America First as a Threat to Mulitlateralism

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, May 13 2019 (IPS)

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

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

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America First as a Threat to Mulitlateralism
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America First as a Threat to Mulitlateralism