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Opinion | Andrew J. Bacevich

Trump’s limited vision of putting ‘America First’

Supporter hoists a pro-Trump sign along the parade route after the inauguration ceremony in Washington on Friday.
Supporter hoists a pro-Trump sign along the parade route after the inauguration ceremony in Washington on Friday.(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

In President Donald Trump’s inaugural address, foreign policy figured at best as an afterthought. The new administration’s work of making “America Great Again” will primarily occur here at home, with US actions abroad subordinated to that larger purpose. Yet the resulting implications for America’s global profile may prove to be enormous.

Trump is a dealmaker not a philosopher. When he speaks of “winning again, winning like never before,” he defines the fruits of winning in concrete terms. Whether Americans become more tolerant or exercise personal freedom responsibly are matters to which he is indifferent. The new president’s focus is squarely on the material. His reform agenda aims to create unprecedented wealth while ensuring that ordinary citizens — “the forgotten men and women of our country,” not just a “small group in our nation’s capital” — share in the rewards. Trump’s is a chicken-in-every-pot, new-car-in-every-driveway conception of greatness restored.

To achieve that restoration, Trump intends to slam the brakes on globalization and reverse its effects. For decades now, members of the political class have deemed globalization to be inevitable and largely beneficial. Trump disagrees, vowing to roll back policies put in place to create an open world. That means sealing borders, excluding or expelling foreigners who compete for jobs, revising or abrogating disadvantageous trade deals, and making massive capital investments here at home.

What are the implications of this approach for basic national security policy? Take seriously the sentiments Trump expressed at the Capitol on Friday and he appears intent on undertaking the most significant reorientation of America’s role in world affairs since Franklin Roosevelt concluded that the Nazi threat to Great Britain also threatened America.

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Back in 1940, not everyone agreed with FDR, his opponents proclaiming their commitment to “America First.” Candidate Trump appropriated that provocative phrase as a campaign slogan. President Trump has now installed it as a core principle of US policy.

Ever since World War II, the establishment that Trump routinely denounces has clung to the conviction that the United States must always and everywhere lead. Trump has now registered a strong dissent. Nullifying the adverse effects of globalization, he seemingly believes, necessarily means curtailing American globalism as well.

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In some quarters, this prospect immediately raises the specter of irresponsible, head-in-the-sand isolationism. Trump professes to see an alternative. He wants America to inspire. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” he asserts, “but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

Putting “America First” resonates with many of those whose votes put Trump in office, especially if it means ending wasteful military misadventures. Trump’s claim that previous administrations have “spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay” is indisputable. The wars in the Greater Middle East that have squandered those trillions have produced little in return. For a business executive accustomed to checking the bottom line, they have been a bum investment.

By extension, Trump is proposing a more limited role for the military itself. He has repeatedly promised to increase Pentagon spending. Yet his inaugural address frames the purpose of American military power narrowly, lumping together “our military and law enforcement” as agencies that (along with God) will ensure that “we will always be protected.” Trump made no mention of dispatching US troops to spread freedom, defend human rights, or advance the cause of democracy.

On the other hand, Trump highlighted the continuing threat posed by “radical Islamic terrorism.” This he pledged to “eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” How his administration will accomplish that objective without expending further trillions and without violating the dictates of “America First” remains to be seen.

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In describing America as an exemplar, our new president harks back to an ancient tradition. We can trace its lineage to George Washington or, further still, to John Winthrop, who in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony summoned his followers to create a “city upon a hill.” Whether President Washington’s vision of a virtuous republic or Governor Winthrop’s of a devout Christian commonwealth retains relevance in our consumption-oriented secular age is a large question that Trump’s inaugural address did not touch upon. Indeed, Trump himself represents the antithesis of the austere virtues that Washington and Winthrop sought to cultivate.

So what exactly is it that Trump’s America will exemplify?


Andrew J. Bacevich is the author, most recently, of “America’s War for the Greater East: A Military History.’’