The Soul-Sucking Task of Defending Trump’s Incoherent Foreign Policy

The Soul-Sucking Task of Defending Trump’s Incoherent Foreign Policy


"It's going to be America first. Not all these other countries that don't give a damn about us. It's going to be America first. America, America, America first." -- Donald Trump, July 5, 2016, Raleigh, NC.

"Remember, we don't make America first, not anymore. We don't make America. We're more worried about other nations than we are ourselves, that's why they're ripping us off. We're using the wrong people. We're going to make America first.” -- Donald Trump, August 4, 2016, Portland, Maine

"I'm not running to be president of the world, I'm running to be president of the United States, America first." -- Donald Trump, October 4, 2016, Prescott Valley, Arizona

In an Op-Ed piece published in The New York Times this morning, top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster took up the unenviable task of trying to paint the Trump administration as a beacon of global leadership and internationalist cooperation.

Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign slogan, they insist, is really an affirmation of the United States’ commitment to global progress.

Related: What the US Is Losing as Trump Insists on ‘America First’

“America First is grounded in American values — values that not only strengthen America but also drive progress throughout the world,” they wrote. “America champions the dignity of every person, affirms the equality of women, celebrates innovation, protects freedom of speech and of religion, and supports free and fair markets.”

Also, “America First is rooted in confidence that our values are worth defending and promoting.”

Like so much else that comes out of the White House these days, the article by Cohn and McMaster, a former Goldman Sachs president and a three-star Army general, respectively, only makes sense if readers agree to purge their memories of the Trump administration’s past statements.

For example, it’s hard to square today’s op-ed with the May 30 article in The Wall Street Journal in which the same two men wrote, “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

Or the May 3 remarks by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, explicitly divorcing American values from American foreign policy. “Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated – those are our values. Those are not our policies.”

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The attempt to turn Trump’s “America First” slogan into some sort of internationalist rallying cry is really a remarkable display of intellectual chutzpah.

To anybody who followed Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, there was little doubt about what he meant when he took the stage in rally after rally across the country and promised that his administration would put “America First.”

Time and again, Trump painted a picture of a world in which the United States was beset by devious, grasping foreign adversaries who needed to be punished and, if necessary, cut off from the benefits of economic or security cooperation with the United States.

The US, under Trump, would be withdrawing from its global leadership role, not expanding it. Pulling up the drawbridge, not welcoming the rest of the world in.

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Trump would sometimes temper his remarks depending on his audience -- people attending a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in DC, for instance, got a lower dose of “America First” rhetoric than a crowd chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump” in North Carolina.

But the idea of a newly isolated America was never far from the surface when Trump spoke. During his inaugural address, Trump even departed from his prepared remarks, to stress that he would put “only” America first in his policies.

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land.  From this moment on, it’s going to be only America First. America First.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

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It’s not clear what’s happening here. Perhaps the Trump team is counting on the fact that the “Trump! Trump! Trump!” crowds who show up at the president’s rallies don’t know or care what appears on the opinion pages of the Times and the Journal.

Or perhaps it’s just proof that at this period in American politics, words and claims have meaning only in the moment they are uttered, and that connection to truth or history, no matter how recent, no longer matters.