Wow! That was some inauguration address from President Trump! We’ve literally never heard anything like it either from an incoming president or a new president or a long-sitting president or a former president. In fact, it is so no-less-than revolutionary that I almost hesitate to comment so soon.
But this is the blogosphere, so here’s the biggest takeaway I see so far: If Mr. Trump is as serious as he sounded about taking an “America First” approach to U.S. foreign policy, and trade and other international economic policies, he will not only turn the country upside down. He will turn the world upside down.
The main reasons are that literally since the Pearl Harbor attack, American leaders have defined this concept out of existence. That is, they have not believed that America’s interests can be separated in any meaningful and especially ongoing way from those of the rest of the world and its well-being. As I’ve written, this idea by no means reflects iron realities of America’s own situation, world politics, or America’s relations with other countries.
Instead, it springs from a distinctive ideology – best termed “internationalism” – that is as inherently subjective and imperfectly reflective of reality as any other ideology. And it’s fundamental assumption is that because the United States can’t be adequately secure or free or prosperous unless the rest of the world has achieved the same goals, the nation should assume whatever risks and expenses are necessary at least to generate progress regardless of the impact on America’s own circumstances. If you doubt this, recall (or take a look at) President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address more than half a century ago.
The way I see it, Kennedy’s ringing rhetoric about America’s supposedly infinite resolve and ability to defend freedom – especially in its Cold War context – pushed the United States much faster toward disaster in Vietnam, and produced similar fiascoes for decades afterwards. It’s also led Democratic and Republican presidents alike to sacrifice big and highly productive chunks of America’s domestic economy (notably manufacturing) on behalf of liberalizing global trade, fostering third world economic development, and buying and keeping allies.
So I’ve long argued for the imperative of a completely different grand strategy. It rejects as both delusional and dangerous – because unnecessary – the practice of indefinitely striving for a more stable and/or more secure world. And it concentrates on capitalizing on America’s considerable, matchless, and geographically and geologically based potential for more-than-adequate levels of security and prosperity. As a result, I’ve contended that any U.S. initiative in world affairs meet a strict, national interest test: It must strengthen or protect or enrich the United States in direct, concrete ways. And it must do so within a finite period.
This is essentially Trump’s stated approach – which internationalist critics on both the left and the right, at home and abroad, have denigrated as small-mindedly “transactional.” Of course, they also believe that it will destroy arrangements that have prevented great power war and global depression since 1945. My main point here is not repeating that the president and I are right and the naysayers are wrong, but to emphasize just how radical this possible change would be.
At the same time, I stuck “possible” into that previous sentence for good reasons. First, even if this is Mr. Trump’s plan, it’s not going to be put into effect right away. Barring existential crises, like major wars or the Great Depression or Watergate-like scandals, changes this big rarely take place quickly. Second, powerful forces remain aligned firmly against President Trump – in Big Business and on Wall Street, in the two major parties, and in the mainstream media and the rest of the national chattering classes. Don’t think they’ll give in easily. Indeed, from their backgrounds, it’s quite possible that several members of the president’s cabinet and leading advisory circles could be opposed, too.
Third, because events so often call the tune, especially in national security, it’s entirely conceivable that a series of real or apparent crises will result in a Trump foreign policy that’s mainly reactive – and continues along the same strategic lines. And fourth, some of the president’s ongoing rhetoric itself – i.e., on exercising global leadership, or on escalating the war on ISIS in the Middle East, or especially on “reinforcing old alliances” (as promised in the inaugural address) – don’t mesh easily (to say the least) with the idea of America First.
More optimistically (from my standpoint), the chances of changing America’s course on trade and immigration issues sooner rather than later seem higher. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, brought to you by former Presidents Bush (the 43d) and Obama, has now been scrapped. Mexico has announced that negotiations to transform the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and to deal with other bilateral issues, will start next week. Presidents also have impressive authority to impose various types of tariffs unilaterally, as well as to overhaul American approaches on other economic fronts – for example, on further curbing investments in the U.S. economy from China. And don’t forget how that Mr. Trump can repeal the controversial Obama executive orders on immigration with the stroke of a pen.
Finally, it’s important to note that any big change, even necessary big change, rarely comes without tumult. In addition, you can count on the mainstream media to exaggerate its severity whenever possible, as well as to blame Mr. Trump for much domestic and foreign turmoil even when he’s not remotely responsible. Even an alpha dog personality like the new president might find the visuals unnerving. I just hope that he remembers his own view that the alternative – allowing festering problems to become genuine calamities (including foreign military quagmires) – is likeliest to be far worse.