America First: False Choice, False Promise

by oxfamcanada | January 24, 2017
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The moral poverty of the America First idea lies in the false choice it presents: are you a part of the American family or the human family? We shouldn’t have to choose.

By Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America 

When President Trump launched his “America First” foreign policy today, he channeled something more particular than a general desire to keep America safe and prosperous. America First recalls the isolationist movement in the 1930s that took shape to maintain neutrality in the Second World War. The movement was grounded in a firm indifference to the fate of people outside the United States and a pugnacious form of nationalism that, until this year, had not found a home in either of the two major political parties.

The problem with America First is that it is both based on false pretenses and morally shallow. President Trump asserts that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and workers have been abandoned because of its investments in a safe and prosperous international community. Even assuming those investments don’t greatly benefit Americans (they do); they pale in comparison to government defense spending and private wealth accumulated by exploitation of a tax code favorable to the ultra-wealthy. Less than one percent of the federal budget is devoted to foreign aid, and most international peace operations are led by the United Nations, to which the US devotes less than one tenth of the federal budget and puts no servicemen or women at risk.

The moral poverty of the America First idea lies in the false choice it presents to all Americans: are you a part of the American family or the human family? America First insists that we cannot feel national pride if we also feel allegiance to humanity. And it tells us the only kind of international work that delivers for Americans is little deals and accommodations between us and them, rather than great feats of cooperation that unite and benefit everyone.  Our humanitarian ideals, our diverse faith traditions, and our experience of international cooperation tell us that this is wrong and dangerous.

The America First movement scapegoats globalism as the source of America’s problems, but offers only platitudes in its place. There is much to dislike about the way our economy has served the interests of elites at the expense of everyone else. And President Trump is right to assail the powerful for structuring an economic and political system that allows 8 people to have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion on the planet.

But while pitting the interests of Americans against everyone else may be an easy message to sell, one that satisfies our basest tribal passions, it will do little to address the real, practical grievances many Americans have expressed.

Over the next four years and beyond, we must work to advance the cause of a justice-driven internationalism. Like the globalists that President Trump has disdainfully portrayed, we unapologetically value global security and prosperity, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable. And at the same time, we acknowledge the unique responsibility that the US government has to protect and represent US citizens even as it works to advance the global good. Much as individuals looking out for their neighbors or cities are concerned about the states and countries of which they are a part, we simply do not see the contradiction in or feel the tensions of a multilayered identity that accommodates both US and global citizenship. As President Trump takes aim at the international order that enables win-win cooperation, we will defend it and push it to be ever more responsive to people with little voice in the international system.

We think there are lots of you out there, just like us. You want to keep the United States secure and prosperous by taking a proportionate, reality-based approach to the threats and opportunities we face, rejecting the politics of fear and the demonization of the other. You affirm the equal dignity of all people and the right of all people to be heard in decisions that affect their lives. You wish to promote the international rule of law, recognizing that collective decision-making on the basis of clear, fair rules that are universally agreed is preferable to unilateral decisions by powerful states, corporations, and individuals. You are offended by the injustices of our times, including extreme inequality and climate change, and favor multilateral partnerships that leave no one behind in the US or elsewhere. You care deeply about the principle of equity, and are committed to overcoming contemporary and historic oppression on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and other identifiers. You favor pragmatic decision-making on the basis of facts and science. And you believe the cooperative pursuit of global peace, prosperity, sustainability, and human security reflects our values and is the surest way to advance American interests in an interconnected world.

If you are out there – and we think you are – we hope you will join us.

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