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Is "America First" Moral?

In his Inauguration Address, President Donald Trump proclaimed, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” He went on to say, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” How can any American argue with that? His promise? “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” Millions across the country cheered.

In the days since the inauguration, we have seen the exit of America from the TPP, an international trade agreement (which Obama supported, but neither Clinton nor Sanders did) in favor of “bilateral negotiations” on trade in which it is promised that deals will be made that are favorable to the United States. We have witnessed an immigration and travel ban that forbade further acceptance of Syrian refugees and suspended admissions from six other countries until new procedures can be devised for “vetting” the people from those countries who want to enter the U.S. We have also seen a massive widening of the targets of deportation among the population of illegal immigrants already in our country. On the foreign scene, our president has threatened to withdraw some supports for those members of NATO who have not kept up their end of agreements on funding of defense. President Trump has also reiterated his claim that the United States should have seized Iraq’s oil as payment for our military adventures within Iraq and that we might still have another chance to do so in the future (his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has denied that we have any such intention). With regard to jobs and the economy, the president has promised to levy a 35% import tax on products made by American companies that locate their manufacturing overseas, as a measure to force them to manufacture those products within the U.S. He has also recommended a tariff on imports from Mexico in order to fund the construction of a wall between Mexico and the U.S.

Putting aside both the feasibility and international consequences of Donald Trump’s plans to insure that America “starts winning again,” is the general idea of a policy toward the rest of the world that puts “America First” a moral one?

Our modern world is a connected one, and the issue of what constitutes our community is not easily answered by pointing to our borders. What is best for America is never a consideration made in a vacuum. What America does affects much of the rest of the world, including those members of a larger community to which we have strong historical and cultural ties. A basic question with regard to morality in international behavior is whether citizens of a country should view their membership in their own country’s polity as more prominent than their membership in the citizenry of the world. This is a question that has a long history of philosophical debate, with compelling arguments on either side of the issue.

Talk of “America First” or of America “winning” treats issues that have international ramifications as a zero-sum game in which our aim is to win and for other countries to lose. To secure America’s security, we forbid refugees from Syria  from entering our country, even if we are unsure if any terrorists would be among the refugees (there haven’t been so far) and if there are. they would be a tiny fraction of the overall number of refugees. Our decision leaves many refugees homeless and adrift, but presumably reduces the likelihood that we will be harmed. We win, refugees lose. The issue with illegal immigrants is a similar one. There are millions of immigrants living and working within the United States whose only crime has been to enter or remain in the Unites States illegally. They have a better life than they did wherever they came from, where issues of poverty, crime or civil unrest jeopardized their lives. Many of these people live in families and some even have children who were born here and thus are U.S. citizens. Presumably, these illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens, so removing them from the country will free up jobs for people who are in our country legally. Many of us know illegal immigrants intimately. They are members of our community, our friends, and they share the same values we have. But they are not Americans, so presumably to make our lives better, we need to send them back where they came from, even if that makes their lives markedly worse.

The world is a place of economic inequality. We have it within our own country, but anyone who has traveled to the third world knows that the inequality between the quality of life in America and that in many other countries is much wider than between groups within our own borders. It is this inequality that has led to manufacturing moving to developing countries where people will work for miniscule wages compared to what Americans receive in the United States.  In fact, the drift of manufacturing jobs to developing countries has lessened world-wide income inequality as Asian, African and South and Central American countries have received jobs for their citizens, provided by American and European businesses. Although there are serious doubts as to the feasibility of bringing jobs such as sewing clothing or assembling electronics or cars, back to America, given the tremendous wage differences between the United States and the countries where such industries now reside, a major aim of the Trump administration is to do just that. The issue is whether we, that is, you and I, want Americans or people from other countries to have these jobs, even when the people from the other countries are worse off than most Americans.

Many Americans, perhaps most, will say that we have an obligation to our own fellow citizens before we have an obligation to citizens of other countries. Why is this so? Well, for one reason, we know our fellow citizens. They are more likely to be our friends and relatives than are people from other countries. We also share a culture, with laws, traditions and ways of doing things that are similar within our country but different in other countries. We tend to believe in the same things.  For another reason, our fellow Americans live in proximity to us and the policies we can vote to enact are more easily directed at their problems than at those of people in other countries. Plus, our resources are limited. If we address all the world’s problems on an equal footing with our own, we will run out of resources very quickly and no one will be helped. After all, each of those other countries has its own resources, which should be (although they are often not) directed toward the welfare of its own citizens. And finally, the way the modern world is organized, with separate nations, separate economies, separate foreign policies and armies and even supranational organizations, such as the UN and the World Health Organization, it makes sense for each country to protect its own interest before attempting to address anyone else’s.

All of these arguments have merit. But they are all argued from the premise of a zero sum game, in which to help anyone else, we must hurt ourselves. This is true to varying degrees. We can grant that even the wealthiest of countries would lose some of its wealth  by giving any of it to another country. On the other hand, the degree of loss to the wealthy country may not be equal to the degree of gain for a poorer country. Furthermore, it may be that what is gained by America is very small compared to the harm done to citizens of other countries. Prohibiting refugees from Syria from entering the United States is an issue like that. So is probably deporting illegal immigrants from high violence countries such as Honduras or El Salvador. Bringing low paying clothing manufacturing jobs back from Bangladesh, Vietnam, or India may be another instance, where the gain by U.S. citizens is small compared to the loss to citizens of those other poor countries.

How do we draw a line between the need to help ourselves and the desire both to help and not to hurt people who are distant strangers? The answer is not to have a line. Instead, decisions must be weighed in terms of relative gain versus relative loss. This is different than “America First.”  The difference is that we don’t view American interests as having an absolute advantage over those of non-Americans. We don’t make decisions in favor of America if the outcome of those decisions will be to do greater harm to someone else than it will help us. Those are difficult outcomes to assess.

If we allow 100,000 Syrian refugees into the country and, despite our best vetting,  one of them, God forbid, kills 10 Americans, was it worth it to save the refugees? The answer should be based on what we are saving the Syrian refugees from (starvation, imprisonment, genocide?) and how many of them we are saving from such outcomes. Is the only reason that we are so cavalier about rejecting 100,000 needy Syrians because they are not Americans and one American life is worth any number of Syrian lives to us, because we, after all,  are Americans? Why are we so protective of American lives when we weigh them against the lives of foreigners, but we lose that protectiveness when we allow a mentally disturbed person to purchase a gun, significantly increasing the likelihood that a mass shooting will kill any number of people?

What is the cost to a Salvadoran illegal immigrant who is forcibly separated from his or her family and returned to a country in which the likelihood of getting killed by drug wars is relatively high, compared to what we gain by freeing up a job at a fast-food restaurant, or a student’s place in a community college that could be occupied by an American? Are these really equivalent outcomes, only one is better because it favors the American? What kind of moral thinking supports such a conclusion?

“America First” is a patriotic sounding phrase (despite its checkered past of being associated with isolationism and anti-Semitism), but as a policy it promotes a willingness to do or to allow harm to our fellow human beings, despite relatively little gain for Americans—little gain but tragic losses to thousands of citizens of other countries. In fact, Americans gain nothing at all from such a policy, because the real cost of “America First” is that we will no longer be able to hold our head up as one  of the moral leaders of the larger human community.

Reader Comments (4)

Many good points, but one must be careful skating on thin ice of elitism, even neo-colonialism.

In yours:
"And finally, the way the modern world is organized, with separate nations, separate economies, separate foreign policies and armies and even supranational organizations, such as the UN and the World Health Organization, it makes sense for each country to protect its own interest before attempting to address anyone else’s."

In effect this is true as stated. But an unspoken corollary is that we of the wealthier, better off world have the knowhow to help countries less fortunate than us. We as the richer country are willing to 'help' them out by meddling in their countries' affairs, even to create jobs for them at the cost of losing jobs at home. Is this not elitist? Is supranational elitism, the kind where we can hold our heads high, morally superior to domestic self interest morality? To impose dictating to weaker countries, or societies, who are less competitive, to serve our 'self interest' of feeling righteous about our moral superiority may not serve the interests of other nations. Would China or Japan, for example, share in this 'morally superior' world view? Probably they would not, and instead would put their own national self-interest first. Should we feel superior to them too? This is the thin ice we're skating on. And whether or not this becomes a zero sum game becomes moot.

No doubt you did not mean it this way, but the trap lies in wait for those who succumb to the temptation of moral superiority to dictate to those less fortunate than themselves. This is the effective elitism that leads to a new kind of colonialism, that we 'know better', and will meddle in their affairs if necessary for their own good, to make what's right for them. Is that moral?

February 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHumancafe

Of course it's moral!

February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterK.C. Fontaine

Nice piece! I agree with your critique about the zero-sum attitude. The idea of friendship is supposed to be like the ideal of (desirable, moral) capitalism, such that people benefit from exchange and friendship beyond the sum of transactions. In fact, trade agreements and treaties are often called treaties of friendship and commerce. I don't engage in a friendship as a quid pro quo. What's lacking in Trump's talk is the meaningfulness of friendship and mutual goodwill internationally. It's a vitally important omission and I believe you're quite right to worry about it.


February 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEric Weber

Very simply, your essay, Casey, reaches heights of introspection that I do not believe the Abomination in the White House is capable of beginning to understand. His "America First" is a meretricious slogan that brings forth the worst ultra-nationalist, isolationist sentiments among his troops. It harks back to the early WW2 years when the slogan was uttered by Nazi sympathizers for whom the plight of the Jews and of invaded European countries meant nothing because they firmly believed Hitler's ideology of race superiority. I don't see a substantial difference between Trump and his coterie's rhetoric and that of the late 30s and early 40s.

February 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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