'America First': How much should the US care about the rest of the world?

Foreign Policy

America seems to know what it's against, but what is it for? American isolationism has a checkered past, and not participating in global institutions is no longer a realistic option, says Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, and author of numerous foreign policy books. "When we hear President Trump and others talk about 'America first,' it raises a number of important questions," he says, defending America’s engagement in the world through trade and diplomacy. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

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TRANSCRIPT

CHRISTOPHER PREBLE: I think for those of us who have a certain skepticism of military intervention and focus on the last 15 to 20 years and really see—notwithstanding the heroic efforts of members of our military and the sacrifices they have made—just how difficult it is to achieve rather ambitious political objectives through the use of force, we have a tendency to focus therefore on what we’re against. 

We’re against intervening in wars that do not serve a clear compelling national interest and have a clear and achievable military objective. 

But it’s equally important for us to think about what type of engagement we are for. And I think that’s why it is so important to talk about trade, to talk about cultural engagement, to talk about why the United States is made stronger and better by regular interactions with the rest of the world. 

When we hear President Trump and others talk about “America first,” it raises a number of important questions. 

The first is: the first time this was really used in the United States was in the interwar period in the 1930s, which is understandably rather fraught. A result of that isolationism and separation from affairs in Europe and Asia is seen as one of the great failings of U.S. foreign policy. And so not being aware of sort of the historical baggage that comes with the term “America first” is bad enough. 

More importantly I think in the modern era, in the 21st century, it’s simply impossible and not wise for the United States to think that it cannot to be engaged with the rest of the world. 

They’re probably was a time early in our history where we were so focused on developing our own internal affairs and sort of building our markets here in the United States that we could trade with others but mostly be focused here at home. I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario anymore, and frankly I don’t want to live in the United States that’s not actively engaged with the rest of the world. So the real question is not so much “America first,” but what brand of American engagement with the rest of the world do we want? How do we get there? 

And I think that in many ways the way that President Trump talks about it it’s going in the wrong direction by throwing up trade barriers and sending a message to those who might wish to come to the United States they’re not welcome here; those who are here under dubious circumstances are being shown the door or being exported out of the country not always so gently. And I think it sends a pretty chilling message that the United States is not open for business. I know that’s not necessarily his intention, but I think that the notion that the United States can exist and thrive without being intricately connected with the rest of the world is simply false and dangerous. 

It’s simply unbelievable that the United States could exist independent of the rest of the world. Where on earth would we go? And I think I would much rather live in a United States that is regularly trading with the rest of the world, that does engage and that is welcoming of others, visitors, students, other businesses, all of that sort of thing. And I think that’s the part of the conversation that we haven’t spent enough time talking about. Engagement with the rest of the world does not have to come at the barrel of a gun, and in fact for most of American history it didn’t come at the barrel of a gun. 

For most of American history the United States was an exemplar of the type of system, the type of liberal free system that we wanted other countries to emulate, and that model served us well for much of our history and I think it would serve us well in the modern era as well.