‘Isolationist’ Label Tells Story That Makes Trump Sound Like George Washington

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2019/02/26/isolationist-label-tells-story-that-makes-trump-sound-like-george-washington/

President Donald Trump is this week in Vietnam for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Last year, he had a similar meeting in Singapore.

In Trump’s first two years in office, he also visited Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Italy, Belgium, Poland, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Switzerland, Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland, Argentina, and Iraq.

Later this year, Trump is also scheduled to make return visits to the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. His vice president and cabinet secretaries have also traveled internationally.

What is the best word to describe a president with this level of foreign engagement? The best word for a president who devoted his State of the Union address earlier this month to celebrating the “incredible heroes” of World War II, American soldiers he credited for liberating Europe, saving civilization from tyranny, and defeating fascism?

If you’re the New York Times, the word you use is “isolationist.”

So a “White House Memo” in the Times news columns earlier this year referred, in all apparent seriousness, to what the article termed Trump’s “isolationist approach to foreign allies.”

Earlier this month another Times news article insisted, “The Trump administration has often been guided by an isolationist credo espoused by the president and his advisers.”

A third Times news article from earlier this year also referred to what it described as “Mr. Trump’s isolationist policies.”

It’d be easy to describe this as just another example of New York Times cluelessness. 

It would also be easy to describe it as a case of New York Times double standards. When the House of Representatives, newly under Democratic control, recently voted to approve a resolution “directing the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen,” the Times didn’t describe the House Democrats, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as isolationists.

When U.S.  Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Cambridge), campaigning earlier this month in Dover, New Hampshire for the Democratic presidential nomination, asserted “endless wars are not a way to honor our military or to make our country safer,” the Times didn’t call her an isolationist.

At least some other newspapers don’t seem to be buying the New York Times accusation. A smart column in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh suggested that Trump, in certain respects, may be less isolationist than Barack Obama was. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the Hudson Institute’s Walter Russell Mead observed, “President Trump’s foreign policy is anything but isolationist. It is ambitious, interventionist and global.”

So why the misconception, or the false accusation?

Trump himself, questioned on the issue by the New York Times in March of 2016, responded, “Not isolationist, I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First’.”

America First,” though, was an isolationist slogan in the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the phrase used by Americans trying to avoid getting involved in the conflict that became World War II. 

Trump’s Southern border wall building and his resistance to open-ended American military deployments in places such as Syria are other policies that fuel the “isolationist” accusation.

If Trump seems conflicted about some of these matters, he is in excellent company. Actually, he represents the American public’s own views.

One of my favorite foreign policy sages, Michael Ledeen, wrote in National Review on the evening of September 11, 2001, that America is “a bundle of contradictions, at once … the most isolationist and the most interventionist people on earth.”

Trump’s State of the Union praised the World War II veterans, but it also observed, “Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives. More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in fighting wars in the Middle East. As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

Americans vacillate on these issues depending on whether we have been directly attacked, how severely, and how much time has elapsed since. Our views also change depending on how well, or badly, went the most recently waged war.

We’re not particularly eager to take on all the world’s problems, but neither are we usually ready to cede that leading role to a global rival, or to stand by and do nothing at all as threats gather. On the evidence so far, Trump grasps this.

Michael Mandelbaum, writing in the March/April 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs, recommends a new American foreign policy of containing China, Russia, and Iran, describing it as a kind of golden mean between “Washington’s occasional impulses to do more (try to transform other societies) or less (retreat from global engagement altogether).”

Our February government holiday honors the birthday of George Washington. Washington the general won American independence in part on the strength of assistance from France — Lafayette — and Poland — Kosciuszko. Washington the president gave a farewell address advocating “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

It’s too soon to declare Trump a brilliant foreign policy president. But it’s not too soon to recognize him as a classically American one. 


Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.