McManus: Trump’s ‘America first’ plan could lead to disaster

In the 75 years since the United States entered World War II, U.S. foreign policy has started from three broad premises shared by most American leaders.One is American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is a unique country with a special responsibility...

McManus: Trump’s ‘America first’ plan could lead to disaster

In the 75 years since the United States entered World War II, U.S. foreign policy has started from three broad premises shared by most American leaders.

One is American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is a unique country with a special responsibility to exert global leadership. Exceptionalism, combined with military and economic power, spawned a second, revolutionary notion: that the United States should try to promote democracy and human rights around the world, or at least defend them when they were in peril. The third is that the best and cheapest way for the United States to lead is by building strong alliances, usually with other democracies.

Donald Trump has abandoned all three of those premises. And in their place, he has revived an old slogan of self-interest, “America first.” That could lead to disaster.

Never before has a modern president said he doesn’t believe the United States is special. Barack Obama came close, but when conservatives howled he beat a hasty retreat.

In 2015, though, Trump said this when he was asked to define exceptionalism: “I don’t like the term … because I think you’re insulting the world,” he told Tea Party activists in Texas. “If you’re German, or you’re from Japan, or you’re from China, you don’t want to have people saying that.”

It wasn’t only the tender feelings of foreigners that he had in mind.

“Germany is eating our lunch,” he said. “We’re dying. We owe $18 trillion in debt. I’d like to make us exceptional. … I want to take back everything from the world that we’ve given them.”

When traditional politicians describe American exceptionalism, they usually talk about values — about democracy, or individual freedom, or entrepreneurship or racial and ethnic diversity. Trump’s measure of exceptionalism was material wealth — specifically, the trade balance and national debt.

In his inaugural address last month, he barely mentioned American values. He promised to defeat Islamic State (“Make America safe again”) and revive the economy (“Make America wealthy again”). But the word “democracy” wasn’t there at all.

Here’s what the president said about foreign policy in that speech: “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 for everyone to follow.”

That was a signal — an implicit rebuke to both Obama and George W. Bush, who used their inaugurals to reaffirm the goal of promoting democracy and human rights.

The following week, when Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was asked in his confirmation hearing to condemn human rights abuses in Russia, Syria and Saudi Arabia, he dodged the questions.

It’s debatable, of course, how high on any president’s priority list democracy and human rights should be. But Trump has betrayed no interest in the question.

By all evidence, his administration will spend little time or energy on those goals, which have been embraced, in different measure, by every president since Jimmy Carter — including, emphatically, Ronald Reagan. U.S. diplomacy, however inconstant, has helped to free millions of people from oppression.

Our editors found this article on using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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