The Damage That ‘America First’ Has Done

A self-interested strategy will not help the U.S. fight the coronavirus outbreak.

A full moon and the American flag.
Gary Hershorn / Getty

The National Security Strategy that President Donald Trump published during his first year in office describes an “America First foreign policy in action.” In an introductory message, the president declares, “We are prioritizing the interests of our citizens and protecting our sovereign rights as a nation.” He insists that “‘America First’ is not America alone.” His national security adviser and chief economic adviser at the time assured the public, “America will not lead from behind. This administration will restore confidence in American leadership as we serve the American people.”

While there have been reasons previously to question the approach, the coronavirus has posed the first real international crisis of Trump’s presidency. And judging by the administration’s actions, America First foreign policy in action isn’t restoring confidence in American leadership, and it isn’t serving the American people particularly well.

Rather than lead a cooperative international response, Trump has sought to blame the outbreak on China and then on Europe. America’s NATO allies were given no advance warning of the travel ban on their countries. A virtual meeting of the G-7 came at French President Emmanuel Macron’s instigation, not at Trump’s, even though the United States is chairing that group of the world’s leading economies. China’s leaders are gleefully running up their score in the great power competition by being generous where we are stingy.

Diplomatically, we’re not even doing the easy stuff, like broadcasting solidarity with other countries struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks or congratulating countries that appear to have broken the back of their epidemic. We don’t appear to have concern that poor countries with weak public-health systems might eventually bear the brunt of the pandemic. We seem only to resent Chinese philanthropists for sending medical supplies to us, rather than thanking them for providing much-needed assistance.

In addition to the systemic damage to America’s soft power, the president’s smug unilateralism has encouraged others to act just as selfishly. The European Commission is prohibiting export of coronavirus-related medicines and equipment to preserve them for EU use. India, where many of the world’s generic drugs are made, is prohibiting export both of medicines and of their constituent ingredients. Even the countries of Europe’s Schengen Area, which permits passport-free travel, are shutting their national borders in response to the pandemic. Rather than a coordinated international response that forestalls panic by sharing information and assistance, the United States has led a stampede to narrow national responses. And everyone in the world will be less safe for it.

The battle-weary architects of the post–World War II order understood that international cooperation is a way of creating strategic depth—which is to say, it increases the distance between the heart of a country and the external forces that might threaten it. Collaboration gives early warning of problems before they become exorbitantly dangerous and expensive to address. The American presidents who bolstered institutions such as NATO, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization understood that behaving in altruistic ways would create a reservoir of goodwill for when the United States needed to ask friends to help in hard times. That’s what people all over the world understood when they declared, after the 9/11 attacks, that “we are all Americans now.” But a cooperative international order creates more than a feeling of fellowship; it also allows national contributions to accumulate into resource levels that none of our nations could reach unilaterally. Cooperation is cost-effective, even if we wish others contributed more.

The Federal Reserve has just showed how international leadership is done, coordinating efforts with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank to cut interest rates and establish swap lines that assure dollar liquidity. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s actions reassured markets to the extent that this was possible under current circumstances. But the Fed acts independently on its mandate; it didn’t need White House leadership.

What could the United States be doing—and what should we be doing—to recoup our diplomatic losses and restore the international system our forebears worked so hard to create? First, we could express empathy for COVID-19 victims, and share some good humor at the aggravations. People all over the world watch American news, so Trump should try to model safe behavior, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a point of doing. Trump missed a chance to be publicly tested. A conversation with his doctor out in the open might have answered questions that lots of people who haven’t seen a doctor or can’t get a test likely have.

Instead of imposing travel bans, we should be working with other countries to test travelers at the point of origin—the airport they’re departing from—and not permit anyone to board flights with symptoms. We should be offering medical supplies and expertise to countries where sick travelers are stranded.

Trump should be burning up the phone lines with his fellow leaders, asking how their societies are doing, asking what’s working for them, making notes of things they need that the United States could help organize provision of. He should be tweeting appreciation for the international institutions and nongovernmental organizations that work on these issues, and raising money for them. He should be celebrating those on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, in the United States and beyond.

America has dominated the international order for the past seven decades because, although it has been self-interested, it has not been solely self-interested. America First strips away the goodness of America’s international engagement, leaving only the self-interest. Being different and better than that has made us safer and more prosperous. Trump’s foreign policy during this pandemic is revealing the high cost of America alone.