In defense of ‘America First’

Sep 28 2019

This week president Trump went before the United Nations and declared, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” A year earlier he had gone before the United Nations and declared, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Sense a pattern? 

In last year’s address Trump also, as he often does, zeroed in on the particular manifestation of globalism that seems to most concern him—“global governance,” which he says poses a threat to “national sovereignty.”  

Some people might consider it impolite to go before the UN and denounce globalism and global governance—kind of like, I don’t know, being given a speaking slot at a Trump rally and then using it to denounce xenophobia. But Trump’s annual UN ode to patriotism and national sovereignty has one virtue: It crystallizes the confusion that drives his opposition to global governance. 

The crux of the confusion lies in the way Trump keeps acting as if you have to choose between global governance, on the one hand, and serving your nation’s interests (patriotism) on the other. This seems weird to those of us who support global governance in part because we see it as the best way to serve some of our country’s most vital interests. 

Or, to put it another way: My problem with “America first” isn’t the literal meaning of the phrase. Of course the president should prioritize the interests of the United States. That’s why we call him “President of the United States” rather than “President of the Rest of the World.” My problem is with Trump’s failure to see that, in the modern, interconnected world, serving American interests often involves helping other nations serve their interests. So putting America first doesn’t necessarily wind up putting other nations second. 

When this happens—when in the course of serving your interests you also help other nations serve their interests— that means you’re playing a non-zero-sum game with them; there can be a win-win outcome. So, for example, if a bunch of nations agree to make short-term sacrifices to slow global warming, that can be good for all of them in the long run. 

It’s certainly better for them than if there’s no such agreement. In the absence of an agreement, lots of nations may refuse to bear any such short-term costs because they don’t want to be the suckers who sacrifice for the common good while their neighbors don’t. So nothing much gets done, and the planet bakes.

Now, if there is an agreement to pay these short-term costs, and it’s a formal agreement—like, if it’s a treaty—that’s an instance of global governance (and an addition to the body of international law). And if the treaty specifies penalties for countries that violate it, it’s an instance of strong global governance. 

Trump is right to believe that such a treaty erodes national sovereignty. But note that in an important sense sovereignty is going to get eroded in any event. Sovereignty means control over you future, and if climate change proceeds unabated, you are losing control over your nation’s future. Like, for example, the ability to keep all of your cities above sea level for the next 50 years.   

So the question isn’t whether you should hang onto your sovereignty. That’s impossible. The question is in what form you want to lose it. Would you rather the lost sovereignty take the form of a firm commitment to constrain your carbon emissions, or that it take the form of hurricanes, floods, and droughts (or whatever exact side effects of climate change happen to afflict your particular country—not to mention the indirect effects that flow from climate change afflictions suffered by other countries)? 

That’s the generic case for global governance, whether the subject is arms control or trade or health or whatever: that various technologies have created more and more non-zero-sum games among various groups of nations, and that it’s therefore in the interest of each individual nation in such a group to join in agreements that constrain future behavior.

To subscribe to this idea doesn’t mean embracing all forms of global governance. Sometimes global governance, like governance generally, is done badly. And sometimes things get so complicated that figuring out whether global governance serves “the national interest” is hard. Like when a trade agreement would boost aggregate American prosperity but hurt specific classes of Americans. 

So accretions of global governance should be carefully inspected before being accepted. And, in deciding which ones to accept, its perfectly fine to focus on the interests of your nation (though I’m personally not averse to the occasional extension of charity to our fellow human beings in other nations, something that can also be done under the rubric of global governance). 

But to reject global governance broadly, as Trump has repeatedly done, is, among other things, unpatriotic.  

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