Casting itself as a humane authority has meant accepting some constraints on its behaviour but, backed with the power of the American military and economic system, the strategy has been a winning one for the US until now.
So President Donald J. Trump wants to put America first everywhere. There should be no surprise in this. Every leader of every country, presumably, puts his or her national interests first on every issue. This, as the early 20th century revealed, leads to intense competition – and sometimes war. For this reason, the community of nation states got together to moderate and regulate conduct among themselves, first creating the League of Nations and, eventually, the United Nations. But even so, there have been countries like the United States which refuse to be regulated and play an out-size role in world affairs.
Without venturing into the controversial nature of the phrase in 1940, even a cursory look at recent US history will demonstrate how things have been ‘America First’ for a long time. The issue is of definition. While US presidents since Truman put forward a broad interpretation of the meaning of the term – where the US assumes the role of a leader – Trump & Co want to put across a hard line, narrower vision.
In ancient Chinese political thought, there is a concept of “all under the heaven” – signifying the rule of an emperor who is supreme, moral and humane and accepted so by everyone. “Hegemony” is the second category of rule which is indeed supreme, but maintains itself so through the obvious exercise of power.
After the Second World War, the US exercised hegemonic power but was also seen by many as an exemplar of humane authority – a state which was powerful, but also moral in some sense. Its concepts of democracy, trade policy, human rights – though not always evenly adhered to or advocated – had wide acceptance. Its challengers –the Soviet Union and China – never quite managed to move up from the third category, which is that of “tyranny.”
It was a world where America was First. The US shaped the monetary order, its dollars were the world’s reserve currency, its universities dominated the world of the sciences and arts, its popular culture was widely admired and emulated. There was a lot of US benevolence – the Marshall Plan in Europe, the PL 480 grain supply and economic aid to India, the re-industrialisation of Japan and South Korea – but all this enriched the US and also shored up a system whose biggest beneficiary was the US itself. The American grand strategy of reshaping the world in its own image was as much an expression of liberal altruism as a means of securing America and its dominance by creating a world order where everyone lived by rules set largely by the US, with a little prodding from the United Kingdom.
Though the US military was deployed all over the world, there was little doubt that the security of CONUS, or the Continental United States, was its primary concern; American soldiers fought battles in far off lands to ensure that they did not have to fight them in their own. Further, in providing security guarantees for allies in Western Europe and East Asia, the US also checked the ambitions of regional hegemons like Russia and China.
So it is a bit difficult to understand just what Trump’s America First slogan really means. The US remains the foremost military and economic power in the world today. It is not that other countries have become rich at America’s expense, the US, too, has become richer. It is not that in securing others, the US has not enhanced its own security. It spends more on defence than the next five countries on the list. The problems have arisen when the US chose to fight wars which had no real relation to American security and, in the case of Iraq, were based on fictitious grounds. A contributing factor to the weakening of its economy was the excesses of its own bankers and investment houses, who brought about the 2008 financial meltdown.
These two self-inflicted wounds – both the product of an America First mindset – have brought on a sense of crisis which Trump is massaging. Even the US could not afford the $2 trillion cost of the Iraq war. Worse was the impact that US unilateralism had on the world order, especially when it became clear that the american intelligence manufactured evidence to justify the war. Its baleful consequences have been evident in the rise of the Islamic State, which Trump now says is the principal enemy.
Trump’s critique of the Washington establishment, of American corporates who have enriched themselves while the middle class and workers have stagnated, is generally accurate. However, it is not just the economic system that has failed a large number of Americans who elected him, but the political system which is dysfunctional.
Take for example, the US Congress. Barely 5-10 incumbents lose an election to the 435-member House of Representatives which takes place every second year. One major cause of this has been the gerrymandering of constituencies. But, stagnation in a key branch of US government has an overall negative impact on the policies of the country. The US Senate moves at a glacial pace on every issue because it has created procedures and processes that require the consent of all all 100 senators to do anything. And, then of course, there is the presidential election system that sent Trump to the White House even though he got 3 million fewer popular votes.
The great US workers’ unions have been eviscerated with the decline of American manufacturing industry and today even the middle class is fearful that they are entering an era where jobs will be scarce. US hospitals may be the best in the world, but its healthcare system keeps more people out of it than anywhere else in the rich world. US life expectancy is 27th among the 34 industrialised OECD countries. US universities are so expensive that they are losing their function of being the core of the liberal democratic state.
So, if Trump means that he will reform the political system to make it more responsive to the concerns of the middle class and workers, rebuild its infrastructure and keep special interests in check, the US does indeed have a vast America First agenda. But if it means abandoning allies, tearing up trade treaties and disrupting the international system, America First is a recipe for disaster, not just for the world, but the US itself.
In hindsight, Barack Obama’s presidency was all about seeking to balance issues. He was the one who insisted on pulling the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, minimised the commitment in Libya and refused to get involved in Syria beyond a point. He was able to pull the US from its economic crisis and also sought to build multilateral coalitions on a range of issues from taking on China in the South China Sea to getting Beijing to cooperate in the Paris climate change summit.
Self-created circumstances are making it difficult for the US to maintain its role as being “all under the heaven.” That is why the country appears to be slipping into the lower rung of being an ‘ordinary’ hegemon that will seek to use its raw power to maintain its primacy. Casting itself as a humane authority has meant accepting some constraints on its behaviour but, backed with the power of the American military and economic system, the strategy has been a winning one for the US until now. Trump is now threatening to upend that but if he goes down that path, he will soon realise this is a more difficult role for the United States to assume.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi