Today’s Trump-inspired “America First” faction cannot be counted on to be consistently noninterventionist and antiwar. That it may lean that way because its chief rival faction is so enthusiastic about foreign adventurism is hardly a firm assurance that it will remain antiwar in the future.
We must beware of the assumption that an interventionist foreign policy is, in contrast to America First, by nature “Any Country But America First.” Admittedly, advocates of U.S. foreign adventurism often defend their policy choices in terms of the benefits to another population. But that’s not all they do. They also typically invoke the security interests of the American people. It’s a small world, after all, they say, and what protects others also protects us. How often have you heard interventionists agitate for war solely on behalf of foreigners? Sure, national self-sacrifice might not be good politics, but that doesn’t mean that people of the interventionist mindset don’t mean what they say.
My point is not that they are right, but only that they, or most of them, are sincere (though misguided). I doubt if George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq was motivated solely by regard for the Iraqis or Israelis. Not was Barack Obama’s bombing and regime change in Libya carried out on behalf of the Libyan people only. In both cases the key policymakers and their supporters believed that these actions were also good for the American people, who had been told for decades that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi threatened them. The same can be said about the people who gave us the war in Vietnam. This is not to dismiss the malign influence of dishonest people who simply enjoy exercising power or who will profit from selling weapons to the government. But I am suspicious of such single-factor explanations.
If I’m right about this, we must ask what today’s America Firsterism is defined in contrast to. Aren’t the two main competing approaches to foreign policy in reality both America first, although one may be unilateralist and the other multilateralist? One might respond that a true America Firster considers only the interests of America and no one else. But is that really such a big difference? Perhaps the difference is that American Firsters would want to see immediate benefits for Americans from intervention, while the neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists are willing to wait a little longer even if foreigners would benefit sooner. But now we’re quibbling about time preferences among the interventionists.
Now let’s talk about Donald Trump. (I wish we didn’t have to.) Trump is regarded as the architect of today’s America First faction, although I don’t think he used the phrase (if he’s used it at all) until critics smeared him with it. While Trump fans boast that unlike his two immediate predecessors, he started no new wars, I would caution against confidence that Trumpism equals noninterventionism. First, he didn’t end any wars either, and he chose to keep American troops in key areas of Syria, namely, where the oil and wheat fields are. (They’re still there.) Did he end any of America’s covert wars? Or stop helping Saudi Arabia from making war on Yemen? Or refuse to send lethal aid to Ukraine as Obama had done? No, he did not.
Moreover, he might have gotten us into new wars, with China and Iran, for example. He put tariffs on Chinese imports, harming American consumers and intending to harm Chinese businesses. Trade wars can lead to other forms of warfare. Regarding Iran, Trump tore up Obama’s so-called nuclear deal (Iran wasn’t making a bomb) and reimposed economic sanctions. He ordered the assassination of a major Iranian military/political leader. No doubt he continued the covert and proxy war against Iran that the U.S. and Israeli governments have conducted for years. Finally, he reportedly nearly attacked Iran as his term drew to a close. It looks like we avoided a new war thanks only to contingent circumstances. Why should we be confident about a new Trump term?
Right-wing populists, like their left-wing counterparts, seem to oppose the establishment’s foreign policy mostly because it consumes tax money they want the government to spend on domestic projects. That’s hardly comforting to anyone who wants the government to do less and thereby consume far fewer scarce resources, which after all are produced privately.
Much more could be said against America First, for example, that the term national interest has long been a cover for collectivism and coercion. America First is no guarantee of nonintervention. What we need is a commitment not to America First but to individual liberty first.