What Trump means by putting “America First”

Summary: Pundits treat “America First” as a meaningless slogan. Professor Maximilian Forte explains that its the connecting thread of Trump’s views. He shows how it fits in the battle to control America’s foreign policy. This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post describing Trump’s speech.

Trump wants to put "America First".

Donald Trump’s “America First” Foreign Policy

By Maximilian C. Forte from Zero Anthropology
Reposted with his generous permission

If one had to summarize and synthesize Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions, it looks something like this: he is against the US acting as policeman of the world; against propping up Saudi Arabia; doesn’t really care about Ukraine; declares NATO obsolete; prefers Eisenhower to Reagan; and is against NAFTA, TPP, and other free trade deals.

When it comes to his philosophy, matters become trickier. It would be just as difficult to argue that Donald Trump is pro­-imperialist as it would be to argue that he is anti-imperialist. He certainly does not define himself by using the word “imperialist,” one way or another — so this will likely always remain the construct of the analyst, projected onto Trump. Trump rejects the label of “isolationism”.

He endorses the “America First” banner. He does not neatly fit into any of the now dominant categories, and that is part of the reason why some of those listed above may be tempted to call him an iconoclast. However, not fitting into any of the dominant ideological categories, for a leading US presidential candidate, is itself already a major departure from the past 60 years of US foreign policy history. As others have argued, “Trump is repudiating the entire framework of U.S. foreign policy since 1947”.

There are other departures. Trump is not radically anti-NATO — but his statements about NATO represent another big break from the recent past, especially the last 26 years. In context then, they can appear “radical” by contrast. Trump has also been clear that he does not favour ringing the globe with US military bases, and prefers diplomacy over aggression — there is “too much destruction out there,” he said today, after condemning Obama-Clinton policies for a foreign policy that has “blazed the path of destruction in its wake”.

Trump - on security

Trump is clearly despised by the neoconservative clique that has dominated US foreign policy for more than a decade, along with its neoliberal humanitarian interventionist twin. After all, it was a neoliberal risk assessment group that ranked Donald Trump in the top 10 of risks to the world economy, claiming this is the first time it has listed a US presidential candidate. While Trump was invited to speak at the Center for the National Interest, earlier its flagship magazine had called for “stopping Trump” citing him as a threat to US national security.

The disfavour with which he has been received by the hegemonic class is also reflected in the fact that Donald Trump is near the bottom of the list of recipients of donations from the US military defence industry. Even Bernie Sanders has received vastly more in donations from people employed as military contractors, than Trump has. Trump has arguably made “imperial decline” not just palatable to the masses, but even desirable in some respects, unlike any other candidate. In a basic sense, this notion of decline (which underpins his campaign theme), coupled with his rejection of expansionism, pits him against the mainstream of American Exceptionalism, and clearly against US triumphalism.

Much of the pervasive and insidious penetration wrought by US liberal imperialism since the advent of George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order,” continuing to the present, is clearly in jeopardy from Trump’s attacks. Trump has rejected regime change, democracy promotion abroad (and hence some of the cultural imperialism that goes with that), and the adventurism of humanitarian interventionism. He is a staunch critic of what was done to Iraq by Bush and to Libya by Obama-Clinton.

NATO Operation Unifed Protector
Destroying Libya by our Responsibility to Protect.

As Dennis Miller recently said on Fox News: “We live in an age of the violent do-gooder” {see the video}. I am not one to normally quote Miller approvingly, but this is an excellent characterization. Humanitarian intervention has been especially a signature policy of the Democrats, and George W. Bush. If any position needs to be “justified” in terms of anti-imperialism, it is the position of most of the US and European left, dubbed the “cruise missile left” by some.

As I recall, most of the leading anti-interventionist voices in the US media, at the time of the war on Libya in 2011, were to be found in conservative publications — the familiar names being those of Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and George Will. Most of the left was either silent, or applauded Obama and celebrated the spread of US views of “human rights,” supported US “democracy promotion,” and favoured regime change drunk on the celebration of the mythical “Arab Spring”. Thus, among Bernie Sanders’ celebrity supporters, we find Rosario Dawson {see her photos from Venezuela here and here} who declared her support for right-ring protesters in Venezuela who were seeking regime change against a leftist government, and Mark Ruffalo {see his tweets about Libya here and here}, who repeatedly declared his support for regime change in Libya. Donald Trump has rejected the “violent do-gooder,” and for those of us who are serious about anti-interventionism, and against the US civilizing mission, then this is a refreshing change.

Trump’s foreign policy is largely an extension of his domestic socio-economic policy, to a degree that contrasts with other presidents and presidential candidates more than it compares. It is one that is fundamentally anti-free trade. Only a small minority of Trump’s supporters think that “free trade is good” — 27% — while 55% of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, by contrast, think free trade is good for the US. Of course, as numerous scholars have long observed, there is a continual balance between domestic and external factors when it comes to the formulation and implementation of foreign policy — that much is not “new”. What is important about an emphasis on domestic socio-economic priorities is the kind of dynamic that introduces into foreign policy, which is substantially different from one that pursues free trade to suit the corporate oligarchy.

This and previous issues have been archived on a dedicated site: ENCIRCLING EMPIRE.
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Maximilian ForteAbout the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numberous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

See yesterday’s post with excerpts from Trump’s foreign policy speech, highlighting the exceptional parts and rebutting some of his falsehoods.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Donald Trump and Campaign 2016, about ways to Reform America’s Politics, and especially these about populism…


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