Can we put America First while simultaneously Making America Great Again? I’m not so sure.
On January 20th, Donald Trump stood up in front of the entire country (or at least those who showed up) and stated that “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America First!” He’ll pull the United States out of free trade deals in order to promote the employment of American workers. He’ll enact restrictions that seal our borders, directly or indirectly, keeping out the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. He’ll build a bigger, better border wall between the United States and Mexico. Then, he’ll heavily tax companies that locate overseas to take advantage of wage arbitrage, such as the Trump Organization, the Ivanka Trump Collection and Melania Trump’s QVC jewelry. But can we put America First while simultaneously Making America Great Again? I’m not so sure.
This isn’t the first time in history that a once-great empire found itself unable to maintain its reach. China once commanded the seas, sailing the equivalent of modern container ships as far away as eastern Africa. Stocked with months of food and rich cargoes of silk, porcelain, and spices, the Treasure Fleets, led by the Muslim eunuch Zheng He, voyaged far afield. These weren’t trading missions in the modern sense, but more like moon shots or Star Trek. You know, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. In return, Zheng He brought back tribute, such as a giraffe to amuse the emperor, along with knowledge of the world around them.
Regimes eventually change, and so did China. With the new administration in 1433-34, Zheng He’s voyages of discovery came to an end. China didn’t particularly need trade with the world, since they produced what they needed. Producing silks and porcelain (and thousands of giant ships) was too expensive a hobby to maintain. It was time to say “China First,” so they burned the ships, lost the knowledge, and entered a period of decline. Troubled by invaders out of the north, they even rebuilt parts of a giant border wall to keep foreigners out. China wouldn’t be great again for a long time.
The parallels to America First are inexact (as any historical comparisons are bound to be), yet similar enough. In more recent times, the United States led the world by maintaining a degree of magnanimity. By serving as the world’s customer, we kept our allies’ industries running but sacrificed our own industrial base. By paying the bill for defending the West, we allowed the world to externalize costs onto the American taxpayer. We donated our jobs to bring others out of poverty. We were the Big Man at the potlatch. Everybody loves you when you’re giving away free stuff. Free stuff is expensive, though, and a hollowed-out America can no longer afford to be Great. (Especially when the top fraction of a percent hoard hidden wealth offshore, but I digress.) Now, it’s America First. Burn the science, build the wall, close out the world.
We’ve seen this before, when other powers fall. The vultures swoop in for a taste of meat, the enemies bang at the gate. If we repatriate our jobs from Mexico, what will Mexicans do to earn a living? Well, they could level up the drug trade, sending more narcotics into Middle America. They could dodge any wall (you don’t think it would be impenetrable, do you?) and come north for work. Likewise, what will the refugee ban and the reinstatement of torture buy us? More dead Americans overseas. At the very least, we’ll lose business. Ramping up our isolationism while reeling in our largesse might put America First, but it will hamstring any efforts to Make America Great Again. The two are intrinsically related. We must choose.
In other ages, played-out empires closed up shop, followed by a struggle for dominance, and the emergence of a new order. Since we’re following along right on schedule, who will we hand the baton to as the next global hegemon? If we get the war with China that both China and Trump adviser Steve Bannon expect, not only would an isolationist America be in no position to play ball, but this story would come full circle. America First, indeed.