Trump's 'America First' credo recalls WWI isolationists
Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Orlando, Florida (Fox News/screen grab)

World War I sparked America's emergence as a global power, when it flexed its muscles to end the bloody stalemate in the trenches in Europe.

A century after the November 11, 1918 armistice, debate still rages over the US role in the world and the country is led by a president whose credo -- "America First" -- harkens back to that of post-World War I isolationists.

"The debate that comes at the end of the First World War is 'Are America's interests best served by joining international organizations like the League of Nations?','" said Michael Neiberg, a history professor at the US Army War College.

"Or is America best served by staying away from these organizations and pursuing its interests alone?" added Neiberg, author of "The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America."

For Geoffrey Wawro, professor of military history at the University of North Texas, "World War I puts the United States into the mainstream of world affairs in a leadership position."

In the conflict's immediate aftermath, President Woodrow Wilson championed the League of Nations designed to keep the peace.

But Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saw the world body as a threat to US sovereignty and engineered a rejection of US membership by the Senate.

"Even though we retreated into isolationism, the lingering impact of US intervention is never erased because we're just such a strong power," said Wawro, author of "The Mad Catastrophe," a book about the outbreak of World War I.

Echoes of that Wilson-Lodge dispute can still be heard today as Trump steers a foreign policy course unlike those followed by recent occupants of the Oval Office.

- 'A 1920s argument' -

Trump has made his disdain for global institutions clear along with his antipathy to multilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Trump has withdrawn or announced plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, Iran nuclear deal, UN Human Rights Council and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"We will never surrender America's sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy," he told the UN General Assembly last month.

"America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism. And we embrace the doctrine of patriotism."

For Neiberg, "what he's arguing is that the United States, being a great power, a great economy, a great nation, shouldn't be involved in any of these organizations unless it makes sense for the United States.

"That's a 1920s argument," he said, championed by Lodge and others who "argued that the League of Nations -- which was one nation, one vote -- was a bad idea for Americans because it meant the United States and say, Ecuador, would have the same power in international organizations.

"And that made no sense for a great power like the United States."

- 'Leading others' -

Trump's stance also represents a departure from US engagement with what is known as the rules-based international order which the United States helped create after World War II.

"The lesson that American leaders in World War II took from World War I, the inter-war years, is that if America thought it could make itself more secure, more prosperous by distancing itself from Europe and the rest of the world it was flatly wrong," said James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"For 70 years, the underpinning of American foreign policy was the importance of the United States leading its friends and allies in pursuit of common solutions to common problems," said Lindsay, co-author with Ivo Daalder of the newly published book "The Empty Throne: America's Abdication of Global Leadership."

American presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama may have had differences over priorities and tactics "but all of them spoke about leading others," he said.

"They spoke positively about alliances, about opening up markets, promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law," Lindsay said.

Trump, on the other hand, is "deeply skeptical of multilateralism" and has "turned his back on that world that America made," he said.

"In his first 20 months in office he's questioned America's commitment to our allies, pursued protectionist economic policies and embraced strongmen who explicitly oppose our values," Lindsay said.

- 'Political vacuum' -

While Trump has been described as an isolationist, the scholars said that depiction is not quite accurate.

"He's rejecting all the structures that were built to give us a leadership hand in the world," said Wawro, and seeking to carve out bilateral deals.

"What Trump is arguing," Wawro said, is that the United States can "re-engage on our terms rather than these sort of historically sanctified terms that he thinks are a bad deal.

"There may be something to that," he said, but it risks "throwing away the whole architecture which was designed to unite democratic peoples against threats."

"That's not the same as isolationism but it's this kind of vulgarization of international relations that will lead to a loss of leadership and a loss of influence," Wawro said.

Lindsay warned that the US risks creating a "political vacuum on the geo-political level" if it abandons its global leadership role.

"Either of two things can happen," he said. "One is somebody will try to fill it. Right now the Chinese are trying to do that.

"Another possibility is that you get no leader," he said. "A return to an era of great power geo-political competition.

"That's what you see throughout most of history."

© 2018 AFP