Home Opinion Feared or Loved: Will 'America First' Create Fear of US Diplomacy and Security Efforts?

Feared or Loved: Will 'America First' Create Fear of US Diplomacy and Security Efforts?


By Kelly C. Jordan, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Military Studies at American Military University

The new National Security Strategy (NSS) argues that an “America First” policy – unlike the prewar isolationist policy of the same name – is not synonymous with “going it alone.” Instead, it links the policy to the concept of “principled realism.”

Acknowledging that every nation tends to act in its own interest, principled realism also recognizes the advantages of acting cooperatively and multilaterally. This clarifies the collaborative aspect of “America First” and realism. But it does little to explain how the “principled” aspect will not play out as “going it alone” in practice.

Political Realism Involves Always Acting to Increase One’s Own Strength

While political realism is based upon values, international relations are viewed as a struggle for power by individual entities among competing nation-states. Ultimately, the goal is security in a hostile environment.

In practice, being “realistic” means responding to the world as it actually exists. It also means taking advantage of every opportunity to increase strength and long-term sustainability. The values guiding these actions, however, differ for each political entity.

Does Principled Realism Have Justification from Fukuyama’s End of History Argument?

One justification for principled realism arises from Francis Fukuyama’s End of History argument. Fukuyama, a political scientist, argues that if one views America’s free-market liberal democracy as having achieved ascendancy, then it has become the world’s “final form of human government.”

Fukuyama’s argument was intended to reduce anxiety about the future. It touted the positive influences associated with the combination of the rise of globalism and collective governing bodies committed to the rule of law.

This notion pairs well with the competition theme of political realism in some ways (e.g., America succeeded in making its free-market liberal democracy ascendant). However, Fukuyama’s argument does not account for the substantial changes of the last 25 years, which produced challenging internal strains within free-market liberal democracies. Nor does Fukuyama’s argument appear to support the international aggressiveness demonstrated in practice by the current presidential administration, viewed by some as intentionally destabilizing and/or fear-inducing.

Alexander the Great and Machiavelli Had Differing Opinions on Fear

Alexander the Great believed that embracing local culture and values was essential to govern the diverse populations he conquered. During his Afghan campaign, Alexander cautioned his soldiers to guard against relying on fear to subdue their foes. “Those who fear us when we are present will be our enemies in our absence,” he warned.

Machiavelli, an avowed realist, contended that it was better for a statesman to be feared than loved. He felt that the outcome of being feared was more politically predictable and hence of greater diplomatic value.

There is confusion in the NSS between these two sentiments. The text of the policy embraces the views of both Alexander and Fukuyama, whereas the conduct of our current administration thus far appears to favor a more Machiavellian approach.

What Is the Role of Fear?

Unless the role of fear is reconciled in the new NSS and its implementation, America is in danger of falling victim to being more feared than loved. While likely more predictable in the short-term, is America being feared preferable and/or more “realistic” in the long run?  As the differing ideas of Alexander, Fukuyama, and Machiavelli make clear, it remains to be seen which approach will succeed better in the era of globalization.

About the Author

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a part-time instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at AMU. He holds a B.A. in history from the Virginia Military Institute, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University. His teaching interests include military studies, military history, national security, and leadership. Kelly has published multiple works, including The Yin and Yang of Junior Officer Learning, charting the development of the Army’s education program for its captains, ‘Formation’ in Formation, describing the remarkable capacity of military schools to develop character and leadership in adolescent boys.

Also, Kelly is the co-author of Leadership in Agriculture: Case Studies for a New Generation. He has a chapter on leadership as a profession in the forthcoming Professionalizing Leadership: Debating Education, Certification and Practice, and manuscripts regarding the American Preparedness Movement and the Korean War under consideration by Texas A&M University Press.