Trump and Haley's "America First": Same old policy, made worse

Trump's National Security Strategy outlines familiar policies (and some new ones), all doomed to end in failure

Published December 24, 2017 6:00AM (EST)

 (AP/Seth Wenig)
(AP/Seth Wenig)

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times for American foreign policy last week: President Trump landed a twofer upon us. This administration’s worldview is now on paper, and its flaws and miscalculations stand to lead only further into the disorder our policies have already made of the new century. Nikki Haley removed all doubt on this point by the end of the week. Trump’s UN ambassador, defending her boss’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital before the planet’s 192 other nations, was more crudely confrontational than any United States diplomat in my lifetime. The predictable result was abject defeat and an extreme of isolation that may be unprecedented in American foreign relations.

My year-end take-home: This nation’s policy cliques are not going to accept various 21st-century realities — multipolarity, the rise of the non-West, the passing of monopolized power into history — until events force them to do so. Trump or no Trump, those who control Washington are committed to a vicious war of resistance in defense of a primacy that has no chance of holding. I have long argued that America could manage the transition to a new era that is now upon us with grace and imagination. With some sadness, I confess I find it difficult to make this case any longer. America’s leadership simply does not have within itself what I hoped it did.

It may be that I read too much into last week’s events, but I do not think so.

*  *  *

With the Trump administration’s release last week of its National Security Strategy, we now know what the world looks like from the White House and what Trump’s people plan to do in it. Presidents have issued NSS documents periodically, according to the importance of the moment, since they were mandated to do so in 1986. Technically, NSS papers are executive branch reports to Congress. The most recent were released in 2002 under George W. Bush, 2010 under Barack Obama and 2015 (Obama again).

They are always advertised as departures, but that is too strong a term in my view. There are new elements in each NSS report, but the basso ostinato is impossible to miss. There has not been a true departure in U.S. foreign policy at least since 1945, and arguably not since Woodrow Wilson shaped his exactly a century ago. I do not count even the 1930s isolationists; they never consolidated power in Washington and were fated to fail in any case.

So we find in Trump’s NSS report. You can peruse all 68 pages of it here. There are some new things to note against a background of obvious continuity. And there is that matter just mentioned: This administration is fated to join its predecessors in failure. Ambassador Haley just showed us what this is going to look like.

The America Firsters of the 1930s failed because isolation in world affairs was simply unrealistic by that time in history. Now an America First president purports to intrude upon the policies, goals and “values” — which is to say the very thoughts — of all other nations. Once and briefly the desired state, isolation now presents itself as costly consequence, and it is all too real this time around. Barking at the world, striking ridiculous poses, surrounded by disapproving grimaces: Nikki Haley is the face we present, a reality Americans must live with until they declare it to be a mask that does not represent them.  

“Recognizing reality” has been the Trump administration’s explicit theme since it announced its new Jerusalem policy. Haley mentioned “a recognition of the obvious” at the UN last week, when defending Trump’s Jerusalem decision in the Security Council and then the General Assembly. Applied more broadly, these phrases suggest the core feature of the new NSS. What is the reality described in this document, we must ask. When he released it, Trump spoke very clearly. He described his strategy as one based on “principled realism.” What does he mean?

The president spoke of “a long and extraordinary peace,” a peace that depends on “our strength” and “our unrivaled power.” He said he favors alliances while asserting that allies “must share principles — and our principles.” These principles include the logic of American primacy — “America must lead again” — the necessity of its military superiority, and our political and economic models as the only means of achieving global order and prosperity. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” Trump repeated. I was interested in what Trump meant when he first articulated this thought. But in the context of the document he introduced last week, it is merely another in an infinite line of flimsy falsehoods presidents have used to disguise America’s intentions, more or less since the U.S. first manifested a foreign policy in the late 19th century.

The assertion of a reality that can be imposed on all others is the driving ambition of the NSS report. It is hubris down on paper, of course, but for all its strangeness — its detachment from reality, indeed — it is not new. Readers may remember the noted remark of Karl Rove back in 2004, when Ron Suskind quoted the Republican operative (anonymously, at the time) in a New York Times Magazine article. Suskind referred to Rove only as “the aide”:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. ... That’s not the way the world really works anymore. ... We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

It still takes my breath away, but let us not put this comment in a glass museum case. This is the position outlined in the new NSS. It is what I mean by continuity, and if “continuity” implies no departure during the Obama years, good; this should not be missed. Obama departed from the Bush II strategy only in style, not substance. He proposed to impose Karl Rove’s imperial “reality” less offensively — more aesthetically, let us say. The Obama theme was the irresistible superiority of “free-market democracy,” otherwise known as neoliberalism. Among neoliberalism’s primary attributes is its inability to accept difference, diversity of any kind. The intolerance threaded through Trump’s speech introducing his NSS, and in the document itself, is egregious but of a piece with that found in Bush II’s “nation-building” crusade and the Obama era’s liberal interventionism. At bottom, vocabulary and style are the only variables.

We should not be mistaken about this.

At the same time, no one should miss the blunt edge Trump restores to America’s campaign for global conformity according to its “values” — a term one comes to abhor as the agreeable face of righteous intolerance and our fatal exceptionalism. Those following foreign affairs have batted around the thought of “a new Cold War” or “Cold War II” for some years. This is now on paper. With all the imagination one expects of people who approved of the first wasteful go-round in this line, the enemies American hegemony requires to justify itself are the same as they have been since the late 1940s. There is Russia, there is China, and there are the rogue regimes and terrorists, now known as “transnational threat groups,” who stood in during the brief era when Russia and China did not quite suffice.

Consider this, from the NSS document:

China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people. … These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false ...

Every assertion in this passage is either untrue, misleading or dependent on skewed interpretation. They are all self-serving in the standard way of propaganda: Every critique of others contains an idealization of oneself. China and Russia “challenge American power” only insofar as they reject American primacy. They are “determined to make economies less free and fair.” Huh? The page this comes from must be yellow with age. They “control information.” Oh, come on. They challenge the West’s long monopolistic control of the narrative, a good thing. They are growing their militaries: They fear America’s “unrivaled power,” and if you blame them there must be a job for you somewhere in Washington.

Trump is said to take great pride in the new NSS. It is redolent, indeed, of his chest-out negotiation with life and the world outside himself. But this paper is an expression of Washington, not merely the man who sits at its center. And I do not read confidence in it any more than I do in Trump. I read fear in the face of a changing world. I read weakness, the assertion of power with no underlying strength. I see a more or less complete absence of imagination and a defensive crouch to compensate.

*  *  *

Have you ever observed a UN ambassador so tactless and crass as Nikki Haley? The paranoiac John Bolton, the Bush II appointee who proposed cutting off the top 10 floors of the Secretariat, may have been worse, but he was a temporary stand-in — and stayed clear of the cop-show locutions Haley favors. In her loutish abuse of the tools of diplomacy, she is best understood as an anti-diplomat. I’m here to intimidate and coerce, not talk, not listen: This is Haley’s posture in the Security Council. We can count her performance last week as an opening act; absent troops and military hardware, summitry and other such things, that is how the U.S. proposes to conduct itself in coming years. We have seen theory and practice in a single week.

Events moved swiftly. Just as Trump released his NSS paper, Haley was raising her hand in the Security Council to block a 14-1 vote denouncing Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Haley’s veto, embarrassing on its own, prompted the General Assembly to announce an emergency session — very rare, these — to vote on another resolution refuting Trump’s Jerusalem policy. It was plain from the first where this was headed.

Haley found her familiar groove in the days before the Thursday GA session. She warned the world that Washington would watch like an avenging angel as nations cast ballots. “The U.S. will be taking names,” Haley announced graciously. Trump then iced her cake, threatening to cancel all foreign aid to nations that backed the pending GA resolution. “Let them vote against us,” the president declared in a cabinet meeting. “We’ll save a lot.” Haley dutifully carried this thought into the UN’s chambers.

We all know how it turned out: They were a lot of names to take, and Trump would indeed save billions in aid were it even remotely plausible to carry out his threat. Of voting nations, 128 demanded the U.S. rescind recognition, nine supported the U.S. position and 35 others abstained.

News reports since have commonly observed that the GA vote is non-binding and Trump will never cut aid to nations such as Egypt and Jordan. True and true. It was all merely symbolic, one read. Not true. We do not yet know what the Trump administration will do once it acknowledges that the idea of cutting foreign aid was hollow. Haley has already revived the Bolton-era conception of reducing U.S. contributions to the UN budget.

“When a nation is singled out for attack in this organization, that nation is disrespected,” Haley told the GA just before the vote all knew would end badly for Washington. "We have an obligation to demand more from our investment.” It is high among the many preposterous formulations Haley advanced last week.

The Haley speech is here. Read it carefully. Read Trump’s speech introducing the NSS, and peruse the document itself. Consider their broader implications. We are on notice now: The U.S. will once again try to “go it alone” in a world where this is impossible. More lost opportunities lie before us, and more losses of numerous other kinds — including, let us face it, more losses of life.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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