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An “America First” World



What would become of the world if the United States became a normal great power? This isn’t to ask what would happen if the United States retreated into outright isolationism. It’s simply to ask what would happen if the country behaved in the same narrowly self-interested, frequently exploitive way as many great powers throughout history—if it rejected the idea that it has a special responsibility to shape a liberal order that benefits the wider world. That would be an epic departure from 80 years of American strategy. But it’s not an outlandish prospect anymore.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency on an “America first” platform. He sought a United States that would be mighty but aloof, one that would maximize its advantages while minimizing its entanglements. Indeed, the defining feature of Trump’s worldview is his belief that the United States has no obligation to pursue anything larger than its own self-interest, narrowly construed. Today, Trump is again vying for the presidency, as his legion of foreign policy followers within the Republican Party grows. Meanwhile, fatigue with key aspects of American globalism has become a bipartisan affair. Sooner or later, under Trump or another president, the world could face a superpower that consistently puts “America first.”

That version of the United States wouldn’t be a global dropout. On some issues, it might be more aggressive than before. But it would also be far less concerned with defending global norms, providing public goods, and protecting distant allies. Its foreign policy would become less principled, more zero-sum. Most broadly, this version of the United States would wield outsized power absent any outsized ethos of responsibility—so it would decline to bear unequal burdens in pursuit of the real but diffuse benefits the liberal order provides.

The results would not be pretty. A more normal U.S. foreign policy would produce a world that would also be more normal—that is, more vicious and chaotic. An “America first” world could be fatal for Ukraine and other states vulnerable to autocratic aggression. It would release the disorder U.S. hegemony has long contained.

Yet the United States itself might not do so badly—at least for a while—in a world where raw power matters more because the liberal order has been gutted. And even if things really fell apart, Americans would be the last ones to notice. “America first” is so seductive because it reflects a basic truth. The United States would ultimately suffer in a more anarchic world—but between now and then, everyone else would pay the greater price.


All countries pursue their interests, but not all countries define those interests the same way. The concept of national interest traditionally emphasized the protection of one’s territory, population, wealth, and influence. Since World War II, however, most American leaders and elites have rejected the notion that it should be a normal country acting in normal way. After all, the war had demonstrated how the normal rhythms of international affairs could plunge humanity, and even a distant United States, into horror. It had thereby discredited the original “America First” movement, made up of opponents of U.S. intervention in World War II—and made clear that the world’s mightiest country must radically enlarge its view of what its interests entailed.

The resulting project was unprecedented in scope. It involved forging alliances that circled the globe and protected countries thousands of miles away, rebuilding devastated countries and creating a thriving free world economy, and cultivating democracy in distant lands. Not least, it meant abjuring the policies of conquest and naked exploitation that other great powers had so commonly pursued, and instead defending norms—nonaggression, self-determination, freedom of the commons—that would offer humanity a more peaceful and cooperative path. The United States was now assuming “the responsibility which God Almighty intended,” President Harry Truman declared in 1949, “for the welfare of the world in generations to come.”

This language of “responsibility” was revealing. American policymakers never doubted that their country would benefit from living in a healthier world. But creating that world required Washington to calculate issues of self-interest in a remarkably capacious way. No prior definition of national interest had required the world’s most secure, invulnerable country to risk nuclear war over territories on distant continents, or to rebuild former enemies as industrial dynamos and economic competitors. And no prior definition of national interest required making dramatically unequal contributions to the common security so one’s allies could deliberately underspend on their own defense.

“I see the advantages to the Western world,” President John Kennedy griped, in the early 1960s, of one such arrangement—Washington’s role in stabilizing and lubricating the international economy. “But what is the national, narrow advantage” for the United States? U.S. policy only made sense if one believed that the pursuit of national, narrow advantage had previously consigned the world to carnage—so Washington must create a larger international climate that benefited Americans by benefiting like-minded peoples around the globe. “The pattern of leadership,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson had explained in 1952, “is a pattern of responsibility.” Americans must “take no narrow view of our interests but . . . conceive of them in a broad and understanding way.”


One doesn’t have to think that everything has been wonderful since 1945 to recognize that history changed fundamentally once this “pattern of responsibility” began to animate American statecraft. Growth exploded and living standards soared—first in the West, and then globally—in the climate of security and economic cooperation that U.S. leadership fostered. War persisted, but great-power war and outright territorial conquest became artifacts of an earlier, darker age. Democracy flourished in the West and radiated outward. The U.S. security blanket smothered the embers that had recently set western Europe and East Asia alight, allowing one-time enemies to reconcile and turning those regions into relative oases of prosperity and peace. Humanity never had it so good, and the United States stood at the center of a liberal order that gradually expanded to cover much of the globe.

Yet Americans were never entirely sold on the idea that they should maintain this order indefinitely. As the Cold War began, the U.S. diplomat George Kennan doubted that Americans were up to the task of global leadership. As that conflict ended, with a stunning Western victory, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote that the United States could now become “a normal country in a normal time.”

Kirkpatrick was right that there was no precedent in the first 150 years of American history for the commitments the country had undertaken since 1945. These abnormal commitments had emerged from profoundly abnormal circumstances. American leaders had believed that they must pursue an audaciously global foreign policy because a world left to its own devices had just suffered two cataclysmic crackups in a generation—and the onset of the Cold War threatened a third. They could do so because World War II left the United States with roughly as much economic and military heft as all the other powers combined. This combination of strength and fear transformed U.S. policy. But nowhere is it written that Washington must forever persist in this project as the conditions that produced it fade into the past. And today, there are indications Washington won’t keep doing it indefinitely.

Creating a healthier world required Washington to calculate issues of self-interest in a remarkably capacious way.

The last three U.S. presidents have all aspired to escape the Middle East. As military threats multiply, the Pentagon is struggling to uphold stability in all three key theaters of Eurasia at once. Protectionism is surging; both major parties disdain the major trade deals Washington once used to drive the global economy forward. In late 2023 and early 2024, it took an agonizing six months of delay for Congress to approve life-giving aid for Ukraine. And nowhere is this new mood more palpable than in Trump’s vision of “America first.”

That phrase has obvious echoes of the 1930s, which is why Trump is often called an isolationist. But he isn’t one, and neither were the original “isolationists.” The America Firsters of the 1930s favored U.S. dominance of the Western Hemisphere and supported a strong defense in a dangerous world. What they opposed was the idea that Washington should be responsible for upholding a larger global order, or that it should pick fights with countries that—whatever their crimes—weren’t directly menacing the United States itself.

The crucial link between Trump and this earlier America First movement is that he wants to take the country back to a more conventional view of its interests abroad. Trump has questioned why the United States should risk sparking World War III for the sake of defending small states in Europe or Asia. He has been skeptical of supporting Ukraine against Russia and defending Taiwan from a Chinese assault. (Contrary to what some analysts argue, there isn’t an Indo-Pacific exception in Trump’s version of “America first.”) Trump bemoans the costs and belittles the benefits of U.S. alliances; he bristles at the asymmetries of a global economy Washington has long overseen. He evinces little interest in supporting democracy or protecting important if intangible norms such as nonaggression.

To be sure, under Trump, the United States was hardly a passive superpower. As his trade war with China, ratcheting up of tensions with Iran and North Korea, and economic dustups with U.S. allies between demonstrated, Trump does believe Washington should throw its weight around when its interests are at stake. He just doesn’t believe those interests include the liberal order U.S. power has long sustained.


“America first” never got a full test during Trump’s presidency, thanks to the obstruction of more mainstream advisers, the opposition of Republican internationalists in Congress, and the indiscipline of Trump himself. Yet the first two factors could be less salient if Trump retakes the White House, given his growing ideological sway in the GOP and the care he will take to surround himself with acolytes this time around. And regardless of whether Trump wins in November, his ideas are increasingly central to the U.S. debate. So it’s worth imagining the contours and consequences of an “America first” agenda, consistently applied.

One element of this strategy would be a deglobalized defense. The United States might maintain unmatched military strength. It might invest more heavily in missile defense, cyber-capabilities, and other tools to protect the homeland. It might hit back hard when adversaries attacked its citizens or challenged its sovereignty. Yet Washington wouldn’t keep defending distant states whose survival wasn’t obviously critical to American security or keep providing public goods that were mostly consumed by others. Why should the United States risk war with Russia over Ukraine and the Baltic states, or with China over semi-submerged rocks in the South China Sea? Why must the Pentagon protect Chinese trade with Europe from Houthi attacks? A normal country wouldn’t.

A more normal United States would also be a more reticent ally. Great powers haven’t always viewed alliances as sacred; the history of alliance politics is full of disappointments and double-crosses. At the very least, then, Washington would treat its alliances less as strategic blood oaths than as bargains perpetually ripe for renegotiation. In exchange for continued protection, it might demand much higher defense spending from the Europeans or oil production from the Saudis. Or maybe Washington would simply quit its alliances, leaving Eurasia to the Eurasians—and counting on the United States’s geographic isolation, ability to control its maritime approaches, and nuclear arsenal to keep aggressors away.

Continentalism might thus displace globalism. Even a more restrained United States would strive to dominate the Western Hemisphere. This would become more important as Washington gave up the ability to manage Eurasia’s security affairs. So “America first” would feature a reenergized Monroe Doctrine: U.S. retrenchment from Old World outposts would presage intensified and perhaps heavier-handed efforts to safeguard American influence in the New World, and to prevent rivals from gaining a foothold there.

A more normal United States would also be a more reticent ally.

Economically, an “America first” strategy would feature protectionism and predation. The United States would remain engaged in the global economy. But it would seek to dramatically rebalance the burdens and benefits of that involvement. There would be no more tolerating asymmetric discrimination by trade partners, even democratic allies. Washington would, rather, wield its unmatched power to wring greater benefits out of key relationships. Just as Trump pummeled China and the European Union with tariffs, the United States would get more coercive with allies and adversaries alike. The United States could afford to pull its punches when it accounted for half of global production, the thinking goes, but a more economically competitive world would require a bare-knuckle response.

Not least, the United States would pull back from the liberal aspects of the liberal order. If Trump’s first term is any guide, the United States would invest less in promoting democracy and human rights in faraway, seemingly inhospitable places. It would become more likely to cut explicitly transactional deals with undemocratic regimes. Under a second Trump administration, the United States might even become a model for illiberal behavior, as aspiring strongmen overseas imitated the tactics of the aspiring strongman in the White House. Washington could also deemphasize international law and international organizations, in hopes of loosening the constraints—legal or institutional—the liberal order sometimes placed on American power.

What would all this mean for U.S. relations with rival powers? An “America first” strategy might entail persistent friction with China, especially over trade. Where autocratic aggression impinged directly on U.S. security and prosperity—Iranian attacks that killed American citizens or a Chinese bid that choked off the flow of advanced semiconductors from Taiwan—the tensions could be sharp indeed. Yet a U.S. policy that downgraded liberal values would be reassuring to illiberal leaders, and Washington would be less inclined to confront Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran over violations of international norms or the coercion of small states thousands of miles from American shores. A certain accommodation of autocrats would fit naturally within this foreign policy. Any remaining conflict would be more a matter of traditional great-power rivalry—large, ambitious states clashing for wealth and influence—than something flowing from the American defense of an endangered liberal order.

In fact, the United States would still be a very great power in this scenario. Even if Washington focused only on maintaining primacy in the Western Hemisphere, it would have a sphere of influence larger than any other. In some areas, the United States would seek unilateral advantage less abashedly than before. A less exceptional United States might be less present and more predatory—a combination that could remake the wider world.


Critics of “America first” have warned that it would be devastating to global stability, and they’re probably right. The history of world politics before 1945 doesn’t give much hope that things will somehow sort themselves out. American leadership caged the demons—the programs of global expansion, the fratricidal fights within vital regions, the mutually immiserating protectionism, the threat of autocratic ascendancy—that tormented the world before.

Today, the United States is less powerful, relative to its competitors, than it was in 1945 or 1991. But American power still underpins what order the world enjoys. Just ask Ukraine, which would have been crushed by Russia without the arms, intelligence, and money Washington provided. Or ask the European countries clinging to NATO for protection against the Russian threat. In Asia, there is no coalition that can check Chinese power without U.S. participation. In the Middle East, recent events serve as a reminder that only the United States has the ability to defend vital sea-lanes and coordinate a regional defense against Iranian attacks.

This won’t change any time soon. Advocates of restraint may hope that American retrenchment will compel like-minded countries to step forward. But today—as Russia and China churn out arms and too many European and Asian democracies struggle to field minimally capable militaries—it seems a safer bet that the vacuum created by American retrenchment would be filled by the world’s most aggressive states.

In all likelihood, “America first” would be a disaster for frontline states—beginning but not ending with Ukraine—which would lose the support of the superpower that has bolstered them against aggressors next door. It would invite surging instability in global hotspots such as eastern Europe or the South China Sea, where autocratic powers confront weaker rivals. Norms that many people take for granted—the ability of commerce to traverse the seas unhindered, or the idea that conquest is inadmissible—could erode with shocking speed. Countries that have been able to cooperate under American protection might start eyeing one another more suspiciously once again. As disorder deepens, countries throughout Eurasia might arm themselves to the teeth, including with nuclear weapons, to ensure their survival. Or perhaps predation would simply run rampant as American retrenchment reduced the price on malign behavior.

Meanwhile, the global travails of democracy would worsen, particularly where fragile democracies coped with pressure exerted by powerful autocracies nearby. Mercantilism and protectionism might surge as the United States quit defending a positive-sum global economy—or even the relatively cooperative free-world economy the Biden administration has emphasized. States might scramble to lock up resources and markets if they no longer counted on the United States to sustain an open economic and maritime order. It took extraordinary U.S. commitment to turn the state of nature into Pax Americana. The return trip won’t be pleasant.


For the United States itself, though, it might not be so bad. The great irony of post-1945 foreign policy is that the country that created the liberal order is the country that least needs it. After all, the United States remains the world’s strongest actor. It has unrivaled geographic blessings and economic advantages. In a world rendered more anarchic by its policy choices, Washington might do okay, for a time.

The erosion of security around the Eurasian periphery would undo decades of geopolitical progress, but it wouldn’t immediately endanger the physical safety of the United States. In the 1930s, most Americans didn’t want to die for Danzig; in the 2020s, how many would really mind if Narva fell? Likewise, the return of territorial conquest would be tragic for smaller, vulnerable states, but it wouldn’t immediately inconvenience a superpower with nuclear weapons and oceanic moats.

The United States could also ride out the fragmentation of the international economy far better than most countries. Its unmatched power would give it tremendous leverage if commerce turned cutthroat—and its enormous resource endowments, vast internal market, and relatively modest trade dependence would leave it comparatively well suited for a protectionist world.

The United States wouldn’t exactly thrive in this scenario: turbulence that disrupted Middle Eastern oil flows or semiconductor shipments from Taiwan, could create global economic havoc that would not leave Americans unscathed. But perversely, such chaos might still benefit the United States in relative terms, because other countries would fare so much worse.

American power still underpins what order the world enjoys.

Countries in Europe and East Asia would find themselves compelled to make huge new investments in defense, while also contending with resurgent rivalries that might tear their regions apart. The collapse of security in the sea-lanes of the Middle East would primarily affect the European and Asian countries that depended on those trade routes most. Even Washington’s chief rival, China, would suffer tremendous damage if the liberal order collapsed, because—Chinese President Xi Jinping’s drive for self-reliance notwithstanding—it relied so heavily on foreign inputs and export markets.

Eventually, of course, the United States would pay a higher price. If China were someday able to dominate East Asia after American retrenchment, it might gain the power to coerce the United States economically and diplomatically, even if it could never invade militarily. The proliferation of Chinese influence in regions around the world could gradually give Beijing powerful geopolitical and geoeconomic advantages, rendering the United States insecure even within its hemispheric fortress. In the meantime, the international economic friction created by protectionism and chaos would drag down American growth, which could exacerbate social and political conflicts at home. And if democracy receded overseas and powerful autocracies advanced, autocratic voices within the United States might be empowered—as indeed happened in the 1930s.

In the ugliest scenario—but one that historians would immediately recognize—the United States would ultimately decide that the collapse of global order did require it to reengage, but from a significantly worse position, once matters within Eurasia had spun out of control. Yet it might take quite a while for this to happen. When the United States pulled back after World War I, it took a generation for the world to unravel so completely that Washington felt compelled to reengage. Until disaster struck, and the balance of power collapsed in Europe and Asia simultaneously, cascading disorder convinced most Americans to stay out of global affairs, rather than get back in. The same characteristics that insulate the United States from the deterioration of world order in the near term mean that Washington can wait a long time until that deterioration becomes intolerable.

The allure, and the tragedy, of “America first” is that a superpower’s good fortune will shield it—temporarily—from the consequences of its own bad decision-making. In time, the United States, too, would rue the rise of an “America first” world—but only after so many other countries had come to rue it first.


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