The effects of a concept are different from, yet depend on, the definition of that concept. Depicting Donald Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, the February 4 cover of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, illustrates this relationship. His left hand clutches a blood-soaked sword. His right hand holds up the blood-dripping head of Lady Liberty. The concept written on the stage is ‘America First’.
This concept peppers the pronouncements of the Trump Raj. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” the new President intoned in his inaugural address on January 20 in front of a large (never mind how large) crowd. Does America First mean self-interested economic and international isolationism?
Maybe yes. He said in the inaugural that America “will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American”.
Maybe no. At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, he professed: “America is a nation of believers. In towns all across our land, it’s plain to see what we easily forget… that the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.”
Maybe yes. Back to the inaugural address, in which he asserted realism in global affairs: “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
Maybe no. Later in that address, he proposed America as a metaphor to “shine as an example for everyone to follow.”
Maybe yes. Again to the Prayer Breakfast, where he prayerfully boasted: “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out. Okay? That’s what I do. I fix things… We have to be tough… We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore…”
Evidently, America First is a confusing concept, which explains why its champions tout its effects as salubrious, but critics as nefarious. So polarized are the two sides that each points to the same effects to prove its case. Walling off bad hombres, deportations, judicial independence, Trans-Pacific Partnership withdrawal. Amidst ambiguity, good and evil lexicography is poured.
Mahatma Gandhi appreciated the risks of galvanizing crowds with an ambiguous concept. In the Quit India movement, the process – non-violent non-cooperation with the British Raj – mattered as much as the outcome.
What, Pray Tell, Ought ‘America First’ To Mean?
History informs the answer. America First was a slogan President Woodrow Wilson used in his successful bid for re-election in 1916 to summarise his pledge to keep the country out of the First World War - a non-intervention pledge he broke in April 1917 following unrestrained German attacks on American ships and intelligence in the infamous ‘Zimmermann Telegram’ revealing Germany sought an alliance with Mexico against America. In June 1940, Yale Law School was the incubator for the America First mission, as Marc Wortman writes in his 2016 book 1941: Fighting the Shadow War.
Privileged circles at Harvard and beyond – mostly Republican – joined. The Chicago-based Committee for America First coordinated an anti-war movement.
Keeping the country from intervening yet again in European conflict was, in the best light, a mission redolent of George Washington’s admonition in his 1796 Farewell Address to stay out of European entanglements. The famous aviator Charles Lindbergh expanded America First to mean isolationism and the independent pursuit of national destiny, and gave voice to a hateful anti-Semitic element in the term.
The December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack supposedly ended the America First mission, and isolationism seemed isolated to pariah states.
Today, international trade – both imports and exports – account for about 25 percent of America’s GDP.
Its navy ensures freedom of navigation for commerce. To pursue autarky (i.e., no trade) would be to plagiarize from Pyongyang, and invite a catastrophic fall in American output and employment. To cease protecting international sea lanes would be to change the conclusion of the movie Captain Phillips from reality to fantasy.
The Contradiction In ‘America First’
If the Trump Raj intends America First to mean reducing these engagements, then it should define the term candidly as ‘American Decline’. Despite its aversion to the role of world’s policeman, it cannot retreat.
Moreover, reductionism requires recognition of regions still in America’s interests. That line drawing is fraught with peril, as America learned when President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, excluded Korea from the Asian Defense Perimeter. In June 1950, communists from the North poured over the 38th Parallel.
Here is the fundamental contradiction of defining America First as setting the nation apart to make it great again: isolationism assures decline.
Consider a little-known example: intellectual property enforcement at Salaleh.
This Omani port receives containers of merchandise produced across the Middle East, East Africa, and Asia Pacific regions, which are trans-shipped to major American and European markets.
Contrary to what the manifests of some ships entering Salaleh say, the containers might have pirated articles that infringe on a copyright, such as DVDs, CDs, software, and books, and counterfeit goods that infringe on a trademark, auto parts, cosmetics, eyeglass frames, shoes, and textiles and apparel.
Who holds the valid IP rights? American firms.
The manifests also may obfuscate the routing, not showing, for instance, that goods said to be destined for Aqaba actually are headed for Baltimore or Southampton, after their containers are switched at a warehouse in Aqaba.
The United States has helped Omani customs authorities screen containers for weapons of mass destruction – that is in America’s national security interest. But, has the United States helped Oman, a strategically vital country with which it has had a bilateral free trade agreement since 2009, build capacity to identify, trace, and seize containers with merchandise infringing on American IP rights? That assistance bolsters America’s economy.
Not to provide it, thanks to ‘America First’ isolationism, is to invite the decline of America’s IP industries.
‘First’ Versus The Common Good
There is another justification to provide Oman with the help it needs to help America: sacred scripture, to which many in the Trump Raj turn for justification. In other words, theology also informs the answer to what America First should mean.
Two millennia ago, Jesus eschewed the life of a hermit in favor of engaging with crowds, and in an encounter with a rich, young ruler, said: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).
To focus on being “first” is to focus on one’s own survival, to stop imagining – dare it be said, dreaming – a common good, and to let conventional rankings trump enduring values.
That focus is self-destructive, akin to racing to church while elbowing out others for the front pew, and then rushing out in a mad dash for Sunday brunch, which if the entire congregation did, would consume all available resources in what lawyers call the tragedy of the commons.
Here, then, is a spiritually and economically defensible definition of America First for the Trump Raj: ‘America First’ means priority for the last among us in the global community. America cherishes the prosperity of the last, regardless of faith (or lack thereof), color, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, plus anticipates the potential of the last to be its future best customers and suppliers. To engage with and empower them is to catalyze American renewal.
Raj Bhala is Associate Dean for International and Comparative Law and Rice Distinguished Professor, The University of Kansas, School of Law. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the State of Kansas or the University.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team .