KOLB: What Happens To ‘America First’ After The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
Font Size:

Every four years, we are reminded that the forthcoming presidential election is the most important election ever: the country’s future is at stake. In this pandemic year, the hyperbole might actually be warranted.

Former Treasury Secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers recently observed in The Financial Times that our world will be a much different place after we tame the coronavirus. In Summers’ view, the pandemic’s impact will equal or surpass transformative global events such as the Great Depression and World War II. Daily living (no handshakes?) and economic activity (a diminished retail sector?) will be fundamentally altered.

Until the dust actually settles, we won’t know the shape of our post-pandemic future. But one set of the issues playing out now merits close attention: efforts to reassert globalist, multilateral, and multinational approaches in resolving global challenges.

Partially due to the coronavirus, globalization faces skepticism and a growing backlash. Supply chains are being rethought and repositioned. American self-sufficiency is now a priority in areas such as manufacturing, critical pharmaceuticals, health-care equipment (masks and ventilators, for example), energy, cybersecurity and computers. China is no longer considered a reliable trading partner, not just by the U.S. but by other nations as well.

Donald Trump has long championed “America First” domestically and in areas of international engagement and cooperation. He demeans international commitments, institutions, and solutions.

Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accords, and the Iranian nuclear deal; he suspended World Health Organization funding (which I have endorsed), and scrapped nuclear arms and Open Skies agreements with Russia. He has essentially blocked the World Trade Organization from functioning and undermined the European Union by supporting Brexit.

Temperamentally, Trump prefers conflict and confrontation to collaboration and consensus. But has his unilateral nationalism gone too far?

The problem with Trump’s approach is that when the U.S. abandons the international stage, other nations (like China) emerge to promote approaches that often undermine our interests. The old axiom that “power abhors a vacuum” is true. China has shown brazen hypocrisy in promoting itself as a global champion of coronavirus solutions while simultaneously refusing transparency about its role in the outbreak.

At issue today is whether more nations will relinquish aspects of their sovereignty to address cross-border, global challenges such as climate change, immigration, trade, internet regulation, health pandemics, tax policies, terrorism, currency flows and cybersecurity. These issues require multilateral, global solutions in a world that is growing increasingly nationalist.

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War and solidified, at the expense of religious authorities, the primacy of the nation state and its leader. For nearly four centuries, national boundaries have been determining factors in issues such as safety and defense.

The nation state is unlikely to wither away anytime soon. At the same time, it is increasingly apparent that nation states acting individually cannot successfully address fundamentally transnational challenges.

The ceding of sovereignty has been a relatively rare occurrence. When it has happened, there are usually stringent limitations and shortcomings. The former League of Nations and today’s United Nations are examples of globalist ideas that have only been partially realized in ways that strike many as toothless and feckless.

Globalization may be in retreat as an economic, trade and supply-chain issue, but the major cross-border issues listed above will remain with us for decades. Addressing these challenges will require new thinking, innovative structures, bold leadership and fundamentally different temperaments.

Similar issues are playing out now as the European Union grapples with economic bailout initiatives that are dividing wealthier northern European nations that have previously maintained budget surpluses from southern European Union nations that have run up chronic deficits.

French president Emanuel Macron delivers high-minded speeches about the need for new European Union approaches and structures that downplay sovereignty and promote greater solidarity. He seeks to promote a more tangible model of collective responsibility in areas such as defense, economics, regulation and immigration. Macron envisions a United States of Europe, not 27 competing sovereign European nations.

This year’s election will offer a referendum on Donald Trump’s nation-centric, Westphalian vision. “America First,“ however, does not have to be “America Alone.” Globalization may have been weakened, but major global challenges nonetheless remain.

Since World War II, Americans have played critical roles in shaping the world’s future. Like Macron, Americans also understand the importance of unity and collaboration.  We’ve rarely been isolationists. Instead of “America First” or “America Alone,” why not champion “America Engaged”?

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House