One might think that President Trump’s frequent references to “America First” would be palatable to all Americans, especially since Trump takes every opportunity to assure foreign leaders that he fully expects them to put the interests of their own nations and citizens first as well. But given the virulent opposition Trump seems to attract, particularly with respect to policies that embrace the principle of America First, it would be helpful to try to explain some of its moral foundations.
Just as conservatism often suffers a rhetorical disadvantage when pitted against liberalism, nationalism suffers a rhetorical disadvantage when pitted against globalism. With measured success, conservatives have risen to the challenge, offering up versions of compassionate conservatism based on principles of prosperity, freedom, opportunity, liberty, and so on. So how might one define compassionate nationalism?
America Can’t Help the World Unless America is Strong
The crucial moral argument in favor of nationalism is that America cannot be a force for good in the world unless it is internally cohesive and economically strong. Ironically, this is a globalist argument, but it differs from liberal globalism insofar as it asserts that America’s way of life is more effective than that of most other nations in delivering freedom and prosperity to its people. Therefore protecting the American way of life is a prerequisite to America helping the rest of the world achieve that way of life.
This is an arrogant claim. It makes people uncomfortable. But it’s true. Standing up for American values, and more generally, for Western values and traditions, is a nationalist sentiment. But it isn’t ugly, it’s beautiful. It isn’t jingoistic, it’s compassionate.
America and the West have given the world nearly everything that gives individuals hope for the future—democracy, technological revolutions, capitalism, social welfare, equality of opportunity, individual freedom, environmental stewardship. Parliaments. Railroads. Medicine. The Internet. The list of wondrous innovations that make life better for everyone, everywhere, is endless—and nearly all of them came from Western societies. This should be boldly proclaimed because it is the moral basis for why immigrants who come to America must be assimilated to American values, not impose their values or demands upon America.
One of the most contentious elements of the Greatness Agenda is changing America’s immigration policies. But if current policies are not changed, America as we know it will cease to exist. America needs to restrict immigration primarily to individuals who are highly skilled in professions where there are shortages of American workers. Moreover, priority needs to be granted to immigrants from cultures that are fundamentally compatible with our own. This means cultures that respect individual freedom, cultures that do not accept corruption as a given, cultures that embrace religious freedom and women’s rights.
The moral argument against this, of course, is that America should rescue the impoverished refugees and offer them safe haven. The problem with that argument is simple—the numbers don’t work.
America Cannot Possibly Accommodate the World’s Poor
America currently has a population of 330 million people. According to the UNICEF, more than 3 billion people—10 times the U.S. population—live in poverty. Over 1.3 billion people—four times the population of America—live in extreme poverty. But it doesn’t end there, as if we could actually transport more than billion people to our shores.
According to the United Nations, the population of India will increase by another 353 million people in just the next 20 years. Similarly, in only 20 years, Nigeria is projected to add 122 million people to its population, Pakistan will add 97 million, Indonesia, 69 million, Congo, 65 million, Egypt, 47 million.
In fact, according to the latest projections from the United Nations, not including China, the 50 nations in the world with the greatest projected increases to their population include only two developed nations: America and Great Britain. America is projected to add 55 million people to its population in the next 20 years. Great Britain, another 11 million. The other 48 nations? They are projected to add 1.7 billion people to their population in the next 20 years.
Here’s more irony: Already living within these 48 nations are nearly all of the world’s 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty. So as the United States adds 55 million people to their population in the next 20 years, with more than half of that increase due to immigration, it has a choice. Will we import people who contribute to society, such as doctors and engineers, or will we choose to import unskilled economic refugees who will drain our wealth and further undermine national cohesion?
There is an argument to be made that unskilled immigration still constitutes a net economic gain for the host nation. But even those who still make that argument concede that there is a greater economic gain to be had via entry of highly skilled immigrants. And these arguments miss the point, which is that even if America admitted millions of economic refugees, there would still be billions of people who will continue to live in desperate poverty in the nations those relative few who escape leave behind.
Foreign Aid Costs Less and Helps More than Mass Migration
Put another way, if the liberal globalists want open borders for moral reasons, what they are basically doing is acknowledging that mass migration of unskilled people is a form of foreign aid. And if so, the vastly more effective way to offer foreign aid is to remain economically strong, and then offering actual foreign aid to these struggling nations. In nearly all iterations, direct foreign aid helps more people, more effectively, if it is spent over there. A good example is the case of displaced war refugees, where at least five times as many can be supported in relative comfort in areas close to their country of origin, when compared to the lifetime cost of resettling and supporting these refugees in the United States.
The moral argument in favor of favoring direct foreign aid over mass immigration of destitute, unskilled people is magnified if one examines the challenges that could be addressed for a fraction of the funds that would be necessary to resettle millions of immigrants. The situation in Sub-Saharan Africa provides searing examples of need. According to the United Nations, the sub-Saharan’s 800 million population is projected to rise to 1.5 billion by 2050. It has the highest fertility rate in the world—and the lowest life expectancy. It has 90 percent of the world’s malaria cases, with well over 100 million cases per year. Similar rates of affliction apply in sub-Saharan Africa for diarrhea, tuberculosis, intestinal worms, and other infectious diseases. These illnesses not only kill millions each year but almost invariably leave survivors with permanent cognitive impairment.
Aggressive programs of foreign aid can solve many of these problems. Malaria was nearly wiped from the earth in the 1950s. Diarrhea and intestinal worms could be eliminated largely through basic hygiene and proper sanitation. Tuberculosis could be eliminated by identifying and treating cases—before they spread via contagion—through a comprehensive national health service.
What about violence, civil strife, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, female genital mutilation? What about malnutrition, iodine deficiency, iron deficiency, pollution, illiteracy? All these problems can be alleviated with foreign aid. Often foreign aid is exposed as ineffective. But mass immigration would cost much more, to accomplish even less. As a form of foreign aid, mass immigration is the least practical way to help the destitute of the world, yet that is the core moral argument for open borders.
The Moral Path
If America is economically strong, with skilled, capable immigrants who have left behind a diverse assortment of poverty-stricken nations, foreign aid isn’t the only way to help those nations. Direct investment in infrastructure and industry are also ways to quicken these nations’ rise to prosperity, especially if they are practical. Here again, the conventional liberal globalist wisdom is flawed, because these nations don’t need wind farms and solar panels, they need cost-effective natural gas and nuclear power plants. They need dams and aqueducts. They need to drain swamps, refurbish and expand their railroad network, become net food exporters, engage in sustainable forestry, and build universities, hospitals, roads, cities, industry—they need to join the 21st century.
Instead, the liberal globalist sends them just enough medicine and food aid to ensure a burgeoning population, demands nothing of their governments in return, and pretends that a few solar panels will somehow power their economies to prosperity. It’s virtue signaling that is oblivious at best, maliciously opportunistic at worst.
Embracing compassionate nationalism is the moral path towards making America great again. If America truly recovered the energy and vision of the nation it was a century ago, Americans would invest in mega-projects in developing nations. They would invest in projects to green the Sahel by diverting water from the Ubangi River into Lake Chad, or by planting a trillion drought tolerant trees along the latitude of 15 degrees north, from Mauritania to Sudan. Projects to make the desert bloom, and expand the forests. It was done in Israel. It took about 70 years. Where’s the difference? If the will was there, Americans could lead this effort, and other great works, and truly help midwife the emergence of a global civilization.
If we could see 500 years into the future, we probably wouldn’t recognize much. It will probably be a transnational civilization, populated by transhuman beings. But in the meantime, and to ensure we survive the present, America must be strong. Whatever globalist future is in store for us, it is best served by exercising compassionate nationalism, not virtue signaling nihilism.