Putting Amer­i­can in­ter­ests first isn’t the prob­lem

Scholar Anne-Marie Slaugh­ter says we don’t have to ditch our ideals to ad­vance our goals

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Slaugh­terAM

Many Amer­i­cans were out­raged when Pres­i­dent Trump put the United States and Rus­sia on the same moral plane last week­end; he told Bill O’Reilly that Vladimir Putin may be a “killer,” but “there are a lot of killers. You think our coun­try’s so in­no­cent?” Con­dem­na­tion rip­pled across op-ed pages and so­cial me­dia. But Trump was just fol­low­ing the logic of the “Amer­ica first” credo he out­lined in his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress and dur­ing the cam­paign: We will not sit in judg­ment of other na­tions, be­cause they are do­ing what it takes to put their own in­ter­ests first, just as we should. At their core, in re­la­tions with one an­other, all na­tions are the same.

It is vi­tal to sort out pre­cisely what so many of us are up­set about. Trump was not say­ing any­thing that left-wing crit­ics of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy have not been ar­gu­ing for decades — that be­fore we crit­i­cize, sanc­tion and in­deed in­vade other na­tions, we would do well to re­mem­ber our own sins: the coups, mur­ders, civil­ian deaths, de­struc­tion and desta­bi­liza­tion that we have of­ten wrought in other coun­tries.

More broadly, the ba­sic elements of “Amer­ica first” have plenty of le­git­i­mate his­tor­i­cal an­tecedents, from Hamil­ton to Jef­fer­son, and should in­vite a vig­or­ous and wel­come de­bate. The deeper is­sue is less about for­eign pol­icy than Amer­i­can iden­tity: an as­sault on the

idea and ideals that bind us to­gether as a na­tion.

Here are the core elements of “Amer­ica first,” as the pres­i­dent ex­plained them: “We will fol­low two sim­ple rules: Buy Amer­i­can and hire Amer­i­can. We will seek friend­ship and good­will with the na­tions of the world — but we do so with the un­der­stand­ing that it is the right of all na­tions to put their own in­ter­ests first. We do not seek to im­pose our way of life on any­one, but rather to let it shine as an ex­am­ple. We will shine for ev­ery­one to fol­low.”

Try to sep­a­rate the mes­sage from the mes­sen­ger and the style from the sub­stance. Put aside the racist his­tor­i­cal con­no­ta­tions of “Amer­ica first,” which are un­known to the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans. Imag­ine that a leader you sup­port and trust was say­ing the same thing.

In this light, “buy Amer­i­can and hire Amer­i­can” is an ex­treme ver­sion of an eco­nomic na­tion­al­ist tra­di­tion that dates back to Alexan­der Hamil­ton, who fa­vored pro­tec­tion of Amer­i­can in­dus­tries, at least un­til they could com­pete on the global stage. The Hamil­ton Project, a main­stream bi­par­ti­san ini­tia­tive based at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, rests on the be­lief both in mar­kets as en­gines of eco­nomic growth and in the use of gov­ern­ment power “to en­hance and guide mar­ket forces.” If those mar­ket forces fa­vor the in­ter­ests of for­eign work­ers over those of Amer­i­can work­ers, even if Amer­i­can con­sumers ben­e­fit from lower prices, why shouldn’t we put Amer­i­can work­ers first?

Amer­ica was founded not on na­tional prin­ci­ples but on uni­ver­sal ones. That is the core of the Amer­i­can idea — that all hu­man be­ings, not just Amer­i­cans, are cre­ated equal.

Of course, as econ­o­mists and busi­ness lead­ers point out, au­toma­tion has cost far more jobs than off­shoring; trade ex­pands the eco­nomic pie, and it’s up to us to di­vide it more fairly; and a beg­gar-thy-neigh­bor pol­icy would lead to a global re­ces­sion, leav­ing all of us — un­em­ployed Amer­i­cans most of all — worse off. All true. Still, why not con­di­tion any new trade deals on cor­po­rate com­mit­ments to pro­vide new jobs in the United States, or on tax re­form to fund in­fra­struc­ture projects that would cre­ate many Amer­i­can jobs? Take the prof­its de­rived from the abil­ity to op­er­ate in a global econ­omy and put them to work in the ser­vice of na­tional pros­per­ity. Such views at least de­serve a hear­ing and care­ful thought.

Trump’s in­sis­tence that “it is the right of all na­tions to put their own in­ter­ests first” is just a blunt re­state­ment of Kissin­ge­rian re­al­ism: the propo­si­tion that in the ab­sence of a world gov­ern­ment, all na­tions seek power to be able to achieve their in­ter­ests in com­pe­ti­tion with other na­tions. Any high-minded moral claims to the con­trary are dan­ger­ous pre­ten­sions.

Re­al­ism com­mands sub­stan­tial sup­port on both the right (Brent Scowcroft, Richard Haass) and the left (Joe Bi­den, Les Gelb), for moral and prag­matic rea­sons. It pro­fesses to of­fer a clear-eyed view of hu­man na­ture and the work­ings of power, with the moral case that the pur­suit of ideals in­evitably ends in tears. The diplo­mat Ge­orge F. Ken­nan, who de­vised Amer­ica’s Cold War “con­tain­ment” strat­egy, rued the “le­gal­ist-moral­ist” tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy that led to ad­ven­tur­ism in the pur­suit of great causes.

The left is quick (and right) to point out the hor­rific toll in Amer­i­can and for­eign lives caused by U.S. ef­forts to save cap­i­tal­ist gov­ern­ments (Viet­nam) or in­stall demo­cratic ones (Iraq), as well as the phys­i­cal de­struc­tion of coun­tries and the desta­bi­liza­tion of re­gions. On the right, Henry Kissinger him­self makes the case in his lat­est book, ar­gu­ing that “its dis­tinc­tively ide­al­is­tic vi­sion of world or­der” drove the United States into five wars, three of which (Viet­nam, Iraq, Afghanistan) it “aban­doned . . . mid­stream as in­ad­e­quately trans­for­ma­tive or mis­con­ceived.”

Even for re­al­ists, how­ever, the prob­lem is how Trump de­fines our na­tional in­ter­ests. He in­sists, for in­stance, on get­ting what we pay for from other na­tions, im­me­di­ately and di­rectly. This vi­sion of “Amer­ica first” de­mands a re­asser­tion of na­tion­al­ist free­dom of ac­tion in the world and a re­jec­tion of the mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions that the United States and its al­lies have boldly and painstak­ingly built over the past 60 years. Yet Trump’s pre­de­ces­sors in both par­ties have be­lieved that uphold­ing the in­ter­na­tional or­der that we’ve led (and un­der­writ­ten) since World War II is it­self a na­tional in­ter­est, be­cause it pro­vides a mea­sure of peace, sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity that we would lose if global pol­i­tics de­scends once again into a free-forall. In po­lit­i­cal sci­ence jar­gon, that or­der is built on “dif­fuse rec­i­proc­ity,” the un­der­stand­ing that if we pro­vide se­cu­rity and an open and sta­ble global econ­omy, our al­lies and even neu­tral coun­tries will re­pay us over time.

As some­one who came of age dur­ing the Cold War, with mem­o­ries of World War II fresh in my par­ents’ and grand­par­ents’ minds, I have long em­braced this creed. But many for­eign pol­icy ex­perts, in­clud­ing me, have also ar­gued that our in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions need ma­jor re­form; that it is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine that the world in 2045 will be run by in­sti­tu­tions de­signed for the global power struc­ture of 1945. And Pres­i­dent Barack Obama him­self pushed hard on our NATO al­lies to con­trib­ute more to our com­mon de­fense.

Trump’s third propo­si­tion, that the United States should not im­pose “our way of life” but in­stead serve as an ex­am­ple for oth­ers to fol­low, also has a long pedi­gree, be­gin­ning with Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s ad­vice to steer clear of en­tan­gling al­liances and Thomas Jef­fer­son’s pre­dic­tion that the “ball of lib­erty” would roll around the world with­out Amer­i­can help. But our founders and our great­est lead­ers would all be hor­ri­fied by the ex­am­ple Trump em­bod­ies: open con­tempt for other na­tions (even al­lies and their lead­ers), will­ing­ness to bring back tor­ture and “black sites,” a view that win­ning is the only thing and jus­ti­fies ev­ery­thing.

At the most fun­da­men­tal level, Trump would sub­sti­tute a crude na­tion­al­ism for the soul of Amer­i­can pa­tri­o­tism. He would have us pledge, as he said in his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress, “to­tal al­le­giance to the United States of Amer­ica. And through our loy­alty to our coun­try, we will re­dis­cover our loy­alty to each other.” That sounds like the tribal na­tion­al­ism of the Prus­sians, or the will­ing­ness of mil­lions of peas­ants to die for Mother Rus­sia. The na­tion is the high­est value; its cit­i­zens are ul­ti­mately ex­pend­able for its con­tin­u­a­tion or its tri­umph.

Amer­ica, how­ever, was founded not on na­tional prin­ci­ples but on uni­ver­sal ones. That is the core of the Amer­i­can idea — that all hu­man be­ings, not just Amer­i­cans, are cre­ated equal. All have nat­u­ral rights to life, lib­erty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. We are en­ti­tled to those rights not be­cause of our na­tion­al­ity but be­cause of our hu­man­ity. Our na­tional ex­per­i­ment is meant to demon­strate what is pos­si­ble — demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, equal pro­tec­tion of the laws, a bill of enu­mer­ated rights for all cit­i­zens and all per­sons on our soil — for peo­ple ev­ery­where.

Ev­ery great Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has em­braced this creed. Woodrow Wil­son put it best. Speak­ing to a group of newly nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­cans, he said that they had sworn an oath not to any per­son or set of tem­po­rary gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials but “to a great ideal, to a great body of prin­ci­ples, to a great hope of the hu­man race.” Abra­ham Lin­coln sim­i­larly de­scribed the union as the “last best hope of earth.”

Wil­son em­bod­ied Amer­i­can his­tory in his com­bi­na­tion of grand ideals and per­sonal hypocrisy, striv­ing and fall­ing short. (He was an avowed racist.) We are not bet­ter than ev­ery­one else. But we pub­licly an­nounce our in­ten­tion to hold our­selves to higher stan­dards — not to ac­cept that we are “killers,” just like other na­tions. Striv­ing to at­tain those ideals, and hold­ing our­selves to ac­count when we fail, is a cen­tral part of what holds us to­gether as a peo­ple.

To me, that is what it means to be an Amer­i­can. Not loy­alty to a flag, a ter­ri­tory or even to my fel­low cit­i­zens. But al­le­giance to some­thing big­ger and no­bler, that crosses racial, eth­nic, re­li­gious, gen­der and cul­tural lines and gives us a sense of com­mon iden­tity and pur­pose. We have done ter­ri­ble things in the world and at home. But we can never sim­ply ac­cept those things or jus­tify them by point­ing to the equally bad be­hav­ior of other na­tions. If we do, we tram­ple pre­cisely what is best in us, what has and can again make us great. Anne-Marie Slaugh­ter is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of New Amer­ica, a non­par­ti­san think tank, and au­thor of “The Idea That Is Amer­ica: Keep­ing Faith with Our Val­ues in a Dan­ger­ous World.”

SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES

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