America First as a Threat to Mulitlateralism

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, May 13 2019 – On 25 April, Joseph Biden announced his candidacy for the US presidency, declaring that his decision was based on fears of Trump being re-elected:

    • ”He will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”1

Joe Biden´s statement mirrors rising concerns that Trump´s agenda, characterized by isolationism, xenophobia and anti-multilaterism is threatening not only the US, but the entire world. Our biosphere, the absolute fundament of human existence, is on the verge of collapsing, while petty ”national interests” are sabotaging an international unity that might reverse a catastrophic development.

A blatant example of the Trump adminstration´s refusal to engage in crucial inititives to save the planet was when the US on the 10th of May refused to sign an amendment to the UN Basel Convention.2 The agreement that was signed by 187 countries intends to restrict an ongoing dumping of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries.

Can the world afford to watch the Trump administration withdraw US participation from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN Human Rights Council, as well as less known treaties such as the Universal Postal Union? US representatives have walked out of negotiations on the Transpacific Partnership Trade Agreement and the UN Global Compact for Migration, as well as renouncing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), i.e. the Iran Deal. Furthermore, the Trump administration has announced the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement with Russia and ended cooperation with UN rapporteurs on human rights violations within the US, while cutting down funding for UN Peacekeeping and UN agencies dealing with human rights, Palestinian refugees, population control, sustainable development and global warming.

Contempt for multilateralism and cynical exploitation of fears for negative impacts of immigration are being expressed by the slogan America First, which Donald Trump in March 2016 declared as a theme for his administration.3 He used the phrase in his inauguration address and it was part of the title of the federal budget for 2018,4 referencing to increases to the military, homeland security and cuts to spending towards foreign countries. The history of this specific slogan may expose some of the xenophobia and isolationism lurking behind Trump´s politics.

The phrase was first used in the summer of 1915. The Committee for Immigrants in America had by the beginning of the last century been founded by Francis Kellor, who during social work in teeming tenements of New York had been shocked by immigrant women´s victimization. She decided that the only way to amend the appalling situation would be a solid, governmental effort of Americanization of all immigrants, i.e. forcing them to learn English and as soon as possible integrate them into The American Way of Life. Kellor´s views came over a number of years to have a great influence over US politics. However, the social objectives soon faded away, overtaken by fears that harmful influences brought from abroad by unwanted immigrants would eventually erode the American nation from within. The Committee for Immigrants´ original motto was thus changed from Many Peoples, But One Nation to America First.

The slogan became a common feature in populist harangues by the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the model for Orson Welles´s famous movie Citizen Kane and an unscrupulous manufacturer of fake news. America First also became a salient propaganda feature during election campaigns of both Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. How could a battle cry for isolationism and xenophobia develop in a nation constituted by people from all over the world, which leaders furthermore tend to present their political system as a beacon of freedom and tolerance?

Already by the 17th century, several European settlers had through the Reformation become convinced that Catholicism was steeped in the moral depravity of tyrannical popes. Anti-Catholicism became a fundamental conviction among Anglo-Saxon puritans who dominated colonial settlements. From England and Germany they had brought with them a strong belief in constant threats from Catholic conspirators. Such fears later fed into an aversion against Irish and Italian immigrants. Concerns that soon were coupled with suspicions that migrants coming from countries suppressed by popes, emperors and other despots were likely to nurture dangerous, radical ideas, entirely different from peaceful notions of ”orderly and hardworking” Anglo-Saxons, who had inherited their moderateness from freedom-loving, imaginary Goths. This ”primitive tribe” became a collective designation for Angles, Saxons and Jutes, considered to be the ancestors of English, Dutch, Scandinavian and German immigrants. When radical refugees and persecuted Jews appeared from Europe, such befuddled notions merged with The Red Scare, a conviction that desperate politics emerging from a class-ridden Europe, like anarchism and Bolshevism, would eventually destroy American democracy.

In 1916, these fears were by Madison Grant in his influential book The Passing of the Great Race mixed up with racism. Grant warned that hereditary traits, radicalism and religious beliefs of “inferior white races” would mingle with those of “third-rate people” already present in the US, by whom he meant people of African descent, and “mongrelize” the “Nordic man” into “a walking chaos, so consumed by jarring heredities that he is quite worthless.”5

After World War I, when immigration was resumed after a low ebb and combined with the onset of economic depression, a wave of crime, wrangling in the Congress and the scandalous consequences of prohibition, Anglo-Saxonism, anti-radicalism, anti-Catholicism and racism flooded public opinion. Several US citizens came to believe that social troubles were caused by the tenacity and secret cunning of alien influences, combined with a lack of solidarity and resistance among ”true Americans”. The battle cry of America First echoed through a nation that began to withdraw into itself, while the Government established a nationality quota system, officially based on the pre-existing composition of the American population, but in reality a racist scheme to effectively ban immigration from Asia and Africa and limit migration from countries like Italy, Poland, Russia and Romania. An example – during the first weeks of quota implementation more than a thousand desperate Italians were confined to a ship anchored in the Boston harbour, before being released and repatriated. Later on, the system became better organized and unwanted immigrants were routinely blocked from entering the US.6

Considering this history, the battle cry of America First seems to be an apt slogan for the Trump administration. An anti-immigration stance combined with fears of foreign-inspired terrorism, where ”Catholicism and Judaism” have been superseded by Islam as a threat to the ”American Way of Life”. Where East and South Europeans, Asians and Africans have been superseded by Mexicans and Central Americans as dangerous invaders. Where ”circling the wagons” no longer means protecting settlers from the native population, but support to contempt of multilateralism that makes the policymakers of an entire nation prepared to expose the whole world to lethal danger. A more apt slogan than America First and Let´s Make America Great Again would probably be the French President Emmanuel Macron´s alternative motto Making our Planet Great Again.

If Joe Biden sincerely means that ”climate change is an existential threat to our future and that remaining in the Paris Agreement is the best way to protect our children and global leadership”7 combined with his experience of and support to international cooperation, he might become an able president, in spite of his advanced age and occasional gaffs. Let us hope that he and the many well-intentioned and rational US citizens will be able to restore faith in their institutions and their capacity to engage in mulitareal cooperation.

1 Burns, Alexander and Jonathan Martin (2019) “Joe Biden Announces 2020 Run for President, After Months of Hesitation” The New Times, April 25.
2 The Covention intends to control transboundary movements of hazardous waste and their disposal
3 Haberman, Maggie and David E. Sanger (2016) “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds His Foreign Policy Views” The New York Times, March 26.
4 America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.
5 Quoted in Higham, John (1981) Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860 – 1925. New York: Atheneum, p. 272.
6 Most of the information above is based on Higham´s book.
7 Joe Biden´s twitter on May 31, 2017.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.