Donald Trump, populism and the shallow roots of American internationalism: Roberto Rabel reflects on the US president's 'America First' approach to international affairs.

AuthorRabel, Roberto

Donald Trump's presidency is often seen as an idiosyncratic departure from the liberal internationalist norms that have guided American foreign policy since the Second World War. In fact, Trump represents a strain of populist and assertively nationalist thought on foreign affairs with deep roots in American politics. The past hundred years have thrown up numerous variants of his 'America First' approach, which underscore the fragility of popular support for liberal internationalism in the United States. These historical precursors help explain why many Americans support Trump's foreign policy, while raising significant implications for the country's future engagement with the world.


It seemed the perfect image. When The Economist featured Donald Trump taking a wrecking ball to the world on its cover of 7 June 2018, it memorably encapsulated his presidency's frontal assault on the liberal internationalism that has framed American foreign policy since the Second World War. Yet, while such images tempt us to view the 45th president of the United States as an idiosyncratic aberration, the reality is that Trump represents a strain of populist thought on foreign affairs with deep roots in American politics.

There is value in putting Trump's America First' approach in historical context. Repeated expressions over time of this assertively nationalist element underscore the fragility of popular support for liberal internationalism in the United States. They also help explain why many Americans support Trump's foreign policy as much as his domestic policies, while raising important implications for future American engagement with the world.

Before examining this nationalist or populist strand, it is important to recall the character and history of the internationalist orthodoxies that it challenges.

The United States first put its power and prestige behind the quest for a liberal world order just over a century ago. Famously outlined by President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points address in January 1918, the commitment to liberal internationalism involved a so-called New Diplomacy (in contrast to cynical European power politics), based on democracy, self-determination, free trade, freedom of the seas and collective security. For much of the subsequent hundred years, this commitment meant the United States was not simply another great power wielding strength and pursuing strictly national interests. Although a combination of forces thwarted enactment of Wilson's vision at the end of the First World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took up key elements of that vision again during the Second World War. It served thereafter as a lodestone for American leadership of the post-1945 order. Notwithstanding numerous imperfections and inconsistencies, the United States has been a more magnanimous great power because of this liberal internationalist impulse.

Wilson's legacy meant that the United States played a unique threefold role in the world after 1945. It has simultaneously been a nation-state pursuing its own national interests, a super-power shaping elements of the international order and an ideological champion of liberal capitalism. The only other power to play a similar balance of roles was the now defunct Soviet Union, which was once a super-power promoting a competing ideology. The economic failure of 'real existing socialism' ultimately undermined both its super-power status and the appeal of its avowedly communist ideology. Moreover, it was never a successful nation-state, as its break-up graphically demonstrated.

Varying balance

Even for the United States, the balance between those roles has varied and there has often been stronger domestic support for the first and second roles. Trump's 'America First' approach is very much in that vein. While embracing the first two roles based on national interest and power, it downplays any systemic role as a bastion of rules-based arrangements for an international order that draws on liberal principles and universalism rather than spheres of influence, bilateralism and competitive pursuit of narrow national interests. Given that Trump's more explicidy nationalistic approach is not a new phenomenon, it is relevant for our own times to understand the historical circumstances in which it has both flourished and faltered...

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