The Philosophy Behind “America First”

The Philosophy Behind “America First”

by | Dec 5, 2017

Donald Trump’s promise to put “America First” is a direct rejection of the cosmopolitanism that has guided American foreign policy for generations. Rarely have previous political leaders and thinkers viewed international relations purely from an “us vs. them” perspective.

Why this matters
Cosmopolitanism, which is based on sound economic principles, has often served America and its allies well. For example, free trade—a central tenet of cosmopolitanism—is often a win-win situation for all countries involved.

The Takeaway
While Trump is right that cosmopolitanism in its extreme form may not be advantageous to American interests, isolation from the rest of the world community also carries even greater risks.

In Depth

America First?
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign revolved around the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” With this pledge, the candidate vowed to help the country both reach a level of economic prosperity not seen in decades and regain its status as the world’s preeminent superpower. A large part of Trump’s appeal is to American nationalism. As he told an audience in Cincinnati a few weeks after the election, “There is no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American flag. From now on, it’s going to be America first. OK? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first.”

However, in recent weeks, Trump has changed directions and given every indication that he moving away from this nationalist agenda. After his recent meeting with the leader of NATO at the White House, he declared that NATO is “not obsolete.” And he decided to bomb Syria after President Bashar Al-Assad ordered a gas attack on his own people.

According to Christopher Morris (University of Maryland), Trump initially proposed charting a radical new direction in American foreign policy, which would have upended a post-WWII consensus among both scholars and political leaders. Says the political philosopher Morris, “It’s not always clear how Trump used the word, ‘Americans.’ In his campaign he seemed to be thinking of all the citizens in our multi-national and multi-ethnic country; at other times, he seemed to be referring mostly to certain groups of Americans—such as those in the industrial heartland who have been ignored by both political parties in recent decades. He repeatedly argued that in his view, Americans have few, if any ethical responsibilities to people in other countries, and this was a striking position for an American president.”

Why America Embraced a Cosmopolitan Approach to the World
As Morris argues, the nationalism that Trump advocated during the campaign was a direct rejection of the cosmopolitanism, which has been the dominant view among western economists and most political theorists for the last two centuries. The author of An Essay on the Modern State, Morris notes that from Adam Smith on, classical economists have rarely viewed international relations from an “us-against-them” perspective. “Free trade has long been seen as a mutually advantageous situation for all countries,” says Morris. “For most economists, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if Americans end up helping people in third world countries rise out of poverty by buying foreign rather than domestic goods.” Likewise, as Morris maintains, leading philosophers from the Roman Stoics to Peter Singer, currently a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, argue that there should be little or no difference between how people in wealthy countries treat fellow citizens and strangers in far off lands.

Morris, whose popular courses include The Rights and Wrongs of Killing People and Global Order: Alternatives to the State System situates himself in the middle of this philosophical spectrum—between the anti-cosmopolitanism of Donald Trump on the one end and the cosmopolitanism of contemporary thinkers like Peter Singer on the other Morris’s work in ethics is rooted in the tradition of social contract theory, which dates back to the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. “This line of analysis suggests that we do have duties to some people—particularly to friends and family, and to compatriots – which we don’t have to citizens of other countries,” he says.
While Morris believes that much of the contemporary hostility to nationalism is mistaken, he worries about the nationalist experiment proposed by Trump. “Trump’s earlier opposition to NATO and other longstanding alliances ignores how much Americans gain from extending protections to other countries, even if these efforts are expensive,” he says. While Trump has already changed his view about NATO, his position of foreign trade has not yet evolved much. While Trump no longer wants to label China and currency manipulators, he still does not seem to appreciate how foreign trade can often be a mutually beneficial situation for all parties. As a result, Morris is still concerned that the Trump administration’s hostility to foreign trade will end up hurting not only Americans but the poor around the world. Trade with China and Mexico, for instance, has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. “Even if it makes sense for us to exhibit preferential treatment to family, friends and members of our own communities, we still owe something to outsiders and foreigners,” he adds.

Dig Deeper

Joshua Kendall has written on business and healthcare for numerous publications including BusinessWeek, Fortune.comThe New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. For more about his work visit