‘America First’ is a deepening policy error

In the seventeenth century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned against anarchy in world politics, conditions that he associated with a devastating “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes). Appearing in his book Leviathan, this prescient warning highlighted the perpetual interdependence of states in world politics and served as a reminder that “going it alone” must inevitably prove futile. In view of U.S. President Donald Trump’s conspicuously retrograde movement toward “America First,” the Hobbesian assessment turns out to have been prophetic.


Ironically, this sobering assessment had already been recognized and acknowledged by the principal eighteenth-century founders of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and several easily recognizable others would have lamented “America First” in absolutely all of its current and refractory meanings. As they would have borne witness, Donald Trump’s corrosive ideas about zero-sum thinking in world politics are demonstrably false and inherently baneful.

Mr. Trump and his followers ought also to be mindful of the modern French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s pertinent observation: “no element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

Especially on a nuclearizing planet, “America First” needs to be “repealed and replaced.”

It is an injurious policy stance that offers only retreat from what is required. Any promising presidential posture must reject long-failed zero-sum orientations to international conflict. No nation-state should expect to survive at the expense of other nation-states.

It’s all really quite plain. “America First” codifies an illusion that is both misconceived and potentially lethal. Left unchallenged, it will support a backward-looking and atavistic mantra that could harden the hearts of America’s most recalcitrant and fearful adversaries. What is needed now is a broadened affirmation of human interdependence and global interconnectedness.

In other words, we require the diametric opposite of Trump’s untutored vision.

World politics has always been shaped by continuously shifting balances in power and by certain related correlates of war, terror and genocide. To be sure, hope should still exist, but now, it should sing far more softly, unobtrusively, and in a reassuringly prudent undertone. Though counter-intuitive, the moment for celebrating science, modernization, entrepreneurship, technology and social media is mostly past.  Before we can advance both as individual states and a planetary system of states, it will finally be necessary to learn how to coexist. 

To merely survive on this imperiled planet, all of us, together, must first consciously seek to rediscover an individual life, one that is detached from any patterned conformance, cheap entertainments, shallow optimism, or disingenuously contrived expressions of American tribal happiness.

At a minimum, such survival will demand a prompt retreat from what President TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE so mindlessly terms “America First.”

The rediscovery of an authentic American individual is exactly what Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and the other American Transcendentalists — core of a once-valued intellectual life, or life of the mind, in this country — would have demanded.

It’s not complicated. Learning from history, we Americans may yet learn something from the regressions of “America First” that is useful and redemptive. We may learn, for example, during this Trump-time of national declension, that a commonly felt agony is more important than astrophysics, that a ubiquitous mortality is more consequential than any transient financial “success,” and that shared human tears may often reveal much more deeply layered meanings and opportunities than “everyone for himself” tax reductions or imbecilic border walls.


In The Decline of the West, first published during World War I, Oswald Spengler asked profoundly: "Can a desperate faith in knowledge free us from the nightmare of the grand questions?" This remains a vital query, one however that will never be raised in our universities, on Wall Street, or anywhere in the Trump White House.

Still, we may learn something productive about these "grand questions" by more closely studying American responsibilities in world politics, responsibilities that can never be advanced by abandoning our allies, interests and ideals in places such as Syria, Turkey, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

One thing is fundamental: The most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by militarizing global economics, building larger missiles, abrogating international treaties or replacing one sordid foreign regime with another.

In the end, even in our squalid American politics, truth must be exculpatory. 

In what amounts to a promising paradox, "America First" can express a hideous lie that can still help us see the truth: What is required, above anything else, is a genuinely wider consciousness of human unity and relatedness on Planet Earth.

Indeed, no other sort of consciousness can save us.

Louis René Beres, Ph.D. Princeton, is emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University. He is the author of 12 books and several hundred articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His newest book is “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018)