“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first”. This line was one of Former President Donald Trump’s most famous phrases during his inaugural speech in 2017, this phrase became a mantra for the Trump presidency foreign policy during his years in office. A policy supported by many Americans, tired of unfruitful interventions in the Middle East, who were hoping for a presidency less willing to engage in military conflicts across the world without any feasible exit plans.
Today, as thousands of Cubans go out to the streets fighting for the end of a dreadful communist regime, some conservatives have tried to use the slogan to argue that the United States should not take any significant policy against the Cuban regime as that would be a synonym with interventionism and the “endless wars” that many have rejected in the past, they could not be more wrong.
Saying “America First” does not mean that the U.S lives in a vacuum, or that somehow it managed to isolate itself from whatever happens in the world, America is part of the world, and (whether you like it or not) it will need to act to defend its interest against rival powers that would want to gain strategic profit from whatever opportunity they have. “America First” should not mean total and counterproductive isolationism.
The origins of “America First”
It makes sense that this slogan would awake the most instinctive desires of isolationism in the American psyche. After all, the original purpose behind America First was to precisely rally the American people for a policy of willful ignorance towards the threats the country faced on the world stage.
This history, however, did not begin in January 2017 with Trump after years of misadventures in the Middle East, but in September 1940, when the world was looking with impotence as Hitler devoured the entirety of Western Europe with Churchill’s Great Britain being the only global power in the way of Hitler’s world dominance.
The America First Committee was formed as a pressure group opposing FDR’s policy of support towards Britain in its fight with Nazi Germany. The group stated that giving aid to Britain was depleting America’s resources, and would bring the U.S closer to war against Germany. They thought the best policy for American interests was to not get involved in the war in Europe, even if doing so would bring the fall of Britain, as it was unlikely for Germany to attack the U.S mainland.
For the AFC, Europe was not fundamental for American interests. After all, why should American boys be sent to fight a war against enemies that are oceans away?
Despite counting with an American superstar (and raging antisemite) as aviator Charlie Lindgbherg on their side, the AFC’s efforts were (thankfully) unsuccessful and the U.S entered the war after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Germany declared war. After that we all know what happened: the allied forces managed to defeat both Germany and Japan in a bloody four-year war.
Leaving the history lesson aside, the purpose and rationale of the original America First Committee can be seen in today’s trend towards isolationism. Many tend to have a rather narrow and short-sighted approach towards national security, just like Lindberg’s America firsters did in 1940, if it is not happening directly at America’s immediate borders, then it is not our concern.
One thing is to propose a foreign policy that prevents the waste of limited financial and military resources the U.S has and having a more surgical, rational approach to foreign interventions, with the aim of pushing American interests. A very different one is to pretend that the U.S can simply ignore what is happening in the world and bury our collective heads under the sand, “too busy” to care about what happens in the neighborhood.
Trump’s “America First” rehash was definitely closer to the first definition than to the latter, and those conservatives who are trying to faithfully recreate Lindhberg’s isolationism are doing the GOP no favors.
Which way should America First go?
The first meaning of America First is not fully in tune with former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. In fact, the Republican administration, far from isolating itself from the world, was quite aggressive against various global threats and enemies, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
With regard to the Americas, the Trump administration stood up to the triangle of socialist tyrannies established for years in Havana, Caracas, and Managua. He increased pressure not only in rhetoric, but also applied more sanctions and took much more forceful action than his predecessor, Barack Obama.
In the Middle East, there was also a change in policy. Iran had a hard time with Trump, the Soleimani operation remained in the minds of many, but there was an explicit work to weaken the Iranian theocracy and give more power back to Israel, Washington’s historical ally. The Abraham Accords are a perfect example.
The cases of Iran and America are emblematic, because Obama and Trump were polar opposites, for in the Democrat’s administration there were several key mistakes that benefited Washington’s enemies and reverberated for the worse within the United States. The first was the flawed nuclear deal with Iran, which led to a growth of influence of the theocracy in the Middle East.
Related to the nuclear deal, many do not know the story of Project Cassandra, a DEA operation aimed at disabling the largest transnational criminal network operated by Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist organization allied with Iran. The Obama administration systematically torpedoed Project Cassandra in order, according to DEA agents linked to the mission, not to upset Iran and reach the deal. The result was tragic: Hezbollah grew in influence throughout South America, especially in the triple border of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and, especially, Venezuela. This Lebanese organization is a vital cog in the wheel of the drug trafficking system in the region. The natural alliance between Hezbollah-Iran and the Maduro regime had a direct impact on the security of the United States since this country is one of the destinations for drugs coming from Venezuela.
This is one of many examples of how foreign policy can affect national security. Obama preferred to let Iran and Hezbollah grow, the theocracy and terrorist militia allied with Venezuela, and between them, they sent drugs to the United States. If America First puts America first, it should not be inconvenient to defend national interests across borders.
Now there is the Cuban case, an island just a few miles away that has been present in American history since its origins. In social networks, especially Twitter, there is a fervent debate among conservatives; on one side are conservatives who criticize Republican representatives -especially Cuban Americans- who are supporting the demonstrators on the island by organizing protests in the United States; in the other corner are conservatives who support a US leadership to pressure the Castro regime and support the Cubans.
What happens in Cuba undoubtedly affects the United States. Havana directly influences the internal affairs of most of the Americas. In some cases, destabilizing consolidated or imperfect democracies, in others supporting authoritarianism that affect the United States, such as Venezuela. Cubans, in fact, have been fleeing the island for decades to settle in the United States and today they are fundamental in states such as Florida for the names of authorities.
The Republican Party benefits directly from Cuban conservatism, a vote based on family values, religious values, that bets on security and is also attentive to how the White House and the traditional parties focus their foreign policy or positions towards Cuba. Today the GOP has captured the attention of Cuban Americans and that was evident in the last elections in November. Cubans living in the United States will continue to be fundamental in electing representatives, mayors, and governors in the state of Florida, but also in presidential elections.
The GOP, if it has aspirations of power and reaching the White House, needs to hold on to Florida no matter what; and an isolationist America First directly undermines those interests.
Now, the America First concept is currently inapplicable in its entirety. It needs to adapt to the new times. Putting American workers ahead of foreign jobs, avoiding costly, unnecessary, and ineffective interventionism, protecting borders and guarding national interests, confronting the tyrannical growth of Big Tech must not exclude battles abroad. The United States, as a power, must defend its interests and those of its citizens.