Since the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump has been supported by the non-interventionist and isolationist circles in the United States. As a foreign policy stance, ‘America First’ has historically referred to nationalism and protectionism. It is best known as the slogan of the America First Committee, a non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. The use of the slogan by Trump’s team and cabinet has been controversial because of its historical association with nativism, racism and antisemitism. Both isolationism and non-interventionism have had a long history among elite and popular opinion in the United States.
Donald Trump’s stance on interventionism is very complex, and demands a deep analysis of every sentence in its context. Despite Trump’s rhetoric in the 2016 election campaign that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan should be terminated and his recent decision to withdraw American troops from Germany and the Middle East — reducing them from 34,500 to 25,000, in the case of Germany — , Donald Trump has declared that he is not an isolationist. Columnist Daniel Larison (The American Conservative) has argued that Donald Trump is never committed to ending U.S. involvement in any other conflict; his complaint about the American involvement in foreign wars was that the U.S. wasn’t getting anything tangible from them (Larison, 2017; Eland, 2020; Paul, 2020; Thomas, 2016). In 2016, Donald Trump never explicitly called for an end of wars and military interventions. His actions since then, however, have proven that he is not as interventionist as other prominent U.S. politicians and former presidents, especially if there is little to win for Americans. Trump’s withdrawal of 9,500 troops is a small step toward a more sustainable American security posture. Facts speak louder than words, so let us look at them:
- A staggering national debt of $26 trillion;
- American taxpayers have spent $6.4 trillion on post-9/11 wars and military action in the Middle East and Asia, a 2019 report by Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University has found;
- American taxpayers have spent $2 trillion more in foreign wars than the whole federal government spending during the recently completed 2019 fiscal year;
- the U.S. still has about 170,000 troops in about 150 countries at great expense in both lives and treasure;
- Americans could have afforded 14,870 hospital beds for the cost of one Navy destroyer the Trump administration recently requested. Amid coronavirus pandemic, this is something to be very concerned of.
Time has taught us that Donald Trump is a pragmatic politician and businessman, who has been found to be somewhat susceptible to being pressured and influenced by his advisers. It came as no surprise, taking into account his previous lack of foreign policy experience and knowledge. Trump likes war as long as it sounds profitable, inexpensive and high-returning. If not, he is not willing into it. That stance, typical of a businessman, does not make him an isolationist, but move him away from the most radical and bellicist neocons nonetheless. A businessman is willing to take risks under certain circumstances.
As José Del Real has pointed out (2016), Trump blasted attempts at ‘nation-building’ abroad, warning that leaders who have sought to bring Democracy to the Middle East region have only plunged it into chaos. Trump had said that he considered “caution and restraint” signs of strength and that military intervention would not be his first instinct as commander in chief. In Trump’s own words, diplomacy was a crucial principle of foreign policy.
President Donald Trump has not always delivered on his promises though. In 2016, Trump said on Saudi Arabia: “It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people” (Wenar, 2017). As chief of state, Donald Trump has not done anything significant against Saudi Arabia, U.S. strategic ally and world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Trump has been tough on Iran, but very indulgent towards Saudi Arabia. It is true, however, that the real power of Trump is limited. He is not the only man that makes decisions.
According to Aleksandr Dugin, prominent Russian philosopher and former director of the Department of Sociology of the Moscow State University, multilateralism and isolationist nationalism are what Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Nicolás Maduro have in common (personal communication, June 27, 2020). The three leaders are the targets of the globalist agenda because of their nationalist ideas against the globalist agenda. Dugin argues that the neocons are the ones to blame for U.S. aggressive policy towards Venezuela, but not Donald Trump.
Donald Trump’s most controversial domestic and foreign policy has been the border wall, designed to stop Mexican illegal immigrants entering the country. Perhaps his rejection of globalism was his loudest yet agonistic statement. Trump’s nationalism has been flirting with isolationism. For centuries, walls have been used to spread and promote nationalism, traditionalism and isolationism. One must carefully analyze these Trump’s words: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
One of the main messages of the campaign of Donald Trump is that the United States should deal primarily with its internal problems and hence abandon interventionist policies. Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, this has been one of the most promising changes in U.S. foreign policy. Even if the Venezuelan scenario raised serious doubts on Trump’s isolationist instincts, the truth is that time has shown that Trump himself had little interest in blindly pursuing interventionist policies and practices at the expense of the American people, especially if they are not very likely to give high returns. As long as we do not fully understand how complex Donald Trump is, we will not be able to decipher the foundations of the Trump-Putin-Maduro triangle.
Trump was never the candidate of restraint or peace or non-intervention. The United States periodically debates whether to intervene more or less abroad. Trump won by promising both. He never rejected interventionism. He never embraced isolationism. Having extricated itself with some success from a costly wars in recent years, the United States is now embracing a scaled-down foreign policy, in order to avoid over-commitment.
The foreign-policy establishment is too divided, internal problems should not be taken lightly, and U.S. economy may no longer be big enough to sustain U.S. role in the world order.
During the current coronavirus pandemic, the U.S.-Mexico border wall has been a hot topic. Some days ago, Trump visited the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday and tried to credit his new wall with stopping both illegal immigration and the covid-19. The wall has itself become a symbol of Trumpism. According to Lloyd Barba (2019), the border wall, like other instantiations of American civil religion, has been upheld with rituals. In his rhetorical moves, Trump envisions himself as a protector or shepherd of the American people purportedly under a threat. The fascination with the wall has also solidified in the form of monetary sacrifice. Within two weeks of Trump’s January 8th speech on border security, supporters on the GoFundMe page “We the People Will Fund the Wall” raised over 20.5 million dollars.
The racial-ethnic problem in the US is still far from being solved, as shown by the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations around the United States. No matter how much some analysts argued that the racial debate was completely outdated, the scale of the Black Lives Matters movement proves that it is not. Several waves of immigration have shifted the country’s demographics considerably. Today, nearly one in five people in the United States are Hispanic. Until the 1970s, European-born immigrants predominated. Samuel Huntington once argued that America’s national identity is in danger of being lost because of the influx of immigrants, particularly Hispanics.
The wall-building is a very rich phenomenon that has to be analyzed from sociological, theological, political, ethnological and historical perspectives. Americans want relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. Donald Trump has threatened to cut funding to the World Health Organization permanently and even pull the US out of the global body altogether. Trump’s America is redefining its own national identity, and thereupon, is committed to reshape its global ambitions.
National borders have historically generated anxiety, and given a feeling of both certainty and protection. Wars were fought to claim and reclaim them. International political borders have historically performed one overriding function: the delimitation of a state’s territorial jurisdiction. Mankind have created borders to overcome fear from power struggles. Borders are social constructs that are subject to change. Borders are relevant markers of identity. Borders are demarcations of certainty. Since ancient times, borders have been essential to define both collective and individual identities. There is no Nation-state without a bordered territory. Like identities, borders are social constructs based on people’s subjectivities that may appear to be fixed even as they fluctuate based on social influences and political interests.
Trump’s very own isolationism is probably the most interesting feature of his administration. As a global superpower, there are steps the U.S. is expected to take in order to ease the ability of other nations on the coronavirus. In times of strategic uncertainty across the world, the isolationist stances of Trump have raised a large number of questions that are yet to be answered.
Trump’s isolationism is a retreat from America’s previous role in world affairs. If translated into policies, Trump’s isolationism, along with his willingness to improve challenging relations with Russia, could spell a much freer hand for Iran across the Middle East, and even lead to unexpected political outcomes in Venezuela.
Look beyond the labels and you may find a kindred spirit, and even a friend, in someone you never expected. As ironic as it sounds, U.S. global imperialism is now dealing with its own inner isolationist mindset at heart. Trump is not a pure isolationist nor a radical interventionist hawk. Therefore the positions for and against Trump are as ambiguous as he is. According to Barba (2009), monuments are never made merely to commemorate; they are built to display power. One should be aware that Trump is showing his cultural and political strength by building the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Barba, L. (2019). Trump’s Wall: A Monument of (Un)Civil Religion?. Mediation MAVCOR Journal, 3 (1).
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Bolton, J. (2020). The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Del Real, J. (2016, April 27). “Trump, pivoting to the general election, hones ‘America First’ foreign policy vision”. The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/04/27/trump-pivoting-to-the-general-election-hones-america-first-foreign-policy-vision/
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Wenar, L. (2017, 22 May). Citizen Trump was right about the Saudis; President Trump not so much. Los Angeles Times. www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-wenar-saudi-arms-deal-20170522-story.html