Canberra—In his inaugural speech, US President Donald Trump warned the world: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”
The speech reverberated around the globe and unsettled US allies, as well as adversaries, arousing anxieties over what the world’s most powerful democracy is up to under a president who is a billionaire businessman and who never held political office or high military rank.
During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to make America “great again,” and “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” The speech depicted America as a nation under siege from predatory states that have left it in a state of carnage, and therefore a nation that should now be repaired by protectionist policies.
The “America First” theme echoed what Adolf Hitler called “Festung Europa” (Fortress Europe), which he built on the Atlantic seaboard to protect Germany from imminent invasion by Allied armies during World War II.
Isolationism from Europe was a dominant policy in America until President Woodrow Wilson sent an American expeditionary force to France to help fight the German invasion to make the world safe for democracy.
In a Nov. 19, 2016, article, The Economist warned that with his call to put “America First,” Trump was echoing the campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980: “Back then voters sought renewal after the failures of the Carter presidency. This month, they elected Mr Trump because he, too, promised them a ‘historic once-in-a lifetime change.’
“But there is a difference. On the eve of the vote, Reagan described America as a shining ‘city on a hill’. . . . he dreamed of a country that ‘is not turned inward, but outward—toward others.’ Mr. Trump, by contrast has sworn to put America First. Demanding respect from a freeloading world that takes leaders in Washington for fools, he says he will ‘no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.’ Reagan’s America was optimistic, Trump’s is angry.”
“Mr. Trump’s populism is a blow to civic nationalism,” added The Economist. “Nobody could doubt the patriotism of his postwar predecessors, yet every one of them endorsed America’s universal values and promoted them abroad. Even if a sense of exceptionalism stopped presidents from signing up to outfits like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), America has supported the rules-based order. By backing global institutions that staved off a dog-eat-dog world, the US has made itself and the world safe and more prosperous. . . . The last time America turned inward was after the first world war and the consequences were calamitous. You do not have to foresee anything so dire to fear Mr. Trump’s new nationalism today. At home it tends to produce intolerance and to feed doubts about the virtue and loyalties of minorities. It is no accident that allegations of anti-Semitism have infected the bloodstream of American politics for the first time in decades.”
The America First doctrine of Trump’s foreign policy has left a sense of unsettlement among Asian leaders. News services based in Tokyo have reported reactions from Asian leaders: While they expressed hopes in their congratulatory words for his inauguration, that Trump will deepen alliances and further common interests, their messages carried a strong undercurrent of unease over the pugnacious America First approach he had spelled out in his speech.
The speech provoked a series of rallies across the region where people spoke out against the hate speech, xenophobia and misogyny that had characterized Trump’s election campaign. More than 10,000 people took part in the rallies in such cities as Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington, Tokyo and Manila. “We hope people will raise their voices to demand fair treatment regardless of gender, color of their skin or sexual orientation,” a housewife in Tokyo told the Sunday Times.
Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.