America First?

I grew up with a sense that the United States was a force for good in the world in the face of evils like Hitler’s Germany and the USSR, and that our base motivation was seeking good—peace and freedom for all—and helping those in need. I probably absorbed that more from TV and movies, but my actual schooling did not challenge that until a U.S. History class in college. Then, living in Central America in the early 1980’s, I observed things that went against that narrative. I read about various actions in Latin America in the 20th century that clearly had more to do with protecting or promoting U.S. interests—often U.S. business interests—than protecting the peace, freedom, democracy, and well-being of various countries.

In the spring of 1983 the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras came to an event I attended. Seeing an opportunity, I went over and talked to him and said, “I have heard and read a lot that is critical of U.S. foreign policy in Central America. If you are willing I would appreciate hearing your perspective.” That was a sincere statement, but I was also looking for an opportunity to influence—to tell him some of the things I heard on the ground, to do a bit of lobbying for a different approach. To my amazement he said “yes,” and told me how to set up the appointment.

I sought advice from the UN ambassador to Honduras. He was the father of one of my students—from the Netherlands. I had spoken to him a number of times and knew he shared many of my perspectives. He told me, “Mark, recognize that the man you will be speaking with is very intelligent and very politically astute. He will be very savvy in how he talks to you and he will not be easily influenced.” He also warned me to not say anything too radical. He communicated that the ambassador will come across as a very nice man, but the embassy was involved in some pretty dark stuff.

The ambassador was John Negroponte—a career diplomat. This was not some businessman who Reagan sent to Honduras as a way of rewarding campaign donations. He had served in the embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and after his time in Honduras he went on to even more significant posts including ambassador to the UN, ambassador to Iraq, and Deputy Secretary of State.

I remember very little of our conversation, but two lines remain etched in my mind. At one point I said, “If the United States really wanted to help Honduras why don’t we change the sugar tariff so that Honduras could export more sugar to the United States?” (I recognize that does not sound like a tremendously bold statement. I didn’t think so at the time either, but it seemed like something within the realm of possibility in contrast to something like United Fruit Company or Dole returning land they had gotten through bribes.) To my surprise he readily agreed with me. He said, “True, that would help Honduras.” But then he added, “Mark you must realize that the United States will not do something against its interests. It will not do something to help Honduras if it hurts the U.S.” I was amazed. Here the U. S. ambassador had just told me something that directly contradicted the narrative I had grown up with. I had only discovered this truth through a critically thinking college professor, reading out-of-the-mainstream books and talking to Central Americans critical of the United States. I thought this was some sort of buried secret. I sure had not heard it from John Wayne in movies or from my junior high social studies teachers. But the U.S. Ambassador said it to me directly. In essence he said, “America First.”

This past Friday I heard the president in his inaugural address make that statement—“America First”—repeatedly. Part of me responded positively—“Good, state it clearly. Pull back the curtain and show everyone reality. Let’s not pretend it is otherwise.” Mostly, however, I felt sad and concerned. There was no nuance in Donald Trump’s “America First.” John Negroponte had gone on to give me examples of things the U.S. was doing in Honduras that were mutually beneficial. I wish Negroponte, and his president, would have had an even greater imagination for how not always putting our “interests” first might actually be better not just for Honduras, but for us in the long run—let alone that they would have the imagination to operate with a commitment to justice for all rather just a U.S. first mentality. But at least there was some sense of the importance of global partners, and even if it was just politically motivated by who he was talking to, Ambassador Negroponte did display some sense of concern for the needs of Honduras. I do not hear that in Trump’s statements nor did I sense any concern that thinking only of ourselves might in the end have very negative consequences.

But, in spite of all the energy I put into it in the 1980’s, I am not first and foremost a political scientist. And what I find myself thinking the most about as I reflect on President Trump’s “America First” statements is how they might influence our lives, not at the international level, but at the micro level—locally and individually. I fear that hearing this sort of rhetoric will enflame and legitimize self-oriented behavior—in business and elsewhere. It feels like the exact opposite of what my father said to me so many times: “Think for yourself, but think of others.” It feels the exact opposite of the life and words of the leader we celebrated earlier in the week—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is certainly the opposite of what Jesus called us to.

On the same day that Donald Trump said “America first,” I sat in Fresno County jail and read a story from Chris Hoke’s book, Wanted, to the men who came to the weekly Bible study. It was a story about an inmate reaching out in love to others—not after he got out, but while he was still in prison in solitary confinement. Then in a spirit markedly different than the president’s speech, the men shared ways they are seeking to re-orient their lives—responding to others in the pod not out of anger and fear, but love. They commented on what a difference it makes in a pod if the inmate leaders operate from a place of love rather than anger and hate. We prayed together that Jesus would strengthen us in the way of reaching out to others unselfishly in love.

Posted on January 25, 2017 .