In the lead up to World War II, prevailing sentiment in the United States was that European alliances and wars should be left to Europeans. The Great Depression and its aftermath had America looking squarely inwards. This isolationist thinking manifested itself in a harsh halt on large-scale immigration and a withdrawal from involvement in Europe and Asia. Of course, the advent of the Second World War thrust America back into the role of global hegemon and police force. Now, more than 80 eighty years later, President Donald Trump seeks to bring us back to the isolationist ideas of the 1930s. Moreover, the Trump is Administration’s foreign policy seeks to withdraw the United States from key military alliances and trade deals. At the same time, Trump engages in a dangerously militaristic variation of that 1930s isolationism.
A Brief History of Isolationism
The roots of American isolationism predate the 1930s. George Washington’s famous Farewell Address in 1796 was its first iteration, with Washington calling to have with Europe “as little political connection as possible.” This form of isolationism emerged after the War for Independence, when America’s greatest external threats were Britain, France, and Spain. The question of European involvement, then, was purely one of national security. At the time, the United States was still a young and developing country, and mostly unconcerned with aggressive foreign intervention. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams famously declared in 1821, “[America] does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Isolationism in the 1930s took a slightly different—and more dangerous—form. The context behind the United States’ withdrawal from international affairs was a strong sentiment that America had little to gain and much to lose from its foreign allies. World War I was the bloodiest in history, and the financial crash of 1929 crippled the U.S. economy. Even more importantly, the U.S. was left with substantial held-debt from the war, most of which was never in fact repaid. All of these factors and others converged to create an actively isolationist Congress. The most concrete form this opposition took was the America First Committee. The Committee demanded U.S. neutrality in Germany’s war with Britain, advocated a negotiated peace with Hitler, and opposed FDR’s Lend-Lease Act (1941), which sold arms to Britain. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, it was clear that the isolationists had lost. President Roosevelt declared war and thrust the United States to the forefront of international politics for the next seventy years.
But how does any of this history inform the type of isolationism adopted by the Trump administration? Trump Isolationism appears on the surface to strongly resemble 1930s isolationism. Indeed, the America First movement—in name alone—seems to appeal to some of the same forces that brought Donald Trump to power. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” could be read, alternatively, as “Make America First Again.” In the first three weeks of his presidency, Trump issued an executive order banning immigration from six countries in the Middle East. In a campaign speech, he declared NATO, the largest and most important military alliance in the world, “obsolete.” Trump supported Brexit and is vocally critical of the role of international bodies like the European Union and the United Nations. His vision for the United States was most clear in a campaign speech: “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”
The America First movement of the late 1930s followed a similar blueprint. First organized by students at Yale University, America First believed that the United States should remove itself from the mess of European alliances and trade deals. In retrospect, the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany made this position untenable, although many America Firsters continued to oppose U.S. involvement well into World War II. While the context is different today, Trump is clearly sympathetic to these isolationist ideas. In April, he gave a foreign policy speech that declared that “America First” would be “the major and overriding theme of my administration.”
The Imperialist-Isolationist Tight Rope
However, Trump’s foreign policy vision is not simply a straight regurgitation of the isolationism of the 1930s and the America First Committee. While it is true that Trump seeks to opt out of global trade deals and military alliances, his rhetoric is also harshly militaristic. A Salon article last month was titled, “Forget ‘isolationism’—Trump longs to build up our military and then use it.” This sentiment is backed by statements from Sean Spicer, Trump’s Press Secretary, who admitted that Trump would not be opposed to joint military action with Russia in Syria. Trump has also stated his desire, on multiple occasions, to expand the military. It’s important to note how different this ideology is from that of the original America First movement. A central theme of that committee’s mission was a desire to disengage militarily from international conflict. Trump appears to have no such qualms.
So if it isn’t a reiteration of Washington’s Farewell Address, or the America First movement, what is Trump’s foreign policy vision? It is a complicated question, to be sure, but Thomas Wright, of the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., has a promising answer. Wright argues that Trump’s isolationist ideology has three major parts: (1) opposition to U.S. alliances; (2) opposition to free trade; and (3) support for authoritarianism. In the context of his speeches and brief time in office, Wright’s theory makes sense. Trump, like the anti-war America Firsters, wants the U.S. to withdraw from key military alliances and trade deals. Unlike them, however, Trump espouses a strange combination of militarism and isolationism, a divide one opinion writer termed “the imperialist-isolationist tight rope.”
Predicting the results of such a foreign policy vision is difficult, if only because such a vision has never been seen before. However, there are some early indications that Trump’s fiery brand of America First policies could destabilize the international order. Already there are worries among the Asian media—particularly in Japan and South Korea—that Trump’s policies will allow China to exert regional dominance without checks. Also, fueled by reports of Russian ties, many foreign policy experts worry that Russian President Vladimir Putin will attempt to reclaim some of the satellite countries lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite Wright’s three-pronged theory, Trump’s foreign policy is inherently somewhat contradictory. And unlike previous presidents—think the Bush Doctrine—there’s no surefire way to figure out how Donald Trump will respond to an increasingly fragile global landscape.