i June 2017   Leave a comment

It is very difficult to place US President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change in the context of American foreign policy since 1945.  The only real analogue is the US Senate’s decision to repudiate the League of Nations after World War I.  Henry Cabot Lodge was the Senator from Massachusetts and he gave a speech in August 1919 in which he said:

“The independence of the United States is not only more precious to ourselves but to the world… Look at the United States today. We have made mistakes in the past. We have had shortcomings. We shall make mistakes in the future and fall short of our own best hopes. But is there any country today on the face of the earth which can compare with this in ordered liberty, in peace, and in the largest freedom?…

“I have always loved one flag and I cannot share that devotion [with] a mongrel banner created for a League.

“You may call me selfish if you will, conservative or reactionary, or use any other harsh adjective you see fit to apply. But an American I was born, an American I have remained all my life. I can never be anything else but an American, and I must think of the United States first, and when I think of the United States first in an arrangement like this, I am thinking of what is best for the world – for if the United States fails, the best hopes of mankind fail with it.”

That decision was fateful.  The US in 1918 was the only country capable of maintaining world order.  Britain and France were exhausted;  Germany was in exile; and Russia left the international system to establish an alternative world order but was too weak to make much progress on that front.  The consequences of a “leaderless” world were horrific.  Without a world order with a power willing to support that order, the world devolved into economic chaos, the hell of fascism, and massive human rights violations in Ethiopia, China, and the horror of the Holocaust.  The US under President Roosevelt made a decision in 1944 not to repeat that mistake, and it constructed what we now know as the liberal world order based upon the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, and an explicit commitment to international law.

Despite its imperfections and the refusal of the US in many cases to uphold that liberal world order itself, the post-war period has been marked by the absence of a war among the major powers and by extraordinary economic growth (In 1950, the world GDP was about $5 trillion; in 2017 it is about $90 trillion).  The systematic (as opposed to episodic) movement away from that liberal world order started in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq without a UN Security Council sanction and engaged in significant human rights violations by the use of torture, extraordinary rendition, and the creation of the prison in Guantanamo.  President Obama tried a softer approach to disengagement, but nonetheless remained committed to the liberal order.

President Trump’s policy of “America First” is consistent with the sentiments expressed by Senator Lodge in 1919, and I believe that the outcomes of that policy will be as catastrophic as those in the 1930s.  The world system is not self-regulating and the US, as one of the strongest powers in the world, has a responsibility to uphold the world order.  “America First” (and we should not forget that that slogan was used by those opposed to the US entry into World War II, among which were many American Nazis) is not consistent with US interests in a stable world order.

America First?  More likely, America Alone.


In an earlier post, I lamented the position US President Trump took at the recent NATO meeting.  In my mind, NATO represents the infrastructure of the liberal international order and Mr. Trump’s criticisms of European conduct was off the mark.  Stephen Walt is one of the US’s premier realists and, although he is no fan of Mr. Trump, he has a different take on the matter.  He believes that NATO has outlived its usefulness.  His opening argument, that the counterfactual position Chancellor Merkel could have taken was absurd, is a red-herring.  Of course, Europe needs to have control over its foreign policy, but an alliance does not necessarily forfeit sovereignty: States choose to make alliances.  His argument, however, still deserves careful attention.

Posted June 1, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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