“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.”
—Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana’s maxim has special meaning in the context of 20th Century European history, evoking memories of war and genocide.
When fighting broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States tried to stay out. When U.S. finally intervened in World War I, a reluctant President Wilson declared the purpose was “to make the world safe for democracy”. Of course, it did no such thing: World War I was the crucible of Soviet Communism and set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power and World War II.
Far from following through on the Wilson’s implied commitment, the United States turned it’s back on the League of Nations and withdrew into its prewar isolationist shell.
In the aftermath of World War II, isolationism gave way to internationalism and a foreign policy that called for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
The United States had learned its lesson: Never again would America sit on the sidelines as the world descended into the abyss. The made-in-America North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 was a first for the United States, the end of a tradition dating back to 1796 and George Washington’s famous warning against “entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address.
Playing a leading role in the international system was a commitment neither major political party questioned for more than seven decades. The idea that “politics stops at the waters’ edge” meant both parties accepted self-imposed limits in matters of foreign policy and national security – it was called bipartisanship. That principle was largely abandoned by a Republican Congress bent on beating down the Democrat in the White House during Barack Obama’s second term.
There are many disturbing signs that the United States is teetering on the edge of a new isolationist Ice Age: promising to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, threatening to kill NAFTA, withdrawing from the TPP, rounding up illegal immigrants, trying to keep Muslims from entering the country, restructuring the National Security Council.
The decision to restructure the NSC points to what Mr. Trump would call a “big, big” problem if he wasn’t the one responsible for it – namely putting amateurs in key national-security and foreign-policy roles, while marginalizing expertise in key parts of the professional bureaucracy, demoralizing the State Department, discrediting the Central Intelligence Agency, and generally waging war on the government he was elected to serve.
Xenophobia is the generic form of Islamophobia. Mr. Trump has lost no time in using his bully pulpit to exploit lingering public fear of terrorist attacks and post-911 prejudice against Muslims – a clear indication of how the new President intends to govern.
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, xenophobia is often the first resort of a would-be dictator. History is replete with examples of dictators who use hatred of foreigners to fan the flames of nationalism, patriotism, and militarism.
Combine the powers of the presidency with amateurism, a contempt for real facts, and a pronounced tendency toward self-aggrandizement with the existence of: a) nuclear weapons and b) the means to incinerate whole cities literally in a flash and there is reason for concern if not alarm. The reasons to engage responsibly with our allies and potential adversaries were compelling when the world was bipolar and the Soviet Union was the only other nuclear power. The world has not grown less dangerous since the 1950’s – quite the opposite.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss and retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley blame “a single person” for taking America and the world dangerously close to the edge of the nuclear abyss:
“Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter.”
Nor is it clear that folks in the West Wing of the White House understand the concept of economic interdependence. Protectionism and protection are polar opposites in a global age. Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old anti-immigration firebrand who is now a senior White House advisor, called Ted Cruz “a radical Wall Street globalist who will rip the beating heart of manufacturing out of the United States of America,” at a rally in the spring of 2016. “Ted Cruz sided with Goldman Sachs and the globalists over the issue of trade…” Miller railed. “We cannot let that happen.”
Globalism is not negotiable. All the alternative facts in the world won’t make it go away, but a protectionist America could greatly disrupt the global economy if not destroy it.
It took two world wars for America’s leaders to face up to the fact that isolationism was no longer a viable option. Today, foolish talk of “America first” as the guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy – the theme of Mr. Trump’s Inaugural address – risks the unraveling of U.S. diplomatic ties with the rest of the world. A world that well remembers the consequences of U.S. isolationism. The question is: Do we?
Note: This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in CounterPunch, February 16, 2017.