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Why ‘America First’ still dominates our foreign policy

Whoever doubted “America first” was a winning campaign strategy need only look at the most recent Republican poll numbers. Donald Trump, who’s made the slogan central to his presidential campaign, is trailed by a field of contenders one more nationalist than the other. “We have to put the interests of Americans first,” Vivek Ramaswamy recently responded when asked about U.S. aid for Ukraine.

While his opponents may disagree on Ukraine, Ramaswamy describes a longstanding, if often unspoken, consensus on U.S. foreign policy. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations consistently ignore the effects of their actions abroad for the sake of Americans’ interests at home. The problem with U.S. foreign policy is a profound lack of concern for foreign lives. And at the root of the problem are not just elites or politicians, but all of us.

Trading lives

Time and again, the United States has traded lives at the expense of an ill-defined strategic interest. In 1971, Richard Nixon backed Pakistan’s genocide against Bangladesh, hoping that improved relations with Pakistan would facilitate a rapprochement with China. After 2015, the U.S. armed a brutal Saudi campaign against Yemen with the sole goal of undermining Iranian influence.

Decisionmakers tend to take a very myopic view of their actions. National security analysts today agree that the invasion in Iraq was a strategic mistake: The war has been blamed for a decline in U.S. soft power, a rise in terrorism and the resurgence of Iran. But they largely ignore the estimated 300,000 civilians dead as a result of the U.S. invasion.

Policymakers seem to deem civilian lives worthy only as a means to an end. Three years into the Iraq war, American generals outlined a new strategy to counter the threat of insurgency by better ensuring civilian security. Yet nowhere in the 250-page white paper was there a moral argument for this shift. The authors of the report worried only that collateral damage would “erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda.”

America’s arithmetic of human life is deeply skewed toward its own kind. After the heinous attacks on 9/11, George W. Bush infamously declared a war on terror in defense of the national homeland. As many as 4.5 million people have died as a result of this war. The number of American lives saved? Likely a few hundred at most. Even if the war on terror had prevented another 9/11 every year, the number of foreign lives lost would still exceed that of Americans saved by two orders of magnitude.

A failure of empathy

So why does American foreign policy so utterly disregard foreign lives? Many on the left blame insidious incentives that distort democratic decisionmaking over U.S. foreign policy. On this account, America’s wars are the making of a ravenous military industrial complex that perpetuates conflict for financial gain. Others blame diaspora lobbies or power-hungry individuals with outsized influence over the political process.

But this story is incomplete. Contrary to what the military industrial complex critique might suggest, generals are often the ones most opposed to the use of force. The influence of powerful lobbies or individuals can hardly explain why consecutive administrations have consistently pursued military involvement in remote places like Vietnam or Afghanistan that had no significant diaspora populations. Rather than ignoring public opinion, decisionmakers are in fact quite responsive to polling. Wars in Vietnam and Iraq initially enjoyed overwhelming support.

The truth is that voters are part of the problem. Lack of empathy is a common thread throughout our history: When Oppenheimer’s bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 85 percent of Americans approved. In 1968, opposition against the Vietnam war was convulsing the country, but even then, only 4 percent of Americans were opposed to the war out of a concern for civilian Vietnamese deaths. No major polls exist to show how Americans felt about the loss of civilian life in Iraq: The cost of foreign lives lost remains an afterthought.

Ending the national interest paradigm

The responsibility to repair U.S. foreign policy falls on us all — politicians, experts and everyday citizens alike. Already, threats to American lives substantially shape U.S. foreign policy. So does the loss of life in allied countries, as bipartisan support for Ukraine powerfully demonstrates.

But our empathy falls short toward those who don’t look like us. Few seem to care that the death toll of the Ethiopian civil war is already 10 times as high as that of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. U.S. foreign policy favors countries with a shared history or cultural heritage, often restricting our circle of care to majority white and Christian countries.

At the root of the moral failings in foreign policy lies a crisis of imagination. Foreign policy analysts may disagree on how best to accomplish our national interests, but they rarely doubt that our foreign policy should align with our national interests. As a consequence, those who care about the world outside of America have to justify their views with reference to U.S. interests. But a foreign policy rooted solely in national interest cannot be a moral foreign policy.

Granted, the United States is certainly not alone in following its strategic interests. The Russian or Chinese governments care no more about the lives of civilians abroad. But America can do better. Its diaspora populations have historically played an important role in pointing America’s attention toward atrocities abroad. And a more diverse diplomatic corps will be able to more effectively advocate for enlarging our circle of care to the Global South.

Supplementing our traditional national interests with a deep concern for foreign lives would mean a radical departure from centuries of U.S. foreign policy. But we have to face the murderous consequences of a consistent policy of America first. The problem is not that we are too isolationist or interventionist, too realist or too liberal. The problem is that we don’t care enough about the lives of others.

Johannes Lang, a researcher on democratization and U.S. foreign policy, is a John F. Kennedy Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Tags Afghanistan America first China Donald Trump Ethiopia Foreign policy George W Bush Iran Iraq September 11 attacks Ukraine Vietnam Vivek Ramaswamy Yemen