Most Americans want the United States to be number one, right? We cheer the USA in the Olympics and feel proud about having the world’s largest economy and the strongest military. Well, I don’t think that’s what former president Donald Trump and many Republicans are thinking about when they tout “America First.” I believe that they have a type of zero-sum game in mind where the U.S. always wins no matter who loses. I also think they implicitly mean straight, white, Christian America First.
Hillbilly Eulogy author J. D. Vance, who Trump supports for the Ohio Republican nomination for the Senate, displayed this attitude when he said, “I think it’s ridiculous that we’re focused on this border in Ukraine. I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” According to Vance, Americans should be more concerned about what’s happening at our southern border than one in far off Europe.
It appears to me that Vance and the many Republicans who support Trump’s nationalistic policies have an outdated view of American hegemony and an arrogant approach to this nation’s 21st Century foreign policy.
Unquestionably, the United States was first in just about every category at the end of World War II. The only significant rival the U.S. had at the time was the Soviet Union, particularly after Premier Joseph Stalin acquired nuclear weapons. Still, the communist/socialist economic system was never a significant challenge to America’s democratic capitalism in the post war era and the USSR totally collapsed in 1991.
The communist People’s Republic of China, which was controlled by Chairman Mao Zedong after 1949, wasn’t much of a threat to U.S. economic dominance either. When President Nixon made his historic trip to China in 1972, the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) was almost $1.5 trillion, according to statistics from the World Bank, by far the world’s largest. China’s economic output that year was less than $114 billion. By 1990, U.S. GDP had more than quadrupled to almost $6 trillion; China’s had only increased to $361 billion.
My wife and I were vacationing at a hotel in Beijing, PRC in 1994. CNN was on the television in our room but I was studying a map of the city, anticipating our next day’s activities. Suddenly, a familiar voice on the TV caused me to look up. To my surprise, an old friend and conservative Republican congressman was speaking on the floor of the U.S. House and railing against granting China a most favored nation’s trade status.
His efforts failed, however, and by 2010, China’s GDP had increased to just over $6 trillion, leapfrogging Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. In another 10 years, China’s economy increased to almost $15 trillion and it surpassed that of the European Union in 2021. Many economists believe that China’s GDP will surpass that of the U.S by 2030. Reports indicate that China is also beefing up its military, including its nuclear capabilities, which analysts believe presents the greatest threat to U.S. global leadership since World War II.
In order to counter China’s growing influence, President Obama negotiated the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement with 11 other Pacific rim nations in 2016. He recognized that the U.S. needed significant international support for this effort. The TPP was never ratified, however, because Trump withdrew the U.S. from it on his first day in office in 2017.
But this was just the first of Trump’s many actions to promote his America First agenda; he withdrew from the Paris climate agreement in June 2017 and backed out of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2018. Trump also continuously criticized virtually all U.S. multilateral trade agreements and frequently denigrated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, recently speculated that Trump would have abandoned NATO had he won a second term.
The 2022 yearly report on Freedom in the World by Freedom House, a Washington-based thinktank, shows that for each of the past 16 years, democracy has declined in more countries than it has improved. Democracy decliner countries exceeded improvers by 45 in 2020, the worst year during that span. In 2021 there were 35 more decliner countries than improvers and one of the decliners was the United States. I believe this disturbing trend was exacerbated by Trump’s rejection of democratic norms during his presidency and his America First folly.
Touting America First may appeal to the Republican base but I am convinced that it would lead to an increasing number of nations where democracy declines and autocracy prospers. In time, I believe that these newly minted autocrats – and even some leaders in weak democracies – would bend to China’s will and the United States could end up being increasingly alone on the world stage.
Fortunately, however, President Biden is diligently working to reverse Trump’s damaging nationalistic foreign policy. His leadership rallied the European Union and NATO into a cohesive force to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, U.S. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin was able to organize defense officials from 40 nations for an unprecedented meeting in Germany to discuss Ukrainian defense needs for repelling Russian forces. I believe this assemblage displayed strong international solidarity with the United States against both Putin’s aggression and the China/Russia Eurasian partnership.
Trump arrogantly tried to put America First; Biden is making America First – again.