A Parting of Values: America First versus Transactionalism

January 13, 2020

President Trump delivers remarks on Jan. 8, 2020 at the White House. Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/Public Domain.

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Some of the commentary I have received from the post on Soleimani and the Democratic Primary Electorate has focused on how the discussion about the next steps that ought to be taken by the United States have or have not addressed the questions of American values. In other words, to what extent should an American response be grounded in ethical criteria—whether of the just war tradition, or customary practices as related to the laws of armed conflict?

The existing divide in American foreign policy discourse has been the extent to which the United States must actively propagate and spread its values, or defend them or promote them even when there is no interest at stake.

The ethical bases of the "America First" approach has traditionally been rooted in the perspective outlined by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in July 1821:

[America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart…Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

"America First" sees the application of American values in lack of activity and intervention; in other words, if the United States eschews intervention in other parts of the world, it limits the possibility for ethical violations.

The 2016 campaign saw a confluence between the non-interventionist "America First" camp and those who embraced the transactional approach espoused by then-candidate Donald Trump. But whether that marriage can last remains to be seen, as some of the traditional America Firsters have begun to raise concerns about the direction Trump's foreign policy is taking.

And there is a divide over ethics. America Firsters tend to adopt the "do no harm" approach, which guides their reluctance to "go abroad" in "search of monsters to destroy." But there is an amoral streak in transactionalism, where actions are guided by the anticipated deal that might be obtained. Norms and values are useful only to the extent they yield benefits and can and ought to cast aside when they limit freedom of action or impose costs.

For transactionalists, norms are to be followed only if breaking them imposes higher costs; for instance, the use of a weapon of mass destruction against an opponent who also possesses such weapons might not be advisable. But dispensing with that norm if there is no credible fear of retaliation might be an option a transactionalist would want to keep on the table.

Eric Patterson has argued that there is an ethical component to the "American way of war"—because American civil society demands consideration of moral and ethical concerns in the decisions both to go to war and how the war will be prosecuted. This does not mean that every war has been fought ethically, but

During every US conflict there has been robust public debate about whether or not to go to war in the first place, and after the decision has been made, debate continues on the ethics of how the war is fought.

Does that still apply among those segments of the American populace that now seem to embrace transactionalism as their preferred approach to foreign affairs?

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