Dear Partners in thought,
I grew up as a well-off Paris left bank kid who was born fifteen years after WW2 and enjoyed watching westerns and other Hollywood movies in his spare time. Actors like Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck or John Wayne projected features and values that seemed good like drive, honesty, righteousness, reliability and trustworthiness. The good guys were easy to find and so where the bad ones (and agreed, the Indians did not get at times the roles they deserved). The view of America I had from Europe was also admittedly romanticised thanks to the development of its unique soft power tools. And yes, even if Margaret Mitchell might have been the initial culprit, classics like Gone with the Wind made many of us like the roguish Rett Butler while finding these grey uniforms to be quite nice-looking, not caring much at the time about the plantation side shows, with due apologies to BLM (in our defence we equally liked Guess who’s Coming to Dinner Sydney Poitier, a pioneer in his own right). America was not perfect but we did not want to look for flaws, focusing on its inspiring sides. We simply liked it, to different degrees, as it was not only our saviour (so were the Soviets but there was no Russian version of The Longest Day while Central Europeans did not seem to enjoy the red rule), it was also the bearer of new refreshing things like modern-feeling democracy, benevolent leadership and sound universal values to a tired and old Europe which for kids like me did fit with a badly needed search for a New World-type rebirth. America was a welcome “cool” friend we wanted to spend time and grow up with. The two words that came to mind for us were not America First but American Dream, however naïve we might have been, and however possibly crafty the message makers.
America had initially been a reluctant leader, not backing the new-born League of Nations at the end of WW1, while already flirting with the populist concept of an America First during the 1930s courtesy of a Lindbergh who had otherwise helped bridged continents. Pearl Harbor changed the American approach, triggering an unavoidable one-way ticket to world leadership. America was smart as it found ways to both push its strategic interests astutely at all levels, while benefitting from a strong partnership backing from Western Europe and a Japan, itself on the road to redemption. America displayed universal values that ensured its leadership was accepted by the whole Western world and beyond, as all benefitted from it, even if it was always a softer and smarter interpretation of America First that simply was based on a true win-win for the US and its allies – all the more in the context of a Cold War. This approach, that some found to be deceptive, as hiding the true American agenda, worked even if developments like Vietnam went off-script. For my friends and me, America was not just a country, it was a state of mind – where all was possible through hard work and resolve. There were in our minds no limits to what Americans could achieve. We all wanted to be Americans, prompting many, like me, to want to study there and start rewriting a life scenario. Even if somewhat naïvely, we bought America even more than it sold itself, simply on the strength of its “soft power” message of hope for a better world and life which we could build “together”. All of this would have been impossible in the event of an America First approach which would have negated both Washington’s soft and hard powers, not to mention strategic objectives.
As with all populist slogans and movements, Trump’s America First astutely targeted deep grievances experienced by people who felt “left out” by the speed of the whole wide world, the perceived impact of its globalisation and at times the rise of the big cities and its detached elites who also related poorly, at their own costs, to another America. As with all populist movements the world over, those feeling left out had arguably valid reasons for their predicaments while their domestic nemesis did not understand their well-founded drivers like cultural identity or the need for respect. However, they went for easy elixir-like and feel good solutions to solve their complex problems, which the win only-focused populists had rightly found a very efficient way to get ahead. America First in an ironical twist of fate was indeed personified in a devilish fit by a man with no values and a terrible style, at times (rarely) with sound objectives but always with dreadful means at hand. In some ways America First could be seen by some liberal radicals as the foreign policy extension of a failed and ageing world leading construct where an appalling healthcare system and police brutality had become the norm and fairness now belonged in the dictionary. America First, the misnomer, as if any country was not driven by its own priorities, started to alienate its own allies (known as rivals or deadbeats), very often forgetting the very values it had successfully pushed forward and benefitted from for 70 years. America First eventually hurt America (including in real terms Trump’s support base, which did not seem to mind) and then the world while nobody really benefitted beyond the pleasure provided for some zealots by the strong slogans and the lively red cap gatherings. One of the direct victims of Trump’s America First globally was its soft power that had been a strategic tool far more powerful than its ICBMs and brand-named multinationals as a feeling of rejection was increasingly felt, especially among European millennials and even more so their younger followers.
America First will likely be gone following the November 3rd election, which while it could always bring surprises, is a done deal, so wide are the gaps between Trump and Biden at the national level as well as in most “battleground” states. The real question today is: will Texas go blue? While most media would agree with what is a foregone conclusion, a combination of “anything is possible” and a desire to keep writing and posting interesting pieces in newspapers and social media, while endlessly debating the race on TV shows, will hold sway until November 3rd – and some say beyond. It is likely that the landslide that will take place will include the US Senate, allowing Biden full control over America’s destiny over the short term. We should then see and hear the America First slogan being dropped, this to the benefit of America and the world. To the benefit of America as it suffered gradually from both self-harm and a loss of reputation for leadership and common sense, which was only vividly accentuated by the way President Trump managed the deadly pandemic. To the world as countries, whether friends or rivals of America, need a coherent and reliable US foreign policy driven by rationality and not grandstanding and tactically inept policies. To be fair some have said that Trump’s foreign policy was his best case for re-election (given the poor overall scorecard at hand) as seen with the largely symbolic UAE-Israel and Sudan-Israel agreements or forcing the Europeans to be more independent on defence (the latter which was not really his core motivation). Whereas Trump was at times right with his end goals, like ensuring China behaved fairly on trade and intellectual property matters, doing it alone and military style, without allies like the EU, was bound to fail as the widening trade deficit now shows while hurting his core base of Midwest exporting farmers as soya bean producers came to realise. America First policies often ended making everybody second, including the US.
The restoration of American leadership under President Biden and his team of seasoned foreign policy “experts” (let’s stress and welcome back the word) will likely mark the gradual end of America First and the return of a win-win approach for all within the Western bloc, all while foes and rivals will know more clearly what America means and what to expect. America will be a major driver on climate change and health matters, re-joining the Paris Agreement and the WHO, restarting a multilateral approach that served both the US and the world well for decades. Washington will seek more internationally-manageable solutions to the key issues of our times, be they dealing with Iran or the current pandemic, which will make them more successful in their outcomes. This work will involve repairing stressed relations with once solid allies like with European nations part of NATO, who will also be more inclined to participate more fully to their own defence via NATO and gradually through the EU. America will likely no longer cajole “personality compatible” dictators for the sake of elusive gains like in Asia. Not everything will go back to what they were under Barack Obama, who actually started a distancing from Europe through his Asia pivot, but the style, language and empathy will come back. While the international rules-based multilateral liberal order will benefit from the tone of old of a President Biden, America will benefit from a stronger network of its Western allies also at a time when China will keep developing its naturally-expected and at times assertive rise. Productive multilateralism will take over inefficient America First. A Biden era will bring America and the Western world back to a true win-win status, where unlike in the Trump administration lingo, not only one side (like China for them) wins and the benefits will grow mutually bigger.
I would like my American Dream back, warts and all.