Forging Trump’s peculiar isolationism
By M. Amiri
Perhaps Donald Trump’s most famous catchphrase all along his campaign trail was his “America First” slogan. A vague concept at the time, it has now translated itself into economic protectionism and political isolationism. Of course the two are two sides of the same coin, the latter manifest in Trump’s recent tariffs on imports and the former visible in Trump’s repeated threats to withdraw from international organizations – ironically organizations that have mostly been designed and promoted by the US.
In his inaugural address Trump made it clear that he believes international cooperation and participation in free trade has been detrimental to US interests: “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and competence of our country is dissipated over the horizon.”
Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, the Paris Climate Accord and the UN Commission on Human Rights are all instances where Trump’s distaste for cooperation and international engagement has actualized itself.
The ordinary American citizen also shares such sentiment and Trump knows this and capitalizes on it. Polls show only slightly more than a third of US citizens believe the American government should help other countries with their problems.
Coupled with years of long inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recent global economic meltdown that has been portrayed as the bitter fruit of global capitalists and their reckless behavior, US isolationism is once again back on the rise.
The founders of US isolationism
In his farewell address, George Washington famously declared his version of isolationism: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation.”
"It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world," he frankly continues in the speech.
Another founding father of the modern US polity echoes similar sentiments. Thomas Jefferson the third US president and a designer of the US constitution warns the newly-found nation that while free trade and commerce with other nations is good and that America should maintain “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations,” it should abstain from “entangling alliances with none.”
The founders’ isolationism is thus a political one and not Trump’s economic isolationism that eventually mutates into protectionism. The founders’ primary concern was getting caught in the entrenched rivalries of the Old Continent and also the lure of intervening in the domestic affairs of other nations on the pretext of humanitarian or moral intervention. In the words of another founder, John Quincy Adams, the United States should not scan the world "in search of monsters to destroy."
Such a theory of isolationism is so prominent in American political thought that Michael Hirsh claims “a majority of past US presidents going back to George Washington would probably welcome—and most of them, believe it or not, might well take Trump’s side.”
Twentieth century US isolationism
The founder’s isolationism carried on into the 20th century, and along with the Monroe doctrine became the cornerstone of US foreign policy.
At the opening of the 20th century President Woodrow Wilson did all he could to keep the US out of the bloody First World War in Europe. Finally after more than two and a half years from the start of the war and after the sinking of American commercial ships doing business with Britain by German submarines, did Washington enter the war in the April of 1917.
The Second World War repeated similar events. Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power in Europe did not initially shake American isolationism. Although the war began in September 1939, and by 1941 Nazi Germany was in control of most of Europe, Washington abstained from entering the war that it deemed a war of others.
Only was it the December Pearl Harbor attack of the Japanese in 1941 that overcame Washington’s inertia to interfere in the war. The US was the clear victor and benefactor of the war and actively participated to forge the new post-WWII order that included the design of new international institutions such as the UN that were to be heavily influenced by a new US vision about international relations.
The new vision was no longer isolationist and believed, at least in theory, that with the spread of global trade, international cooperation and international alliances among nations and especially among democracies, an era of global peace would usher maintaining US interests.
The start of the Cold War and the ensuing rivalry among the former USSR and the United States, made certain that the old isolationism of the founders would not endure anymore. The US was now the leader of the Western bloc and the main architect of international organizations, and at the same time headed the opposition to an Eastern bloc led by the Soviets.
A shift from the Monroe doctrine and its isolationist undertones to the Truman doctrine and its all-out interventionism is the most evident sign of Washington’s changing foreign policy after the Second World War. The US was now prepared to intervene in far away conflicts anywhere in the world from Vietnam to Afghanistan and from Latin America to the Middle East.
Trump’s neo-isolationism vs traditional isolationism
Resembling the isolationism of the founders, Donald Trump declared in his campaign trail back in 2016 that “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” Similar to Washington’s inaugural speech he further elaborated:
“I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down,” promising his potential voters that he would end such agreements.
And now Trump is exactly doing what he had promised, and that many initially thought were only rhetorical tools of populist persuasion. Aside from pulling out of a recent nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and the UN Human Rights Council, Trump has mulled with leaving trade treaties such as the WTO and NAFTA.
Comparing the founder’s isolationism to Trump’s version reveals a major difference. Oddly the businessman-turned-president’s isolationism has a strong economic flavor to it, and is much more comprehensive and pessimistic than older versions of isolationism.
For instance Axios‘s Jonathan Swan reported a source close to Trump as telling him, ““He’s threatened to withdraw 100 times,” pointing to the WTO. The unnamed source told Swan that Trump has frequently told advisers, "We always get fucked by them [the WTO]. I don’t know why we’re in it. The WTO is designed by the rest of the world to screw the United States."
Tariffs and punitive measures are a new component to Trump’s isolationism that was only briefly toyed with in the 30s and after the Great Depression. While the founders had constantly encouraged free trade and commerce with other nations, Trump’s overall tone in this regard is discouraging.
The Trump administration now has trade conflicts with a host of nations including China, Europe, Canada, and Mexico over trade and in the most famous case has levied a 25% tariff on imports of steel, and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports, on the European Union, Canada, India and Mexico.
In response the EU and other countries have imposed a range of tariffs on American goods worth $3.3 billion in a tit-for-tat responses to Trump's decision to apply his tariffs, escalating a tense situation that might transform into an all out trade war – certainly not something the US founders would advocate.
Consequently it seems Trump’s return to American isolationism is a peculiar one: A belligerent return that has an economic component that entails, ironically, protectionism by the chief promoter of free trade.
If the founders were afraid of political alliances, Trump is afraid of political and economic alliances, which means his isolationism is a notch closer to a politics of localism and independence from the rest of the world – maybe a politics of nationalism. Whether a US polity based on free trade with the world will tolerate such neo-isolationism is yet to be seen.