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Is Liberal Internationalism Dead?

MEDFORD – One hundred years ago this month, US President Woodrow Wilson was agonizing over whether to enter World War I. Just a few months earlier, Wilson had won re-election partly by campaigning on a policy of neutrality, which he was now preparing to abandon, along with the slogan “America first.” But now, for the first time in more than 80 years, a US president has taken it up again, to promote a foreign-policy stance that directly controverts the doctrine Wilson embraced.

It was not until 1919, after the war was over, that Wilson defined his foreign-policy vision of “liberal internationalism”: support for collective security and promotion of open markets among democracies, regulated by a system of multinational institutions ultimately dependent on the United States. Though the US Senate initially rejected Wilson’s vision, particularly his support for joining the League of Nations, Franklin D. Roosevelt revived liberal internationalism after 1933. It has helped to shape the foreign policies of most US presidents ever since – until Trump.

The “America first” approach that Trump advocates comprises disdain for NATO, contempt for the European Union, and mockery of Germany’s leadership role in Europe. It also includes rejection of economic openness, reflected in Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and call to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has also pledged to back out of the Paris climate agreement.

Unlike Wilson, Trump seems to see no value in maintaining and deepening ties with other democracies. Instead, he seems drawn to authoritarian leaders – in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin – and often leaves democratic leaders watching from the wings.