America First: what does it mean and what will it look like?

The phrase America First was used in a campaign against US intervention in Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Next to use it was Pat Buchanan, when he ran for President for the Reform Party in 2000. It is unclear how the President interprets the phrase exactly, but history, and the President’s own words, show it involves recalibrating US foreign policy to focus on American interests as opposed to the interests of American allies, the advancement of liberal democracy or the provision of aid to developing countries.  It also suggests a reversal of the Wilsonian tradition of foreign policy encouraging the development of other countries, both in terms of economic and political development.

The consequences of America First are hard to predict, however comments by the President about NATO and Putin give us a hint of what it will look like. New alliances may govern the international system, at the expense of the advancement and protection of freedom and democracy. For example, it could mean co-operation with Russia in the war against terror – maybe even co-operation with the Assad regime. America First puts fighting terrorism over fighting for democracy, (because democracy in Syria has nothing to do with US national security). General Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor to the President, is reported to have contacted Ambassador Kislayk to talk about the sanctions currently placed on Russia by the United States. Ending these sanctions would be the first step towards active co-operation with the Russian Federation against a shared enemy: Islamic terrorism. In my view, the idea of America as a beacon of liberty and democracy is incompatible with this kind of alliance with Russia.

Trump’s statement to CNN that “Islam hates us”, his introduction of an immigration ban and his comment that he will, “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth” give the impression that Islam is a monolithic block of radical Muslims aspiring to destroy America, which is simply untrue.

According to The Atlantic, Trump is practising what is known as ‘civilizational conservatism’. This type of conservatism does not care that Putin is an authoritarian who is currently supporting a regime in Syria. It does not care that Russia does not have the same values as the US (despite what Trump suggests). All civilizational conservatives value is the concept of Western civilisation, which is linked to Judeo-Christianity, rejects multiculturalism and is vehemently opposed to Islam.

political rally with crowds and huge American flag on stage

Supporters and protesters of republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waiting to hear him speak in Costa Mesa CA | Photograph Mickeledray/Shutterstock


A crucial element of America First is trade. The President has already withdrawn from the TPP, a deal that would have meant further investment into Southeast Asia, at a time when the Chinese are building their economic power in the area. What this suggests to US allies is that America will no longer buy their products and use their labour to produce cheaper goods – protectionism has come to town. As Trump stated, “We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon”. This indicates that he believes globalisation has been a negative force for the US. Trump has shown little interest in the international benefits of globalisation, massive reductions in poverty and the fostering of trade connections across the globe.

America First does not value international development either. It quite literally puts America first, and everybody else second. Collective security, advancing democracy, fostering economic growth in developing countries and the protection of human rights were all part of the liberal, pre-Trump world order. USAID does critical work achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. America First suggests a complete abandonment of the traditional role foreign aid and international development have played in US foreign policy.

The plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty reads

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This is what America is. It is not just a country – it is an idea, of a land where people can be free to improve their lives, escape poverty and make new lives. It was this idea of America that Woodrow Wilson wanted to spread around the world, of using US military and economic might not so much for its own protection, but for the development of the international community, and it is the idea of America that has led to the greatest advancements in the history of international development. America First is a direct threat to the idea of America and to the development of a world order that values democracy and economic opportunity, not just for Americans or Christians, but for everyone worldwide – no matter their race or religion.

Thumbnail image: Skryl Sergey /Shutterstock



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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