On the fallacy of giving substance to Trump’s “America First” policy


Dear Partners in thought,

Nearly two and half years on we had to expect attempts from the American populist quarters to give some intellectual substance combined with dogmatic nobility to what constitutes Trump’s “America First” policy. This just happened in a Foreign Policy essay by Michael Anton who outlined the so-called “Trump Doctrine” while giving it some quasi-academic aura of credibility beyond the Tweets and erratic behaviour of the American President. I thought that it would be a public service to review, discuss and refute all or part of the four tenets of that “doctrine”. I should give all the credit for this initiative to Fareed Zakaria’s Global Briefing and Global Public Square’s CNN team that reported Anton’s piece factually though without providing any views given the briefing set up, which prompted this Interlude.

As you may know Michael Anton, who “writes” these days focusing on the American left (read radical left) as his chief nemesis, is the former Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communication (quite a mouthful) who resigned as John Bolton became the new National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration in April 2018. Interestingly he once was a speechwriter both to Rudy Giuliani, the once legendary NYC Mayor and current truculent personal lawyer to Donald Trump and to the National Security Council under George W Bush, having worked as director of communication at Citigroup and for asset manager BlackRock. One of the more exotic features of Anton was his role as fierce critic of jus soli (right of the soil) as the basis for birthright citizenship in the US – he clearly enjoys tough positions – and his writing of books under a pseudonym given his government position then, like Nicholas Antongiavanni,  in The Suit that parodied The Prince from Niccolo Machiavelli. Of note, Anton also defended in 2016 under another pseudonym – Pubis Decious Mus (strange choice) – the erstwhile America First Committee of the Charles Lindbergh-type, arguing that it had been unfairly maligned in its times (one really wonders why).            
According to Anton the emerging doctrine would be based on four pillars which are inter-connected and would indeed be a nice foundation set for the Trump foreign policy house (as described in Fareed’s briefing): 1) A recognition that populism is the result of globalisation’s infringements on national identity; 2) a view that the liberal international system was great 50 years ago but offers only “diminishing returns” today; 3) a consistent support for nationalist, self-interested policies by all nations, not just the US; and 4) a belief that supporting nationalism is good for US interests, by making individual countries stronger.    

Anton’s task is indeed challenging and an attempt at after the fact rationalisation and justification of the kind that aims at giving structure to chaos where bold moves and ruptures of directions take the form of policy. If taking each of the four pillars, one could be forgiven to stress the obvious as follows:

1) A recognition that populism is the result of globalisation’s infringements on national identity

No. Putting aside the benefits of globalisation in overall political and economic terms while agreeing it certainly is imperfect and can be fine tuned, populism is not simply the result of the globalisation’s infringements on national identity. Populism is both the “marketing” mean and the result of politicians providing easy answers to complex issues and in doing so dealing with the problems that some voters have with a world that they cannot fully comprehend and they see as hurting their economic and social prospects. Populist politicians then create populist voters adding to their simple messages an element of national identity to the equation ennobling their demand for less globalisation to restore a mix of identity, sovereignty, independence, economic well-being – in other words usurped “dignity” – while blaming foreigners (the migrant, and refugee of the illegal kind but also the variants of the legal “Pole” in the UK) in an age old costless recipe of pointing the finger “abroad” to manage deep domestic resentment. Globalisation is the other and reshaped fingered Jewish financier of our times in being the scapegoat for all of today’s ills of the rural, non cosmopolitan, left out and out of sync populations in the West. Having said this, one should not be deaf and devoid of empathy.  It is clear that globalisation, a major world-changing paradigm of the last 20 years, which benefits are taken for granted and forgotten, still needs to be ceaselessly managed and regulated to avoid excesses and indeed feeding the anger of “helpless” populations that feel trapped and hurting from it even if they have unknowingly appreciated the low cost of many of the basic “Made in China” products they have purchased back home for years.            

2) A view that the liberal international system was great 50 years ago but offers only “diminishing returns” today

50 years ago the world was in the midst of the Cold War which the West eventually won, led by the US and in close cooperation with its allies. Today’s world has other threats though it is difficult to see why the recipe of the Western liberal order as we have known it should offer only “diminishing returns”. While quantifying returns seems awfully challenging it is not clear that the formula, however cute, possesses any validity as a way to make a point, even less a doctrine pillar. That the world has not yet suffered a major transcontinental war since the last global conflict 75 years ago (short of Islamic terrorism and its ripple effects throughout the world and notably Middle East since 2001) and the world economy has kept growing, even with the odd major financial crisis, with poverty receding gradually over decades, could be deemed a happy return which would be hard to see as “diminishing”. Cooperation between nations and dialogue fostering multipolar policy-making is bound to yield more positive developments for the world than national self-centrism whatever the easy beauty of the argument and as the world is no longer going to be unipolar as it goes.        

3) A consistent support for nationalist, self-interested policies by all nations, not just the US

One can understand the drive for the seemingly “rational” approach and its roots. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who admittedly thought his President was doing God’s work in the Middle East) stressed publicly that such a nationalist approach had strong merits for all nations. So the US would not be the only self-centred kid on the block. It should encourage and indeed support all nations to go out alone and define their priorities in the most-self interested manner.   Would that mean that America should encourage Russia and China, to name only two nations, to be more nationalistic than they are? And if logically yes would that approach not create naturally clashes when nationalism run amok were to cross borders such as with the earlier Crimea and eastern Ukraine episodes? Would that not encourage New Delhi at an uncertain leadership time to bet the house on Kashmir something which as we well know “notoriously placid and pliant” Islamabad would find absolutely acceptable and even welcome? Would that not send the wrong message to Beijing in relation to Taiwan, simply looking at its current reaction to foreign naval vessels simply crossing the straits? Would not nationalist interests collide? Would not cooperation be more sensible than confrontation, knowing that nations will still vie for their national interests even in such a productive setting? And would we not send the wrong signals to smaller nations they can sort out their problems by being self-centred at the military and economic levels? I do hope the affable Mike Pompeo could respond to these simple questions that are answers in themselves.             

4) A belief that supporting nationalism is good for US interests, by making individual countries stronger

Not only the US would like nationalism in other nations but there is the delusion that it would be good for America itself. While pillars 3 and 4 are really like close cousins (we feel Anton scratching his head to come up with the fourth pillar of the house so it could stand on its own) it is hard to see a more nationalistic Russia be good for America. The same could be said of the rising China or even today of a rising geopolitically-focused India. To run the risk of repetition (no bad thing these days), resurgent nationalism brings with it a desire for conquest of a military and/or economic nature and again is linked to capturing domestic voters’ attention and make them focus on easy targets for their woes, this in a millenary approach that never stops working. In the end and as already stated nationalism is not patriotism, the latter which is absolutely fine and is based on one’s natural pride for one’s country’s history, culture and achievements.  The aggregation of all the “my country first” will not make for a better world and will ensure a “zero sum game” road to conflict particularly among leading powers, resulting in large scale confrontation at a time when the nuclear threat of old was largely forgotten. And it would drive smaller nations to resort more easily to force to solve differences particularly at a rising time of the elected and non-elected despot at the their helm. The US would not benefit from such a world. No nation would in the end.        

One should be forgiving about Anton’s attempt as the task he set himself to achieve was indeed challenging if not impossible however the intellectual juggling and pirouettes. However what is clear with those pillars is that the Western liberal world order, which as Gérard Araud, the colourful departing French ambassador to Washington, said simply (and if only) ensured a peaceful Europe since 1945, is the target of the new Washington leadership (or lack thereof) that finds collective policy-making very unattractive if not repugnant. The current US leadership forgets that the beauty of the US-led Western world order, that was indeed based on collective thinking and action, is that it was also very much in the interest, short and long-term, of the US.

One feature of the current Trump administration and many of its alumni (knowing they tend not to say very long) is the relatively low quality of the individuals comprising it. And after they leave, they write, this mainly to exist as they find it difficult (a trend that will grow exponentially) to secure gainful employment in the private sector once their leave the administration (as an aside, that Anton had to leave when Bolton came on board says it all in terms of the human comedy – or tragedy – on display at the White House today). This post-fact rationalisation of the so-called new “America first” doctrine is valuable not by its poor contents but by its paucity and the quality of its author. However it should not be forgotten that such a piece can resonate in some quarters that are dying to secure such a rationalisation for what they gradually start perceiving as erratic behaviour of the greatest magnitude. Once the piper will have been paid as the policy consequences are more visible and felt (often by early supporters – see trade wars and Trump’s core base) the emperor will be naked but it will take time to restore things and having been right in the end is not a remedy. The remedy for America and the world as we and our parents built it, if ever found (not a forgone conclusion) will be in the ballot box in 2020 and, by the way, likely not through tactically ill-advised impeachment proceedings even if the multiple counts of obstruction of justice are good grounds and totally demeaning.

The sad feeling reading such non-sensical attempt at creating a doctrine from nothing is that the White House is now run and supported by grown-up “kids”, the few adults like McMasters or Mattis having indeed left the playground. Those who remain, whose main asset is loyalty to “the tribal chief” (to borrow from the FT’s Martin Wolf last week), skipped history classes and address crowds with decreasing historical memory as time goes by. This combination is a bad recipe for why history tends to repeat itself so it is our duty to follow Edmund Burke and at least “say something” lest the evil prevails.

Warmest regards,