Published On: Sun, Jul 8th, 2018

Under Trump, the United States is turning his back on its friends

One of the great tales of the Second World War was the establishment in America of a network of British operatives assigned to weaken isolationist forces and draw the United States into the fight against Adolf Hitler.

The Canadian spymaster William Stephenson – code-named Intrepid – was asked by Winston Churchill to set up the so-called British Security Co-ordination.

His team included Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, advertising legend David Ogilvy, and the author Roald Dahl, a 6’6” stretch of good looks and charm who famously toured the upper-class boudoirs of America.

According to a history by author Jennet Conant, the Brits “planted propaganda in American newspapers, radio stations and wire services; and co-opted leading columnists from Drew Pearson to Walter Lippmann and Walter Winchell; harassed prominent isolationists and anti-New Dealers; exposed Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists; and plotted against operations that were working against British interests.”

All in all, a good day’s work.

The effort was necessary because Britain and allies were hanging on by their fingertips and the America First Committee – fronted by famed pilot Charles Lindbergh and wife Anne, who fancied fascism to be the “wave of the future” – wanted no part of the fight.

Instead, America First wanted the U.S. to turn its attention to its own business and prosperity and “Let God Save the King.”

Pearl Harbor ended that debate.

Still, as President Donald Trump undermines much of the international infrastructure constructed since that war, the story captures an isolationist instinct that has existed through much of American history and which Trump seeks to revive.

This week, Trump is to attend the annual summit of NATO leaders, at which he is expected to play harder with longstanding allies than he has to date with the adversaries of his country.

Setting the stage for confrontation, Trump has already written dunning letters to NATO leaders insisting they pay more of the freight for the defence alliance.

This follows hard on his performance at the G7 summit in Quebec, where he trashed the agreement the exercise produced and insulted his host while jetting off to fawn over North Korea’s Kim Jung Un.

As he turns America ever inward, Trump had already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Accord on climate change, threatened NAFTA and revoked the Iran nuclear agreement.

This ongoing retreat from the world stage is far more damaging than the president’s crudeness, tantrums and monumental self-regard. And it does not come from nowhere.

While America has relished its post-Second World War role as what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “the indispensable nation,” the country was founded on isolationist sentiment and has recurringly been drawn back to it.

With the Spanish-American War at the dawn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt brought a more robust view to foreign affairs. But after the First World War, the U.S. withdrew again into the indulgences of the Roarin’ 20s, then the struggles of the Great Depression.

America averted its gaze from the threats rising in Europe in the 1930s. When war came, it gave rise to the America Firsters and ushered in what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the most intense and angry debate of my lifetime.”

As Americans celebrated the Fourth of July, Catholic priest Jim McDermott, Los Angeles correspondent of the website America Magazine, wrote that perhaps the country needed to focus less on its independence and more on its neighbours.

He noted that the Christianity which Americans so frequently exalt is often undercut by the impulse to disconnect from the world – a goal increasingly futile in the age of the internet, a global economy and the long reach of terrorism.

McDermott did not see Trump’s isolationism as “some cancerous bit of ideology that has grafted itself onto the national psyche, but rather a foundational part of the American project.”

The Declaration of Independence provides the phrase most readily quoted by Americans, he said, that theirs is a destiny devoted to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

None of those aspirations “acknowledge the broader context in which we live,” McDermott said. “It really is just a more alliterative way of saying, ‘I should be able to do whatever I want’.”

That last phrase is as an apt description of both Trump’s hedonistic personal outlook and his shrunken world view.

As he prepares for the NATO summit, Trump would do well to peruse the inaugural addresses of one of his most illustrious predecessors, who had wise words about America’s relationship with the wider world.

In his last inaugural address, as the Second World War entered its final bloody months, Franklin Roosevelt declared that “in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons – at a fearful cost – and we shall profit by them.

“We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace, that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. . .

“We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.

“We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that ‘the only way to have a friend is to be one’.”

These are lessons that Trump, for one, needs to re-learn.

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Under Trump, the United States is turning his back on its friends