Donald Trump: A Unique Figure in the History of U.S. Foreign Policy?

by Nicole Brodie

31 July 2019

President Donald Trump at a Make America Great Again rally in Mesa, Arizona, on Oct. 19, 2018. (Image credit: Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

“Our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.”

This quote, from the 2016 Republican National Convention, is a fantastic summation of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy stance. American foreign policy for the past 70 years has been one of interventionism and globalism. Trump is the only post-Second World War American president to explicitly endorse an ‘America First’ position – a phrase with significant nationalist and isolationist history. The phrase was originally used during the First World War by Woodrow Wilson and other government figures, to represent American neutrality. It was then co-opted in the lead up to America’s involvement in World War II by the America First party, whose anti-Semitic, pro-fascist rhetoric led to it being disbanded in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. This group infamously included far-right, pro-Nazi figures such as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. It is difficult to believe Trump and his speech-writing team do not know the historical implications of using such a phrase when referring to his foreign policy, especially when there is a demonstrated understanding of the historical background of his other major slogan, ‘Make America Great ‘, having referenced its prior use by Ronald Reagan several times.

Trump is not the first isolationist president in American history – the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would not get involved in any European affairs,  was a cornerstone of American foreign policy for nearly a century, and Woodrow Wilson was re-elected due to his isolationist policies. It is important to consider the nature of American isolationism at the time, though, as America was not yet a superpower, and at the time had little prior involvement with European politics. However, with the rise of a liberal international order led by the United States in the aftermath of World War II such political views fell to the wayside. World War II made America a superpower, and as the only Western power left relatively unharmed, it began to not only get involved in, but lead global politics. Since then, America’s involvement and influence in international relations has only grown.

Trump is the first president in the past 70 years to express such isolationist opinions openly. His reasoning for having such a nationalist viewpoint is perhaps what makes him a truly unique figure in the history of American foreign policy. Past isolationist presidents have acted largely on the current state of the world and what was best for America in the present– but Trump’s brand of foreign policy has mostly been reactionary, stemming from his own ideas of how America has been treated, not from its current situation. While it could be argued that both Monroe and Wilson were also acting on their own perceptions, both their policies reflected the status of America at the time, as a nation already fairly removed from the rest of the world’s affairs. President Trump, however, is contradicting America’s existing role and wanting to take an entirely different direction. Trump’s vision of America is of a nation which does not bow to the demands of other nations if those demands are not to America’s direct benefit

 “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories any more. We used to have victories but [now] we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China, in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”

This unwillingness to compromise is dangerous, as America’s influence throughout the past 70 years has been so strong specifically due to its relationships with allies and its reputation as a champion of liberal democracy – though this has been damaged in recent years, especially in the Middle East where backing down from its existing commitments can only harm America’s international standing, as well as the strength of its alliances – one only needs to look at the opinions recently expressed by various world leaders to see this. Trump has also demonstrated a highly revisionist view of American history. Foreign policy moves hailed as triumphs by previous administrations are derided by him and his supporters as examples of America getting taken advantage of – NAFTA, NATO, and the Paris Accords, for example. Every American president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama has supported the strengthening of America’s international ties and the expansion of liberal democracy – all except Donald Trump.

“We want to take our country back. Our country is disappearing. You look at the kind of deals we make. You look at what’s happening, our country is going in the wrong direction, and so wrong, and it’s got to be stopped and it’s got to be stopped fast.”

Trump’s following makes him a unique figure when considering his foreign policy. A significant proportion of his supporter base is intensely focused on identity and culture, and specifically on how theirs is being attacked. This in itself is not particularly unusual, but the way in which his supporters eschew the existing political system in favour of something, and someone, entirely different certainly is. They believe their identity as the ‘average’ middle-class Christian American, and by extension, ‘America’ itself, is being erased by an increasingly multicultural and globalist United States. Many fervently believe Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ stance will reverse that process. Even without focusing on the number of far right attacks that have occurred since he took office, Trump’s policies of nationalism and Americanism have allowed a resurgence in such sentiments among the public (and not just in America). Trump himself has decried the far-right and their ethno-nationalism, but his foreign policy stances have had a bolstering effect on them, and have allowed them to interpret his words as supporting their politics. It is unusual for any president to have such an intense following, especially ones who twist his every word to legitimize their views.

Trump’s best-known slogans may not be unique (both ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ have been used in past campaigns by Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, respectively), but his views on foreign policy certainly are, as are his actions and words. He is the only president since before the Second World War (a significant amount of time for a nation only 243 years old) to renounce America’s globalist policies, and the only one in the history of the nation to buck the established tradition quite so thoroughly (and gleefully) based, seemingly, on largely his own opinions. This return to isolationist sentiment has already hurt America’s relationships with its allies, and can only further harm both its relationships and its influence. Trump himself summed up his worldview quite clearly:

“You know they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned, it’s called a nationalist, and I say ‘really, we’re not supposed to use that word?’ Do you know what I am? I’m a nationalist.”


Nicole Brodie is a third-year History and International Relations student at King’s College London. Her interests are American foreign policy and 20th century European history. You can find her on Twitter @nicoleebrodieThis article is the second of two winning essays of a writing competition jointly organised by the convenors of the module “Contemporary Issues in International History” and the Strife Blog.


Bibliography

Dunn, Susan. “Trump’s ‘America First’ Carries Ugly Echo.” CNN. April 28, 2016. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/27/opinions/trump-america-first-ugly-echoes-dunn/index.html.

Trump, Donald J. Speech, Republican National Convention, 21 July 2016. https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/full-transcript-donald-trump-nomination-acceptance-speech-at-rnc-225974

Trump, Donald J. Announcement of Presidental Bid. Speech, Trump Tower, 16 June 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/06/16/full-text-donald-trump-announces-a-presidential-bid/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.12b716055c01

Trump, Donald J. Foreign Policy Speech. Speech, Washington D.C., 27 April 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/28/us/politics/transcript-trump-foreign-policy.html

Trump, Donald J. Address at Liberty University. Speech, Liberty University (Lynchburg, Virginia), 18 January 2016. https://www.c-span.org/video/?403331-1/donald-trump-remarks-liberty-university

Trump, Donald J. Campaign Rally of Senator Ted Cruz. Speech, Houston, Texas, 22 October 2018. https://www.businessinsider.in/trump-declares-himself-a-nationalist-while-stumping-for-ted-cruz/articleshow/66327534.cms

 

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