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America’s Isolationist Default

There is much truth to the view that President Donald Trump's "America First" policies are an abdication of global leadership, sounding the death knell of the post-World War II multilateral order that the United States shaped and sustained. At the same time, this troubling turn represents a reversion to long-standing US values.

BERKELEY – Donald Trump’s “America First” policies are widely regarded as an abdication of global leadership, sounding the death knell of the post-World War II multilateral order that the United States shaped and sustained. There is much truth to this view. At the same time, this troubling turn represents a reversion to long-standing US values. Acknowledging that the second half of the twentieth century was an anomaly, rather than the norm, raises troubling questions about the nature of US leadership and about the fate of multilateralism after Trump.

As a resource-rich continental economy separated from Europe and Asia by vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the US has always been tempted by isolationism. Thomas Jefferson famously spoke of no entangling alliances. The Monroe Doctrine, dating from 1823, was not just an assertion of US dominance in the Western Hemisphere, but also an effort to keep America out of European wars. In the twentiethcentury, the US entered World Wars I and II years late, long after the stakes were clear, and only after being directly provoked by German U-boat attacks and the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.

Moreover, the US long sought to advance its interests abroad unilaterally rather than through multilateral engagement. The Monroe Doctrine is a case in point. America’s refusal following World War I to join the League of Nations is another.

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