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Trump's 'America First' Foreign Policy As A Strategy To Pursue National Interests Over Values


Donald Trump wants to put America first. That's how he described his approach to U.S. foreign policy in a formal address that he gave last month. Our next guest says Mr. Trump believes in a hard edge, nationalist foreign policy that's in tune with the beliefs of many Americans.

Richard Burt is the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and the chief negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty under President George H. W. Bush. He advised Senator Rand Paul when he was still in the race for president. Ambassador Burt joins us now in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD BURT: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I have to ask first you - know the history of that phrase, America first. It's aligned with the isolationism of the 1930s, people who believed the U.S. shouldn't oppose Adolf Hitler. Is that the phrase Donald Trump should have used?

BURT: Well, I don't know. I don't think most Americans remember the 1930s, needless to say. And I don't...

SIMON: I mean, they teach it in high school.

BURT: As I try to understand what Trump is saying, I don't think he is endorsing the ideas of Lindbergh and the American firsters of the '30s. I think he probably has grabbed onto that phrase because I think he wants a foreign policy that's focused principally on pursuing American national interests.

SIMON: And I have to ask, did you have any hand in that recent policy speech?

BURT: I was asked to provide a draft for that speech. And parts of that - of my draft survived into the final. But I think parts of many other drafts did as well. So I certainly would not claim pride of authorship.

SIMON: What would a nationalist foreign policy look like, as far as you're concerned?

BURT: Well, I think a nationalist foreign policy would be probably mostly focused on pursuing American interests versus American values. I think a number of foreign policy analysts, people in the Washington and outside of the Washington foreign policy community, have begun asking the question of what's gone wrong with American foreign policy?

Why, over really a period of 25 years or so, have there been so many misadventures? How do you explain, for example, Iraq? How do you explain the lack of progress after so many years in Afghanistan? Why was the Libyan intervention unsuccessful? And I think the conclusion is is that the United States has focused more since the end of the Cold War not so much on defending against external threats but focusing more on the internal governance of foreign countries and trying to change it.

So rather than maintaining a strong defense in protecting our national interests, we've tended to promote democracy in other countries, we've engaged in nation-building exercises, we've engaged in regime change. And in most of those cases, we've been unsuccessful.

SIMON: You were the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Does the United States have - and you know the history - does the United States have no interest in preventing genocide and mass slaughter around the world?

BURT: I think genocide is probably the one case where we do have a responsibility. I mean, if it's real genocide and people are - there is mass murder, then I think we have a moral duty to intervene. But the problem is is that how you define that moral duty when it's not clearly genocide, when there's injustice, when there's discrimination, when, for instance, the young girls in Afghanistan can't go to school, that is not genocide.

And I don't think as - maybe as awful and as discriminatory that is, we should, first of all, believe that the United States should intervene and second of all, believe that using military force as our means of intervention is going to solve the problem.

SIMON: Would you advise a Donald Trump administration?

BURT: Well, I haven't been asked. And I'm not - I'm not (laughter) - I don't know if I would or I wouldn't. But I am prepared to offer people my advice. And I give it for free.

SIMON: Former Ambassador Richard Burt is a managing director of McLarty Associates in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for being with us.

BURT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.