So President Donald J. Trump wants to put America first everywhere. There should be no surprise in this. Every leader of every country, presumably, puts his or her national interests first on every issue. This, as the early 20th century revealed, leads to intense competition – and sometimes war. For this reason, the community of nation states got together to moderate and regulate conduct among themselves, first creating the League of Nations and, eventually, the United Nations. But even so, there have been countries like the United States which refuse to be regulated and play an out-size role in world affairs.
Without venturing into the controversial nature of the phrase in
1940, even a cursory look at recent US history will demonstrate
how things have been ‘America First’ for a long time. The issue is of
definition. While US presidents since Truman put forward a broad
interpretation of the meaning of the term – where the US assumes the
role of a leader – Trump & Co want to put across a hard line,
In ancient Chinese political thought, there is a concept of “all
under the heaven” – signifying the rule of an emperor who is supreme,
moral and humane and accepted so by everyone. “Hegemony” is the second
category of rule which is indeed supreme, but maintains itself so
through the obvious exercise of power.
After the Second World War, the US exercised hegemonic power but was
also seen by many as an exemplar of humane authority – a state which
was powerful, but also moral in some sense. Its concepts of democracy,
trade policy, human rights – though not always evenly adhered to or
advocated – had wide acceptance. Its challengers –the Soviet Union and
China – never quite managed to move up from the third category, which is
that of “tyranny.”
It was a world where America was First. The US shaped the
monetary order, its dollars were the world’s reserve currency, its
universities dominated the world of the sciences and arts, its popular
culture was widely admired and emulated. There was a lot of US
benevolence – the Marshall Plan in Europe, the PL 480 grain supply and
economic aid to India, the re-industrialisation of Japan and South Korea
– but all this enriched the US and also shored up a system whose
biggest beneficiary was the US itself. The American grand strategy of
reshaping the world in its own image was as much an expression of
liberal altruism as a means of securing America and its dominance by
creating a world order where everyone lived by rules set largely by the
US, with a little prodding from the United Kingdom.
Though the US military was deployed all over the world, there was
little doubt that the security of CONUS, or the Continental United
States, was its primary concern; American soldiers fought battles in far
off lands to ensure that they did not have to fight them in their own.
Further, in providing security guarantees for allies in Western Europe
and East Asia, the US also checked the ambitions of regional hegemons
like Russia and China.
So it is a bit difficult to understand just what Trump’s America
First slogan really means. The US remains the foremost military and
economic power in the world today. It is not that other countries have
become rich at America’s expense, the US, too, has become richer. It is
not that in securing others, the US has not enhanced its own security.
It spends more on defence than the next five countries on the list. The
problems have arisen when the US chose to fight wars which had no real
relation to American security and, in the case of Iraq, were based on
fictitious grounds. A contributing factor to the weakening of its
economy was the excesses of its own bankers and investment houses, who
brought about the 2008 financial meltdown.
These two self-inflicted wounds – both the product of an America
First mindset – have brought on a sense of crisis which Trump is
massaging. Even the US could not afford the $2 trillion cost of the
Iraq war. Worse was the impact that US unilateralism had on the world
order, especially when it became clear that the american intelligence
manufactured evidence to justify the war. Its baleful consequences have
been evident in the rise of the Islamic State, which Trump now says is
the principal enemy.
Trump’s critique of the Washington establishment, of American
corporates who have enriched themselves while the middle class and
workers have stagnated, is generally accurate. However, it is not just
the economic system that has failed a large number of Americans who
elected him, but the political system which is dysfunctional.
Take for example, the US Congress. Barely 5-10 incumbents lose an
election to the 435-member House of Representatives which takes place
every second year. One major cause of this has been the gerrymandering
of constituencies. But, stagnation in a key branch of US government has
an overall negative impact on the policies of the country. The US Senate
moves at a glacial pace on every issue because it has created procedures and processes
that require the consent of all all 100 senators to do anything. And,
then of course, there is the presidential election system that
sent Trump to the White House even though he got 3 million fewer popular
The great US workers’ unions have been eviscerated with the decline
of American manufacturing industry and today even the middle class is
fearful that they are entering an era where jobs will be scarce. US
hospitals may be the best in the world, but its healthcare system keeps
more people out of it than anywhere else in the rich world. US life
expectancy is 27th among the 34 industrialised OECD countries. US
universities are so expensive that they are losing their function of
being the core of the liberal democratic state.
So, if Trump means that he will reform the political system to make
it more responsive to the concerns of the middle class and workers,
rebuild its infrastructure and keep special interests in check, the US
does indeed have a vast America First agenda. But if it means abandoning
allies, tearing up trade treaties and disrupting the international
system, America First is a recipe for disaster, not just for the world,
but the US itself.
In hindsight, Barack Obama’s presidency was all about seeking to
balance issues. He was the one who insisted on pulling the US from Iraq
and Afghanistan, minimised the commitment in Libya and refused to get
involved in Syria beyond a point. He was able to pull the US from its
economic crisis and also sought to build multilateral coalitions on a
range of issues from taking on China in the South China Sea to getting
Beijing to cooperate in the Paris climate change summit.
Self-created circumstances are making it difficult for the US to
maintain its role as being “all under the heaven.” That is why the
country appears to be slipping into the lower rung of being an
‘ordinary’ hegemon that will seek to use its raw power to maintain its
primacy. Casting itself as a humane authority has meant accepting some
constraints on its behaviour but, backed with the power of the American
military and economic system, the strategy has been a winning one for
the US until now. Trump is now threatening to upend that but if he goes
down that path, he will soon realise this is a more difficult role for
the United States to assume.
The Wire January 22, 2017