“America First”? Rethinking the
Meaning of Self-Interest

On his latest foreign trip, President Trump again invoked the idea of “America first.” As someone who is repelled by Trump and his presidency, I am a little reluctant to justify something he nominally upholds. But actually his support for this policy is all the more reason it needs to be clarified and defended—defended not only against those who criticize it, but against those, like Trump, who embrace it for the wrong reasons.

“America first” endorses the pursuit of the country’s self-interest. But what exactly does self-interest entail?

Many think it precludes cooperation with other nations. They attack it for being “isolationist” or “unilateralist.” But if we look carefully at those fuzzy terms, we have to wonder what is really being condemned. After all, self-interest is entirely compatible with, and often requires, cooperation with others. No sane person advocates an unconcern with world events, since they can obviously harm or benefit all of us. In one’s personal life self-interest does not call for the individual to renounce relationships with people and to live as a recluse, and the same is true in foreign affairs. Cooperating with other nations in, say, removing North Korea’s nuclear threat, is patently in our interest.

So the issue is not cooperation vs. “isolation,” but rather cooperation that furthers our interests vs. cooperation that doesn’t. The issue, in other words, is the standard by which to choose our actions in the international sphere. Are we to make decisions by the standard of America’s self-interest, or are we to surrender our interests for some other, “higher” objective? Should we act according to our judgment of how best to defend ourselves, or should we defer to the wishes of an international community?

The antithesis of self-interest is not cooperation, but self-sacrifice—the surrender of our interests to the needs of others. “Nation-building,” for example, is self-sacrificial. Deploying American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to protect us against attack but to repair soccer fields and keep warring factions from one another’s throats, is self-sacrificial. Refraining from interdicting supply ships headed to North Korea simply because the U.N. fails to grant us permission to do so, is self-sacrificial. Sending American taxpayers’ money as foreign aid to various nations, particularly ones that are impoverished because of the statist ideologies they have adopted, is self-sacrificial.

When such decisions are made by the architects of our foreign policy, they are premised on the idea that self-sacrifice is a virtue—that stronger nations must serve weaker ones, that our actions in the global arena require collective ratification, that the rights of Americans must be subordinated to the demands of the rest of the world.

The accusations of “isolationism” and “unilateralism” are actually aimed not at sheer indifference to various world events, but at self-interested indifference—or, more accurately, at the self-interested rejection of demands for self-sacrifice. And that is what “America first” genuinely espouses. It calls for making U.S. self-interest the basis of our foreign policy. It demands a resolute willingness to act whenever our interests are threatened—and an equally resolute unwillingness when they aren’t.

What, then, defines America’s self-interest? A nation’s self-interest consists of the interests of its citizens. And there is one fundamental social value that is in everyone’s interest: individual freedom. The ultimate goal of American foreign policy—the end to which all alliances and confrontations are the means—is the preservation of Americans’ freedom against attacks from abroad. “America first,” properly, is a policy of taking action to defend the individual rights of Americans—the rights to their property, to their liberty, to their lives—when they are physically threatened. Concomitantly, it is a policy of refusing to sacrifice those rights by elevating the needs of other nations above our own.

To sacrifice is to give up something for no equal value in return. In dealings between people, the alternative to sacrifice is trade, whereby the parties cooperatively engage in voluntary exchange, to mutual benefit. Each recognizes that self-interest—authentic, rational self-interest—requires interacting with others by offering value for value. On this understanding of one’s long-range interests, there is no victimization and no duplicity; there is only honest, mutually beneficial exchange. Trade rests on, and reinforces, the idea that, within the proper parameters, people’s interests are not in conflict.

A foreign policy based on self-interest, therefore, embraces free trade, with everyone (leaving aside dealings with countries that pose military dangers to us) allowed to seek out the best products at the lowest prices—which is, incidentally, how a society prospers.

This is radically different from Trump’s outlook.

Trump cannot conceive of trade as being mutually beneficial. Instead, he believes that one party’s gain comes only at another’s loss. His ideal is the conniving wheeler-dealer, master of the “art of the deal,” who manages to put one over on his partner. His view of human interaction is that one must be either victimizer or victim, predator or prey. So he calls on the government to intervene and decide who is to be favored and who is to be sacrificed.

Trump’s interpretation of “America first” is shaped by the collectivist notion of economic nationalism. Do you want to buy goods from sellers abroad? Are you a foreign-born person who wants to lead a self-supporting life in America? Are you a businessman who wants to outsource work to India or build a factory in Mexico? Trump declares that you will be stopped in order to shield America from “outsiders.” Native-born people are made into a privileged collective for whose sake your rights are to be sacrificed. America’s self-interest is thus defined not by the preservation of freedom but by the enshrinement of nationalism—i.e., by exalting the accidental fact of one’s national birthplace.

A true commitment to “America first” represents a foreign policy of self-interest. But it is a self-interest that rests on a moral principle. It is a self-interest that is achieved only when despite the demands of some collective—whether international or national—we hold the individual rights of Americans as non-sacrificeable.♦♦

[This was published at The Hill on Nov. 14, 2017.]

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