Against All Others: America First’s Relentless Competition

By Will Moreland

“America First does not mean America alone” asserts H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn in a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending President Donald Trump’s first trip abroad. While this defense of the president’s policy is unsurprising from Trump’s own national security advisor and director of the National Economic Council, the message from two perceived champions of a more mainstream foreign policy is striking. McMaster and Cohn appear to have bolstered the ranks of the White House camp that views international relations through an intensely competitive lens. From Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications Michael Anton to the President himself, the Trump administration’s foreign policy increasingly puts the United States on the slippery slope of America against the world.

A window into this hyper-competitive outlook begins with Michael Anton, the often-described intellectual of the Trump movement and self-styled Machiavellian. In an essay “America and the Liberal International Order,” written in the new journal American Affairs prior to his entrance into government, Anton lays out a triumvirate of US national interests. Alongside more traditional aims of peace and prosperity, Anton elucidates an inherently competitive and antagonistic concept of national “prestige.” This version, based in an intertwining of a nation’s credibility and esteem, seeks respect via demonstrations of strength: “Prestige…is engendered by strength, wealth, and the sense of being a rising (or at least stable) rather than a declining power. It is made firm by one thing above all: victory.”

Victory, according to Anton, is the source of a nation’s friends and allies. For support, he calls (twice) on Osama Bin Laden: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Following this logic, allies are won by winning – victory in war, negotiation of a successful trade agreement, a lauded state visit. This challenges the more conventional understanding that the United States forges strong alliances based on its vision of a world order based in shared and mutually beneficial principles.

With McMaster and Cohn’s piece, Anton’s thinking appears to have gained new allies in the White House. In a stunning rejection of 70 years of US support for a liberal international order that can promote common security and shared prosperity, the pair proclaim, “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” To this dog-eat-dog world, the United States brings “unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” Yet tragically, in accepting this competitive depiction of the international system, all aspects of foreign policy quickly become contests to be won.

This worldview puts Washington at odds not only with the system it has defended since 1945, but also its allies and partners. First, many allies object to a “winner-take-all” cutthroat mindset, especially in Europe, where the European Union project began as an explicit rejection of such views. The transatlantic partnership in particular has functioned in large part due to Washington’s support for a liberal international order that welcomes all actors, provided they abide by certain foundational principles such as nonaggression. At times, this bond has been the essential glue that has held the Euro-American relationship together in periods of strain.

Second, the relentless logic of competition offers meager reassurance that today’s partners will not end up on the wrong side of tomorrow’s contest. Anton writes favorably on the civilizational bonds that unite the West, and McMaster and Cohn avow “strong alliances and economically thriving partners” to be a “vital American interest.” However, the Trump administration’s track record leaves ample room for concern. Anton’s pursuit of “winning” to enhance prestige can quickly become a lodestar that overrides other strategic consideration; for instance, it helps explain why, despite its close relationship with Washington, Berlin has been lambasted as a trade rival as much as, if not more than, Beijing. Similarly, McMaster and Cohn hedge commitments to allies by declaring that President Trump has “emphasized the importance of reciprocity in trade and commerce. Simply put, America will treat others as they treat us.” Given such a warning, and the president’s intense displeasure surrounding trade disparities with allies, few partners can take solace that economic agreements will not evolve into larger rifts.

This perspective fundamentally fails to appreciate the role that soft power – the notion of attracting others toward common aims – has played in US foreign policy. America has long relied on its ability to attract willing partners around shared values, norms, and interests. Faith in these mutual commitments has undergirded the legitimacy of the international order that US hard power has protected, as well as at times proactively prevented the need to deploy that power. The disproportionately competitive alternative, in contrast, would offer countries only one reason to support the United States: fear of US military might. Under such pressure, partners’ support would collapse from within as they reject American leadership that prefers not only to compel rather than persuade, but employs such tactics in pursuit of narrow, nationalistic “America First” victories that come at the expanse of all others.

As Trump prepared to embark on his first trip abroad as president, General McMaster heralded the trip’s purpose “to reaffirm America’s global leadership.” However, the nature of that leadership matters deeply. The United States has developed a deep bench of partners by embracing a broad definition of its interests that has benefited other nations alongside itself. This approach has not put Americans “second,” but built a stronger coalition of like-minded partners to address real common threats. By wavering in commitments to these longstanding partners and espousing this competitive outlook, the United States will find itself with dwindling friends; in fact, if it is not careful, the Trump administration could find itself at the head of a parade of one.

Will Moreland is the International Order Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He also works at a leading Washington DC think tank on issues of American strategy and the liberal international order. Will earned his MSFS from Georgetown University in 2015.

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