It is easy to see why America First has a real appeal to many Americans. And it should.
It suggests that we need to think about our roads, our schools, our future, and our place in the world in the 21st century. For too long, it may seem that we’ve put off caring about our interests while sending billions in aid to the “developing world.”
It is also true that we continue to aid nations that sometimes aren’t always that friendly to our interests.
However, an America First policy also fails to accept that we are part of a global community, part of a global economy, and that we’re a nation of immigrants who came to these lands in search of a better life.
What is also largely forgotten is that the United States of America was a second-rate power for most of the 19th century – with the exception of the Civil War years – and while the United States was able to stand against the British in the War of 1812, it could have very much gone another way if the UK wasn’t involved in affairs in Europe (thank you, Emperor Napoleon).
Likewise, America’s only other “foreign wars” of the century were against Mexico, a corrupt and young nation, and against Spain, an empire that was dying from the inside. In fact, when the United States entered the First World War, following a policy of isolationism, the U.S. military was in such a sorry state that the first troops sent to go “Over There” needed to rely on British and French equipment.
It hasn’t just been in wars that the lessons of history are present.
The economic isolationist policies of President Herbert Hoover also failed. In the fall of 1930 – just a year into the Great Depression – Hoover attempted to blame America’s economic malaise on international economic realities. Anyone who talks about “America First” and how we should think only about our needs is advised to read up on the Tariff Act of 1930 – commonly known as the Hawley–Smoot Tariff or Smoot–Hawley Tariff.
It was a law that implemented protectionist trade policies in the United States. Sponsored by Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley, it was signed by President Herbert Hoover on June 17, 1930. The act raised U.S. tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods, but it prompted retaliatory tariffs by affected countries against the United States.
Economists and economic historians have a consensus view that the passage of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff worsened the effects of the Great Depression – and some economists have even suggested it was a principal cause of the economic downturn. The legislation has also been seen to highlight how dangerous protectionist trade policies are for the world economy. As a result, most countries began promoting free trade agreements that support fair trade for all.
America First is America Alone
Even with this very brief history lesson, it would still be easy to see why an America First policy would appeal to some. For those who work long hours at jobs they don’t always love, they come home to read a news story or more likely hear a radio host railing about migrants storming across the border, billions being sent to a country few could have placed on a map two years ago, and inflation at record levels.
Yet, even before the war in Ukraine, even before the pandemic, and even before this trend in inflation, Trump campaigned – and won – on a policy promoting America First, as he vowed to Make America Great by bringing jobs back home.
The world of 2016 was different on several levels.
Though Russia had already annexed Crimea and was supporting separatists in the Donbas region, it didn’t seem all that big of a deal to most Americans. It was a regional conflict after all, and in a part of the world that has seen a lot of strife since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, former President Barack Obama had infamously dismissed that Russia was any threat – telling then-candidate Mitt Romney that the Cold War thinking was a thing of the past.
Obama was wrong, of course.
But so too is the idea that America First won’t result in America Alone. Yes, we need to deal with issues at home, but the U.S. can’t withdraw from the world stage – or else China will step in. The U.S. needs allies if it is going to stand up to China in the 21st century.
Simply put, an American First policy is a path toward America Alone.
We need to only look at the one nation in the world that has adopted a modern isolationist policy: North Korea. America First could very much lead us to a similar outcome. It is a myth to think we can be entirely energy independent or that all needs can be addressed domestically. We can’t survive without international markets for our goods and services, just as we can’t possibly exist without imported goods.
Likewise, American First shouldn’t be a policy that abandons democracies to autocratic states. Ukraine may not share a border with the U.S., but it is still a democracy that shouldn’t be allowed to fall into Russia’s sphere of influence because of Moscow’s demands.
Nor should we ignore the threat Taiwan faces from China. These are nations that we should help protect from powerful adversaries.
America First shouldn’t be about pulling support from Ukraine and Taiwan, building an expensive border wall that likely won’t stop the flow of illegal immigrants, or even withdrawing from NATO.
America First should be about ensuring we’re a stronger nation by building partnerships around the world. Yes, we need to focus on our roads, our schools, and other critical infrastructure. But we’re stronger with allies and partners – not by forgetting that there is a world in need beyond our borders and across the oceans.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.