'America First' puts freedom and leadership last

Trump: My job is not to represent the world
Trump: My job is not to represent the world

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Story highlights

  • Suzanne Nossel: Trump's speech reveals a conception of US self-interest that will alienate world, threaten US security
  • His pledge to let all nations plot their own course offers nothing to those who long for freedom and lack it, she writes

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of PEN America. She was formerly executive director of Amnesty International USA and deputy assistant secretary of state for International Organizations at the State Department. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In his joint address to Congress, President Donald Trump began to elaborate his vision of an "America First" foreign policy. Some of his foreign policy pronouncements were familiar and reassuring: He spoke of the importance of alliances, global stability and learning from mistakes. But upon close reading, Trump's brief treatment of international affairs in the speech revealed a blinkered conception of US self-interest that will alienate the world and ultimately render it more threatening to US security.

Suzanne Nossel
The most quoted foreign policy statement in the President's speech was: "My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America." His formulation does not come as a surprise. Trump has never intended to lead the free world, and nor would the free world put him in charge. But as Trump's predecessors have learned, there is no keeping America safe or prosperous when the world is not. As a global businessman with interests on all continents, Trump's blindness to the interconnectedness entrenched by technology, the global economy, travel, trade and media is willful and worrying.
On a broader level, this willful ignorance spotlights three ways in which Trump's remarks on foreign policy were alarming. First, he displayed a propensity to view the US role in international affairs almost entirely through a military lens. He has already appointed military generals to head not only the Department of Defense but also his National Security Council (twice over, including the deposed Michael Flynn and now H.R. McMaster) and the Department of Homeland Security. In his words, "To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform."
By putting a military face on American solidarity around the world, Trump confirmed the serious concerns of diplomats and top military officials alike who have expressed worries about Trump's announcement of budget proposals that would effect a $54 billion increase in defense spending partly through drastic cuts in the budget of the State Department. More than 120 retired generals and admirals have signed a letter of protest.
Meanwhile, Trump conspicuously omitted mention of economic ties or global concerns like climate change and human rights. His worldview is a more extreme version of the approach taken during the first term of the George W. Bush administration when singular emphasis on military force, or "hard power," drew the United States into draining wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, squandered the global goodwill engendered by the 9/11 attacks, caused anti-Americanism to spike and frayed American alliances. Despite an obsession with his own personal brand, Trump seems oblivious toward the brand value of what Joseph Nye has called the "soft power" that comes from projecting appealing aspects of American society and character abroad. He is also indifferent to my own concept of "smart power," or the imperative to engage a broad range of tools of statecraft, from diplomacy to aid to private sector engagement to military intervention. Trump's tunnel-vision foreign policy, centered on the military, will leave other elements of the US foreign policy toolbox idle while incurring significant expense and risk for troops pressured to become the solution to all of America's foreign policy challenges.
The second jarring aspect of Trump's foreign policy vision was the absence of any conception of the United States as a standard-bearer for freedom worldwide. While the United States has been at best an imperfect exemplar of freedom, often contradicting its own professed ideals, its self-conception as an inspiration and lifeline to democrats and dissidents around the world dates back to the Second World War at least.
While declaring that "free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people," Trump immediately added that "America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path." Therein lies a stark contradiction. In the 2017 edition of its Freedom in the World index, Freedom House named populism and authoritarianism as the "dual threat to global democracy." The index charted setbacks in political and civil rights more than a dozen countries still rated free. Overall, of the 195 countries assessed 55% were rated less than "Free."
In a large and growing number of countries the will of the people is not expressed through strong democratic institutions and processes. While the United States has limited influence globally and indeed must never try to dictate how other nations govern themselves, it has strived to be an ally and champion of those struggling to defend and promote freedom and democratic reforms. The support of new and emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Myanmar are among some of the United States' proudest achievements in recent decades. Trump's none-of-my-business pledge to let all nations plot their own course, coupled with the proposals he made earlier to dramatically reduce US foreign aid, offers nothing to those around the world who long for freedom and lack it.
Finally, Trump's vision contrasts starkly with Ronald Reagan's, set out in his farewell address, of a "city on a hill" where, "if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." Music to the ears of Vladimir Putin, Xi Xinping and authoritarian leaders, Trump's hands-off approach to people caught beneath the yoke of repressive societies contrasts even more sharply with John F. Kennedy's appeal in his inaugural address: "To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
Relying on Cabinet appointments, tax cuts and corporate subsidies to help the wealthy, Trump made clear his vision of diplomacy is not beholden to a practical, a political nor least a moral compulsion to uphold many decades of US leadership worldwide as an exemplar and defender of freedom.
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Trump has been told -- but refuses to believe -- that American global leadership is not a public service to the rest of the world but rather an insurance policy for our own people, one that has kept war, plague and economic devastation mostly off-shore for many decades. Trump's disdain for the burdens and benefits of US global leadership -- so clearly articulated in his declaration that his job "is not to represent the world" -- won't simply leave a gap. The space created by the United States' withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, its equivocations on the Paris Climate pact and its insults toward the United Nations is already being filled by China, Russia and others.
By ceding the United States' global leadership role, Trump may ensure his successors cannot claim it back.