What “America First” Was Supposed to Mean

Before the phrase was co-opted by Trump, Ian Bremmer had an appealing vision for America’s future foreign policy strategy.


Several months ago, I made the great decision to read Ian Bremmer’s book Superpower – Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.

Bremmer is the president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk and consulting firm, as well as a writer for Time and a professor at NYU. He’s also become one of my favorite authors and speakers on the subject of global geopolitics. So many speakers can’t help but go on television and lose their composure as they shout down other guests and, sometimes, even the host. Bremmer is always composed, clear, and relatable.

His book is premised on the lack of coherent geopolitical strategy for the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prior to the breakup of the USSR, American foreign policy had a clear, bipartisan focus: prevent the expansion of Soviet influence. With its collapse, there hasn’t been a clearly defined foreign policy for the United States.

There have been clearly defined intentions with each of the presidential administrations since George W. Bush has been president, but these have largely been in reaction to the world, and especially in response to international terrorism. According to Bremmer, this lack of defined strategy in approaching the world puts the United States at a disadvantage. How can we achieve our global objectives when they change with every administration? How does the world know where America stands?

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth review of Superpower, though I will tell you that the book is excellent. Bremmer goes into great detail about three very specific options for America’s future role in the world. I won’t spoil his preferred geopolitical path, either.

But Bremmer does discuss a strategic vision called “Independent America,” and even uses the phrase “America first.” It differed from the vision that candidate Trump articulated during his campaign to become President. Trump had advocated reevaluating our alliances based purely on cost, supporting even the most brutal dictators foreign dictators if they showed some deference to American authority, and engaging in trade wars.

Bremmer describes an option for an America that leads by example. It rededicates itself to renewal at home, reducing the massive and disproportionate investment into global defense and investing in its own infrastructure. This comes not just in the form of roads and bridges, but in education for its future generations and the technology to compete economically in a twenty-first century world and beyond. Though it does not shrink from the responsibilities of its alliances, it does ask our allies to take on more of the burden of safeguarding global peace and stability.

His “America first” concept begs us to reexamine the values that make the United States a beacon of hope and inspiration to the world, and live them to their fullest. Living peacefully and with respect for others makes it hard for jihadists to recruit with the express mission of carrying out attacks against you, after all. The focus on creating a more perfect union at home means American energy and innovation can be directed towards fixing the inefficiencies of our state and federal governments, fixing an educational system underserving too many students, reexamining the best ways to keep Americans safe from internal and external threats without sacrificing individual freedom, and reducing the overextension and unsustainable cost of our global military.

We’re only three weeks into Trump’s presidency, so it’s still too soon to tell what long-term strategy, if any, will be employed. Early signs aren’t encouraging, though. The travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations has generated ill-will in many countries where we need to be winning the battle of ideas in the minds of young people. Trump’s trashing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership puts China in a position to define the rules and the future of trade in Asia and the Pacific Rim. He also seems hell-bent on spending even more money on the US military, even though the Pentagon has shown it already wastes a lot of it, while significantly increasing the saber-rattling towards Iran. Little emphasis has been made on actually investing tax dollars at home to benefit the American people.

I’ll be thinking of Bremmer’s options for American geopolitical strategy as I watch the decisions made by this administration, and as I listen to the vision described by those who seek to lead this country in the future. I’ll also be looking forward to seeing him on television, in print, and even on Facebook.

One must also wonder if Bremmer’s proposition is even possible in the current American political climate. Will American voters have the patience necessary to support a long-term strategy, or will they become reactionary if some unforeseen crisis hits? Can American politicians separate themselves from the powerful special interests that want to maintain or increase defense spending for the benefit of the defense industry?

America must not only choose a long-term geopolitical strategy, but lay out a path to make that choice possible, as well. I hope that, well into the future, we continue to have the freedom to choose.


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