure all three are secured without the assistance of allies and strategic partners. Further, all three are critical to the US, Washington can’t prioritize one over the other.
Thus, Trump in the end will be unwilling to put any of these at risk.
In addition, while Trump won’t shy away from protracted commitments (like forward deployed US forces), he will seek to avoid costly protracted debilitating incursions that would consume American power at high cost and great risk, such as preemptive wars. As expansive as US power is, it is spread too thin to conduct major operations in a single theater and not unduly put American interests in other regions at risk.
On the other hand, Trump cannot accept the status quo. While in and of themselves China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the transnational criminal networks and transnational Islamist terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda individually are not the equal of US power, together they constitute a significant threat to US interests. Trump won’t be complacent in facing them.
In challenging the challenges to America expect Trump to reinforce the elements of American power that enable ”peace through strength”, in particular US military and economic power. In addition, expect Trump to continue to try different tactics to advance his goals (pressing NATO allies on burden sharing is a case in point).
James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges, is the vice president of Heritage’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E. W.
Richardson Fellow. A graduate of West Point, Carafano holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University as well as a master’s degree in strategy from the U.S. Army War College.
1 See, for example, Susan B. Glasser, ”Under Trump, ‘America First’ Really Is Turning Out to Be ‘America Alone’”, The New Yorker, June 8, 2018, at https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-trumps-washington/ under-trump-america-first-really-is-turning-out-to-be-america-alone; Heather Long, ”‘America first is not America alone’: Trump aims to reset global opinion about him in Davos”, The Washington Post, January 24, 2018, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/01/24/america-first-is-not-america-alone-trump-aims-to-reset-global-opinion-about-him-in-davos/?utm_term=.79c738076aa2.
2 Jeremy Diamond and Stephen Collinson, ”Donald Trump’s foreign policy: ‘America first’”, CNN, April 27, 2016 at https://www.cnn.com/2016/04/27/politics/donald-trump-foreign-policy-speech/index.html.
3 Tara Golshan, ”Donald Trump actually read his victory speech from a teleprompter. Here’s the transcript”, Vox, June 7, 2016, at https://www.vox.com/2016/6/7/11880448/donald-trump-victory-speech-transcript.
4 Donald J. Trump, ”Remarks in New York City”, June 22, 2016, at https://www.c-span.org/video/?411564-1/ donald-trump-delivers-remarks-york-city.
5 David Stebenne, ”Trump’s ‘America First’: echoes from the past”, PRI, June 9, 2016 at https://www.pri.org/ stories/2016-06-09/trumps-america-first-echoes-past.
6 Quoted in Ruth Sarles, A Story of America First: The Men and Women Who Opposed U.S. Intervention in World War II ed. Bill Kauffman (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2003).
7 Quotes from Charles A. Lindberg, The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindberg (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 437.
8 Sarles, A Story of America First, p. 159.
9 For examples of the organized campaign by the Roosevelt administration to monitor and discredit the committee see Douglas M. Charles, Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939-1945 (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015).
10 Charles A. Lindbergh, ”Aviation, Geography, and Race”, Reader’s Digest (November, 1939), pp. 64-67.
11 For example, for the committee’s defense against the charges of anti-semitism see Sarles, A Story of America First, pp. 54-60.
12 Herbert Hoover, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath, ed. George H. Nash (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2011), p. 199.
13 Lindberg, The Wartime Journals, p. 561.
14 Irwin Kula and Craig Hatkoff, ”Donald Trump and the Wollman Rinking of American Politics”, Forbes