Nationalism and World Order: “America First”?


Two main schools of thought have dominated the foreign policy of every U.S. administration post-1991, be it the realist neoconservatism of Cheney or the liberal institutionalism of the Clintons. Regardless, both approaches reflect an unwavering commitment to allies and the ideals of open markets and societies; at its core, an economic and security framework with the United States as its linchpin. Similar philosophies prevailed in academia, think tanks, and global corporations.

This world order now faces growing challenges inwards and outwards. A series of terrorist attacks in Europe have become politically convenient for far-right figureheads. Volatile energy markets, a struggling economy, and sanctions have not deterred Russian aggression. Tensions in the Persian Gulf as well as the Syrian refugee crisis have fueled the voices of isolationists who accuse the West of being “over-involved.” Anxiety engendered by epochal developments—globalization and technology—have manifested in scepticism of international institutions and scapegoating of a political elite. These fears ultimately culminated in the “Brexit” referendum and the upset results of the last year’s U.S. presidential election.

With a fraying world order amidst an age of uncertainty, there are politicians who have built their agendas on nationalism and protectionism, an unraveling of the many treaties and institutions formed in past decades. They have built their campaigns on promises that retreating behind borders and walls will restore a past glory of industrial might and economic growth. But while it is tempting for one to hop onto this atavistic bandwagon, it would be foolish to do so.

“America First”, the Trump agenda, makes for a good bumper sticker: score political points by implying any and all opponents of placing America second. As a doctrine, “America First” is painfully flawed. It is a fundamental reality in an interdependent world that what is good for the world is good for the United States. The very opposite is true as well: what is bad for the world is bad for the United States.


During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Trump blasted NATO as “obsolete,” complained that U.S. allies were “ripping us off,” and even pondered whether South Korea and Japan should field their own nuclear weapons. Such a stance would be best described as “America Only”—it gives little pretense that the Trump administration would view foreign policy as more than a series of narrow transactions.

Critics of the world order fail to appreciate the stability brought by the United States’ global presence, whether it is through bilateral agreements or common defense pacts such as NATO. In the anarchic system of world affairs, governments seek to bolster their security through deterrence—through international law and military alliances. Such deterrence has formed the rationale behind American and European policy for several decades. Through the projection of military might and the threat of crippling sanctions, ensuring regional balances of power is a foundation for stability and prosperity.

Mr. Trump’s unpredictability is a threat to this order: his impulsiveness harms the credibility of an American signature on defense treaties and nuclear arrangements. Cozying up to Putin and his oligarchs would send a signal that the annexation of Crimea and any infractions of international norms will go unnoticed by the United States. If current partners feel as if their alignment with Washington yields diminishing returns, they may choose to hedge their “bets”. Increasing cooperation with regional hegemons such as Russia or China would create ambiguity—sending a signal that these countries too can adopt a policy of uncertainty. Or worse, U.S. allies can adopt a unilateral approach to deterrence: military buildup or even the procurement of nuclear arms.


On the economic front, such hedging by U.S. trade partners will likely become reality. Right before we withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced a forceful defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Trade policy, as opposed to defense policy, is based more on financial calculations rather than ideological kinship, making it all the easier for U.S. allies to put some of their eggs in other baskets. It is this that reveals the incoherency of the new administration’s policy: Trump campaigned on the renegotiation of trade deals, but limiting trade and foreign investment will reduce the United States’ leverage in any argument—be it NAFTA or at a WTO tribunal.

The ability to freely exchange goods and services is a cornerstone of the modern economy; attempting to dial back the clock out of a misguided nostalgia would stifle innovation and investment.


Liberal internationalism is far from flawless, but one should reconsider whether reactionary politics is a pragmatic response in a dynamic society. Populists repeatedly assert that “America First” would bring prosperity by shielding Americans from the turbulent growing pangs of a globalized world. But such actions would do the opposite and expose everyone to heightened instability and economic chaos.

As appealing as “America First” may sound, it is an ideology of supreme irony—fueling, instead of mitigating, the uncertainty of the 21st century.

-Ying Ka Leung ’18

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s