Herb Rothschild Jr.: Reflections on ‘America First’

I was encouraged to take up this column again by thinking my way to the following conclusion: Any analysis of our nation’s current political situation, including Trump’s surprising victory, must start by realizing that we live in a declining empire, and Americans aren’t happy about it. Much of what I’ve subsequently written has elaborated on that insight.

In this column I want to reflect on what Trump’s “America First” pledge, which played well with the 2016 electorate and still plays well with his large base, has meant in practice. In the process, I’ll interject some of my own ideas about what our response to globalism should be.

One take on Trump’s behavior is that it’s a return to isolationism. This is the way John Kasich, Ohio governor and a failed 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, characterizes it in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. “[W]e have a choice between two options: shut the blinds and withdraw from the world or engage with allies old and new to jump-start a new era of opportunity and security. ... I choose cooperation and engagement.” The article is filled with reasonable-sounding prescriptions that endorse the “internationalism” of liberal Democrats and Eastern Establishment Republicans, which is based on the assumptions that the U.S. has been a blessing to the world, that we have chosen our enemies well, and that what is good for Citibank is good for everyone.

Kasich doesn’t challenge Trump’s most obvious “America First” policy, namely, slamming the door on desperate migrants (he wouldn’t dare). What Kasich cites is Trump’s disrespect for long-standing multinational economic and political arrangements. Regarding the former, he concedes that those arrangements “have left too many Americans behind,” but he offers no remedies other than worker re-training. Regarding the latter, he endorses the status quo, though he agrees with Trump that our allies should shoulder a bigger share of policing the world.

In fact, despite Trump’s off-putting personal behavior toward some leaders of our military allies, America First has meant no meaningful changes in foreign and military policy with the exceptions of warming to North Korea and cooling even more toward Iran. He would like to change U.S. policy toward Russia, and I wish he could end NATO’s provocative military encirclement of it. But domestic politics, including the Democrats’ opportunistic demonizing of Russia, won’t permit that. Under Trump, our military presence will remain global. Too bad, because in practice it has always been more imperial than international.

Which leaves Trump’s actions regarding international trade. They are ill-informed and chaotic, and guided by his notion that it’s all about bad (Obama’s) or good (his) deal-making. But if we recognize that most people in most countries need protection from current economic arrangements, we should seriously consider protectionist approaches.

The starting point should be food self-sufficiency. If a population can feed itself, it is shielded from the manipulation of markets and shifting geo-politics. Cuba learned that lesson when the Soviet Union collapsed; its transition from sugar for export to real food for local consumption was life-saving. But we must go further down this path. We need to assess material needs (as distinguished from material desires) and figure out how to meet those needs as locally as possible.

My conclusion is this: Let’s not so mire ourselves in criticism of Trump that, when he leaves office, we return policy direction to those promoting the status quo ante. Rightly conceived, America First could mean Humanity First.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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