Americans have long struggled with the question of whether this country should be more involved in world affairs, or less. The contest of ideas between internationalists and isolationists has been particularly fierce among Republicans, going all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and continuing on to the beginning of World War II.
But since the end of that war, whatever the differences in their priorities and points of emphasis, every president has chosen engagement rather than retreat, sometimes with surprising and positive outcomes. Richard Nixon forged relations with communist China; Ronald Reagan, having consigned the Soviet Union to “the ash heap of history,” went on to negotiate arms control treaties with Mikhail Gorbachev. Even those like Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama who argued in various ways for scaling back America’s commitments overseas insisted on a leadership role, if not the leadership role, in building an international system grounded in democratic and free-market principles.
There have been plenty of mistakes and unforeseen developments that have tested the United States and raised questions about the wisdom of its policies. But, on the whole, the world has benefited greatly from America’s guidance and its willingness to engage with allies at every step of the way. NATO, the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are all part of the architecture of global security and development that American presidents helped create.
President Trump is now taking a sledgehammer to that system. His argument, if that term can apply to such an inchoate position, is that America for too long has been “losing,” a situation he has set out to correct with nonnegotiable demands and gratuitous confrontations. He promises both to achieve more and to retrench. He promises to put “America first” while at the same time condemning it to a secondary role in global deliberations. It is a bizarre and contradictory policy: In seeking to liberate the United States from international obligations, and in waging war on multilateral institutions, he is not only destroying America’s reputation as a trusted ally but also ceding the future to the very same aggressive powers, especially the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia, that he purports to protect Americans from. Meanwhile, his running feuds with the free press, the courts and Congress are diminishing America’s standing as a bastion of constitutional liberties.
The latest assaults occurred last week, when, in the space of a few days, Mr. Trump walked away from or threatened to walk away from an important agreement on Iran, a relationship with Unesco and the North American Free Trade Agreement, painstakingly negotiated in the first Bush and the Clinton administrations.
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For more than a year Mr. Trump denigrated the Iran deal, under which Iran would substantially halt its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. On Friday he formally disavowed it by refusing to certify that Iran is in compliance. While he stopped short of explicitly killing the accord or rewriting it, the president did it great harm and kicked its fate to Congress, where its future is uncertain.
He did so despite the advice of his top people — the secretaries of defense and state and his military and intelligence chiefs — who say the agreement is in America’s interest; and despite the assurance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran 24/7 under a robust verification regime, that Tehran is abiding by its terms.
The countries that negotiated the deal with Mr. Obama — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — also begged the White House to stick with it. But Mr. Trump demonstrated once again that he can’t abide his predecessor’s accomplishments, that he will not be persuaded by facts and that he places little or no value on the idea that honoring national commitments safeguards confidence in America’s word. Why would North Korea negotiate with the United States over its nuclear stockpile when it sees how little store the Trump administration sets by diplomatic accords?
America’s European allies, outraged by Mr. Trump’s decision, have since reaffirmed their commitment to the deal, which includes encouraging European companies to invest in Iran. (Emmanuel Macron is reportedly considering a visit to Tehran, which would be a first for a French president since the 1970s.)
Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, because of its anti-Israel bias, is not likely to be nearly as consequential as his opposition to the Iran deal, although it extends his war on international obligations. And his threat to tear up Nafta is still just a threat, albeit an ominous one.
Most economists agree that Nafta contributed to some job losses in manufacturing but that abandoning it would hurt the economy over all. Even American industries that brought some production back within the borders would probably use fewer workers than in the past, because of automation. Further, other sectors of the economy, like agriculture and services, would stand to lose business if Canada and Mexico imposed higher tariffs on American imports. Whatever gains the United States might enjoy by torpedoing Nafta are unlikely to be enough to justify alienating two of its most important allies and neighbors.
If revoked or substantially renegotiated, Nafta would join an already sizable list of agreements on which Mr. Trump has reneged, including the Paris accord on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another trade agreement. He has meanwhile raised doubts in various speeches and offhand remarks about his commitment to the United Nations and to NATO. And to what end? The stock answer is that he is seeking to placate and energize his “base” — the voters troubled by economic decline — by building a wall not just against immigrants but against economic competition and foreign entanglements, thereby making their lives and livelihoods more secure. In an economically interdependent world, that is a false promise. It also undermines critically important global relationships, erodes American credibility and cedes influence and the investment opportunities that go with it to ambitious nations like China that are only too happy to fill the role.
America First, Mr. Trump says. America last is more like it.