Donald Trump takes his ‘America First’ agenda to a World War I commemoration
Days after losing control of the U.S. House and dismissing his attorney general, President Donald Trump travels to Paris this weekend for ceremonies to mark the end of World War I – an era that began a foreign policy debate revived by Trump in the current era.
In the two decades following the carnage of the First World War that ended in 1918, the United States turned inward, shunned the leadership of international organizations, and practiced economic protectionism through tariffs on other country’s products.
To critics, Trump – and some other world leaders – are following the kind of nationalist path that, a century ago, led to economic depression and eventually a Second World War.
“We may be repeating history by returning to the kinds of polices of the 1920s and 1930s,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs and co-author of “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership.”
“Out of those decisions,” Daalder said, “came rampant political, economic, and military nationalism that ultimately led to the re-start of war in 1939.”
Trump, who departs for France at 9:20 a.m. EST, is pursuing an “America First” foreign policy he says designed to make other countries treat the United States more “fairly.” From the campaign trail to the White House itself, Trump has argued that the United States has borne too many of the burdens of global defense, and that other nations are “ripping us off” through free trade.
“You have nationalists, you have globalists,” Trump said this week at the White House. “I also love the world – and I don’t mind helping the world – but we have to straighten out our country first. We have a lot of problems.”
At this point, Trump’s weekend in Paris is more about ceremony than substance.
The American president and some 60 other world leaders will gather at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris for an Armistice Day Centennial Commemoration. It takes place Sunday at 11 a.m. Paris time – exactly 100 years after the war officially ended, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
While in Paris, Trump also plans to visit a pair of American cemeteries from the World War I era, at Belleau Wood and Suresnes. The president said he will representing “the heroes of our country from World War I,” and, “I am very proud to go there.”
Trump had planned to host an American military parade in Washington, D.C., this weekend to mark the centennial of the world war’s end. Only after that idea fell through did he decide to attend the Paris event.
In terms of policy, Trump will also hold a bilateral meeting with his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, a critic of re-emerging nationalism on the world stage. Their agenda includes the civil war in Syria and Trump’s decision to withdraw from a high-profile international agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement.
‘America First’ stirs worry in Europe
While he has at times seemed to have a rapport with American president, Macron has criticized the Trump administration for some its “America First” actions.
One focus of criticism has been Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a 1987 arms control deal designed to prohibit Russia from developing missiles capable of reaching Western European cities.
In response, in an interview with Europe 1 radio, Macron talked about creating a “true, European army,” because “we have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”
He cited Trump’s decision on the INF: “When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty which was formed after the 1980s Euro-missile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security.”
Trump and his aides said current Russian missile development is in violation of the INF treaty. Russia denies it.
The issue could surface in Paris. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also scheduled to be in Paris this weekend. He and Trump may well bump into each other, though no formal meeting is set.
Domestic politics could also intrude on Trump’s Paris mission.
It comes less than a week after congressional elections in which Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives, even as Republicans maintained control of the U.S.Senate.
Trump will travel two days after dismissing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a decision critics saw as a move toward shutting down a special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In visiting Paris, Trump is following a trail blazed by predecessor Woodrow Wilson. The first president to travel to Europe while in office, Wilson went to Paris to work on the peace treaty that capped World War I.
In imposing harsh reparations on Germany, and dividing up the Middle East among various European nations, the Versailles Treaty in the view of many historians sowed the seeds of future conflict.
A century ago, Wilson pushed to have the Versailles Treaty include creation of a “League of Nations” designed to prevent future wars. But the Senate rejected U.S. participation in the league, amid protests that the American entry into the world war had been a mistake that cost too much of the nation’s blood and treasure.
Throughout the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the economic depression of the 1930s, the United States stayed largely aloof from world affairs.
“The close of World War I marked the beginning of a dark period in the history of the United States,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
The nation proclaimed neutrality amid the rise and militarism of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, into the breakout of another war in Europe in 1939. Neutrality did not end until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
After the American triumph in World War II, presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman sought to avoid what they saw as the isolationist mistakes of the 1920s and 1930s.
The United States created and led international efforts like the United Nations, NATO, and the Bretton Woods conference to forge an international financial system that came to include the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
For the next seven decades, no United States president seriously questioned America’s commitment to global leadership – until Trump.
He has questioned the modern relevance of NATO, and says the United States is spending too much for the defense of Europe. He has questioned the need for U.S. troops in places like Japan and South Korea. He attacks groups like the World Trade Organization, calling them unfavorable to the United States.
“He doesn’t know much history,” said Margaret MacMillan, professor of history at the University of Toronto and author of “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.” “I think rather he sees everything like a real estate deal – for someone to win someone else has to lose.”
In a September speech to the United Nations, Trump said that “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.”
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