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Putting Meat on the Bones of ‘America First’

The term “America First” leaves a rancid taste in the mouths of many American and European elites. To them, the bumper sticker slogan President Donald Trump frequently employed during his campaign connotes a policy of ditching multilateral accords, poking allies in the eye when they don’t spend enough, and taking unilateral diplomatic and military action regardless of international opinion. For global leaders like Antonio Gutteres [1], the United Nations secretary general, “America First” is a way of sending the world a message: the United States will do what it wants, when it wants, however it serves its national interests—everyone else be damned.

[2]Up until this week, defining an America First national security policy beyond that caricature had been relatively difficult. Although cabinet officials such as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis have delivered a fair number of speeches during the Trump administration’s first year in office. the White House has not explained the concept in much depth. The recently released National Security Strategy (NSS) mandated by Congress is meant to put some meat on the bones. Like the NSSs of previous presidencies, the 68-page report is a mixed bag, with good and bad elements to it.

The overall tenor of the document is almost Hobbesian. The NSS paints a picture of a world in black-and-white, a sometimes harsh and unforgiving place where nations compete with one another for a bigger piece of the global pie. China and Russia are branded as “revisionist powers” bent on the destruction of the international order that the U.S. and its European allies constructed from scratch after the bloodshed and mayhem of World War II. “China,” the report states, “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”

In the administration’s assessment, the rise of Beijing and Moscow as spoilers of the international system occurred in large measure because of Washington’s “complacency.” The U.S., the report alleges, grew too comfortable with the assumption that America’s competitors would subscribe to the rules that were written for them. This is no doubt a critique of the popular post-Cold War belief in foreign policy circles that democratic governance would catch on like wildfire and that the U.S. would remain the unchallenged superpower that determined how the international community would operate. Alas, authoritarian states proved far more competent, wily, and durable than American idealists gave them credit for—and Trump’s strategy is right to point it out.

Given the White House’s attempt to cut the State Department’s budget this year by approximately $10 billion, one would think that diplomacy would be at the bottom of the administration’s list of priorities. Leveraging America’s diplomatic power, however, is actually cited in the NSS as valuable to a strong and effective foreign policy. The report stresses that “Diplomacy is indispensable to identify and implement solutions to conflicts in unstable regions of the world short of military involvement.” This, of course, is one of the most obvious statements one can make. But it’s nevertheless important that the National Security Council put it into print, particularly during our present international crises (North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, for instance) that cannot be resolved through military might.

America’s allies and the international institutions in which it participates are also gently put on notice in the NSS. The foreign policy establishment will likely criticize these subtle warnings as tone-deaf, but encouraging partner nations to enhance their own involvement, embrace more responsibility for shared outcomes, and increase their own defense spending are lines that have been parroted by both Republican and Democratic administrations since the Cold War. There is nothing at all wrong with pressing the burden-sharing concept, especially where NATO is concerned. The transatlantic military alliance still heavily depends on the U.S. for its foundation (of the $915 billion NATO member states spent on national defense this year, the U.S. spent $616 billion [3]—67 percent of NATO’s entire expenditure).

On the specific national security issues that dominate the Trump administration’s docket, the NSS is lacking in detail. Many of the policy proposals offered in the report are conventional ideas that any president would likely support. The North Korea nuclear issue is described as a global threat and a contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the nonproliferation regime. If the strategy is any guide, the White House intends to combat or manage this problem by reinforcing U.S. defense and intelligence relationships with South Korea and Japan, improving missile defenses in Northeast Asia, and retaining the military option should it be necessary. None of this is new.

The NSS doesn’t have much to say on Russia except a few complaints about its external behavior in Ukraine and its attempts to use intelligence subversion to interfere with democratic elections in Europe. On terrorism, President Trump picks up where George W. Bush and Barack Obama left off by treating it as a disease that can be cured rather than at best be managed. And if you were searching for a comprehensive policy on Iran, you will be sorely disappointed: the administration mostly just lists all the horrible things the ayatollahs have been doing. After all, it’s much easier to restate grievances than spell out ways to address them.

Overall, it’s highly unlikely that Trump’s first National Security Strategy will govern his administration’s behavior. The world has a nasty habit of turning problems into crises and crises into catastrophes on a moment’s notice. If and when Trump is woken up by a 3 a.m. phone call, he’s not going to run back to the Oval Office, rummage through his desk drawer for the NSS, and frantically see what it has to say.

Even so, the publication of the Trump White House’s first national security policy is the most detailed explanation we’ve yet seen as to what constitutes an America First foreign policy. Expect it to remain relevant up to and until an actual crisis strikes.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Putting Meat on the Bones of ‘America First’"

#1 Comment By America Third On December 18, 2017 @ 10:39 pm

Wake me up when Trump does anything for America.

So far, all he’s done is whatever Israel and Saudi Arabia tell him to do.

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On December 19, 2017 @ 12:26 am

Not much ‘America First’ in any of this. Quite a bit of Wall Street First and plenty of Israel First, but middle America, not so much –

Putin has Turkey, Syria, Iran and even Israel on side.
Xi Jinping’s One Road – One Belt will create new markets for Chinese goods and he is buying friends everywhere with investment and soft power, especially in Africa.

But all that diplomacy stuff is just sooo boring…

#3 Comment By Christian Chuba On December 19, 2017 @ 7:52 am

Interpreting Trump’s words depends on where you think he is being duplicitous.
Is he backstabbing the Neocons by claiming he is against nation building? Or is he promoting the Neocon agenda by advancing ‘U.S. values against Russia and China’ which strongly implies promoting democracies on their borders, and by democracies, U.S. aligned govts and demanding that our allies contribute to this effort.

His actual record is a muddled mix.
The Neocons are unhappy because he backed of regime change in Syria.

But he is doing our version nation building in Afghanistan (destruction), building up forces in eastern Europe, the U.S. military and the South China Sea, and continuing operations in Yemen.

Will his saber rattling against Iran actually lead to our breaking the JCPOA?

#4 Comment By LouisM On December 19, 2017 @ 7:56 am

The only national security policy that makes any sense is closing our borders to immigration and deporting illegals, visa overstays and stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship if they commit a crime.

1) We need a nuclear deterrent and our missiles need are 50+ years old. They need to be modernized but we cant solve problems by nuclear means unless attacked by nuclear weapons. No nation has engaged in a pre-emptive nuclear attack or a nuclear attack in times of war in 80 years. This is unlikely to change unless a smaller power like Iran, Pakistan or North Korea breaks that doctrine. North Korean threats are testing this doctrine and I have no doubt if there is any sign of a pre-emptive nuclear launch toward Japan, Guam or the US that we will respond with nukes before they do.

2) Our navy is based on aircraft carriers and a conventional war as was fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam but todays missiles are getting cheaper, more stealthy and more plentiful. An entire naval battle group costing in the trillions could be sunk by missiles that are relatively cheap by comparison.

3) Our Air Force while more sophisticated is poorly maintained. In some cases only 25% of the fleet can actually fly and they are flying on parts scrounged from aircraft junk yards. Our enemies like China are increasing their ability to stay in the air longer and fly longer distances to counter US aircraft that are technologically more advanced. We (US) wont be fighting a convention war with any nation that isn’t significantly less advanced.

Today’s war is nearly completely invisible. Todays war is fought thru financial instruments that introduce stock market crashes, currency crisis, etc.

Todays war is fought virtually using cyber warfare methods: Hacking into govt computers, banking and credit card transactions, power grids and power generation, etc etc etc.

The America First doctrine has complicated US/EU relations. This is my opinion but I do not think Trump will follow an EU leadership role and if the EU asserts itself in foreign policy then I don’t think it follow a US leadership role (Britain and VISEGRAD might).

My personal opinion is that it might be time to cut back on military costs in foreign/military aid, foreign military bases, foreign military commitments and redirect that money to upgrading our military so our 20th century deterrent works and the US is capable of fighting a 21st century war.

#5 Comment By Kent On December 19, 2017 @ 9:08 am

Since the United States has declared itself the “one indispensable nation” and determined the rules for the New World Order, it has the responsibility for shouldering all of the military burden.

#6 Comment By collin On December 19, 2017 @ 9:10 am

Well, it seems like a Coherent message would be the first step into earning voter support and Trump’s Foreign Policy message is out right confusing to me.

1) If Trump wants our Allies to perform more of their own national defense like he campaigned, he can unilaterally move troops out. I rather him take small actions of removing from Europe than his whining on Germany not paying.

2) I hear this message but military is in more countries than ever in Trump Administration. Sort contradictions the message.

3) His diplomacy on Iran and NK is awful and he is looking for them to make a mistake.

4) Can somebody explain to me why China is such a concern? Yes we have our issues, but it seems for as much trade as we do that working with China is smarter than counter-acting them.

5) After Bush 2000, I believe the more you spend on the military, the more likely you will use it. So spending more will lead to more military actions.

6) Lastly, I wish Trump administration stop treating all nation foreign policy unilaterally.

#7 Comment By Mario Diana On December 19, 2017 @ 9:59 am

“China,” the report states, “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”

Is this another one of those things that is going to be dismissed out of hand with a lot of haughty laughter?

(And by “things” I of course mean: a frank recognition of a truth globalists find embarrassing and inconvenient.)

#8 Comment By SDS On December 19, 2017 @ 10:32 am

“it’s highly unlikely that Trump’s first National Security Strategy will govern his administration’s behavior”

Since Mr. Trump doesn’t really understand anything of what he was talking about….no, it won’t….

Whatever Netanyahu or Salman tell him to do….
He’ll just do that….

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 19, 2017 @ 10:47 am

First, I think it should be said that no nation that intends to survive puts themselves second to the interests of other states.

I would agree with commenters that putting the US states first means dealing with our immediate sovereignty issues — first.

To what depth the world is a black and white me first food fight and fest is another matter. Surely, there is competition, but whether that competition requires the destruction or failure of other states is another matter.

The interventionist model required a commitment more than the interventionists were willing to lend. Remaking societies into democracies by hook or by crook would require the force of ancient Alexander’s Greece, Rome, the Huns, Zulus, Great Britain, France, Russia (Soviet or Monarchy)etc. It would also need some manner of ideological force that the population would support. They also needed evidence of clear success.

Unless the WS boom translates into some manner of actual economic growth to the middle class and below, I remain unimpressed. It may impress those in control of media services and corporate circles whose means of investing has with increasing frequency departed from actual products to mathematical equations. And the power elite (jealous me no doubt) may along with connected cliques slap themselves on the back, but it’s hardly a sign of the nation’s economic health as has been demonstrated time and time again. The top 20% of the population is not representative of the country, despite their self reinforcing belief in their own superiority.

It doesn’t take a college graduate to know that democracy is not the in and of itself the best form of governance. It is not a magic bullet and anyone who assumes that what we have in the US is translatable or cookie cutter importable is ignoring a vast amount of historical past and present realities.

We have been one of the most, if not the most generous nations on the planet when it comes to efforts of good Samaritan conflict. And there’s no reason to suspect, cleaning up our own and taking care of our own house first is going to change that nor should it.

I think the US should have a strong and robust defense. But I have yet to be convinced that the challenges we face must be resolved by the point of a gun.

#10 Comment By SteveM On December 19, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

From the NSS:

“Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats.”

Russia and China are engaged in a massive pan-Eurasian economic architecture that will be eventually decoupled from the U.S. dollar. Europe will eventually be peeled off from total U.S. hegemony for economic reasons alone. I.e., pan-Eurasian trade will swamp trade with the U.S. The thing is, Russia primarily aims to make money, not take over its neighbors militarily. U.S. influence will be implicitly weakened because it is becoming less and less economically relevant. I.e. Eurasia already swamps the U.S. in manufacturing and is increasingly technologically self-sufficient.

A key take away from the elements of the NSS is that U.S. foreign policy is so heavily militarized, the implication is that the U.S. response to economic activity in Eurasia will be military confrontations. Simply because Washington cannot admit that it is being eclipsed in economic dimensions. So it will use the only weapon it has left – the war machine. When all you have is a hammer, everything else is a nail…

If the Elites in Washington choose to go down fighting by war-mongering against the economic inevitability, there will be hell to pay for the rest of us in cost and possibly much bloodshed abroad. And of course the coöpted MSM that worships at the alter of American military adventurism will be complicit in the run-up.

#11 Comment By David Walkabout On December 19, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

America First = America Only. The Lumpkins love it!

#12 Comment By jk On December 19, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

He hasn’t kept one campaign promise on his supposed Realist stance since he took office. He escalated US involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Africa (for no reason).

More empty rhetoric. Gave his speech writers a chance to stroke his ego.

#13 Comment By b. On December 19, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

“The whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership.”

Some people would probably read this as “making the rabble bounce.”

For convenience, 21st Century journalism, the minimal version:


#14 Comment By anon On December 19, 2017 @ 10:42 pm

If Trump were a Democrat the headline would read:

The Fraud at The Heart of “Putting America First.”

And to justify that headline it would not be necessary to change a single word of this article. Not. One.

#15 Comment By DC Insider On December 22, 2017 @ 9:48 pm

The author misses the mark with the following comment —

“But it’s nevertheless important that the National Security Council put it [NSS] into print, particularly during our present international crises (North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, for instance) that cannot be resolved through military might.”

This is simply flat-out wrong. On the contrary, the N. Korean situation is one of the few “crises” around the globe that can be solved by military might. As I’ve noted elsewhere, one need not be a warmongering Neocon to acknowledge that there are rare occasions justifying military action — and N. Korea and Boy-Kim are one of them.

We can effectively deal with that snake-problem by cutting off the head — the head being N. Korea’s ability to threaten US security — by targeting and eliminating to the extent possible its ICBM-capacity. This, along with targeting the rest of the country’s military and industrial capacity would reduce Kim to the emperor-with-no-clothes that he in substance already is.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 24, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

“We can effectively deal with that snake-problem by cutting off the head — the head being N. Korea’s ability to threaten US security — by targeting and eliminating to the extent possible its ICBM-capacity.”

Given the case that any state with nuclear missile capability to reach the US seems to be your advance — But that is misleading because we have alliances with states that if attacked we are obligated to respond. I suspect that North Korea has a similar arrangement with China. So the threat as you claim is much broader than North Korea.

Given our military incursions into Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and support for violent revolution in the Ukraine, considering the declarations of defense by N. Korea a threat is strategically short sighted. The array of missile capable states who have axes to grind don’t really need missile capability. In fact, the introduction of radioactive material floating in the air and water is a far easier task than a missile strike. So as far as threats go —

there’s a large list to choose from:


I think fear mongering is a lousy case for war. And nothing suggests that N. Korea is prepping for a first strike against the US. If you have a credible case otherwise, I think you should make.