“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. … Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world ... ”
For all the lamentation about the level of rhetoric in this Trumped-up election year, the race between Donald Trump and all-but-certain Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is already shaping up to be a debate over America’s global role of the kind we haven’t had for decades, perhaps since the last “America First” movement of the late ‘30s. And it is a debate that some foreign-policy experts suggest is long overdue, even if it tends to distress U.S. allies around the world. ("The unthinkable has come to pass," Germany’s Die Welt wrote after Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee this week.)
It is also a debate that, were they still around to witness it, a majority of past U.S. presidents going back to George Washington would probably welcome—and most of them, believe it or not, might well take Trump’s side.
In his big foreign-policy rollout speech last week, Trump declared it was time “to shake the rust off of America’s foreign policy” and drop American pretensions about remaking the world in our image any longer. Or as he put it, in an obvious reference to the failed invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya, America should abandon the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy.” Brazenly calling his agenda “America First”—never mind that was the name of the notorious pre-World War II isolationist movement—he also directly challenged the 70 years of bipartisan consensus over the post-World War II global order that America created. He suggested that the world needs America far more than the other way around, and he effectively warned U.S. allies that without a new global deal that demands a kind of tribute paid to Washington for its defense umbrella—he wants them to “prove” they are our friends, he says—he’d walk away from the world’s trade table, so to speak.
“We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism,” Trump said. “The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down.”