A Marine assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command assists evacuees Friday during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Sgt. Isaiah Campbell / U.S. Marine Corps via AP

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Afghanistan. COVID-19. These two situations have exposed a fault line in the United States.

President Donald Trump made clear his policy platform rallied around the theme of “America First.” President Joe Biden, in a political riff off Newton’s third law, announced an equal and opposite motivating theory to the world: “America is back.”  

However, in the past few weeks, the distinction between the two has blurred.

Like Trump, Biden has been unyielding in his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Faced with growing, bipartisan congressional criticism, he is focused on sticking to his timeline. Reports have followed that even NATO allies — the supposed audience of his claim that “America is back” — have criticised the unilateral decision-making and apparent unwillingness to compromise. And even with the deaths of Americans at the hands of Islamic State group terrorists on Thursday, he is pressing on.

Meanwhile, government health officials and the White House are now actively advocating for Americans to receive “booster” shots to fight COVID-19. This has led to criticism from the World Health Organization, which believes that people in the developing world should receive a first shot before Americans and other wealthy nations get boosters. It’s similar to the criticism Trump weathered when trying to buy COVID-19 vaccine prototypes for “America First.”

Biden’s approach does not share the brash nature of Trump, but the substantive difference between the two is getting harder and harder to find. They both want to return focus to domestic concerns.  

In some ways, it seems as if we are reliving history. Just over a century ago, an American war expedition came to a close. A worldwide pandemic broke out and the United States retreated inward. A fabulous economic decade followed.

Then the world plunged into an economic depression, with some countries facing severe inflation. They rallied around authoritarian leaders promising simple solutions. And, once war found our shores, another generation of Americans picked up arms and went overseas.

When that latter generation came home, America remained engaged with the world. We now call them the “Greatest Generation.” The Cold War kicked off, and the United States led the free world as a counterbalance to the totalitarian regime behind the Iron Curtain. The world was better for it.

The Trump-Biden realignment follows our post-World War I history. Whether it is “America First” or simply actions speaking louder than words, they are attempting to turn our nation’s attention inward. Yet, in the context of the world today, even with the myriad — and real — challenges we face as a nation, America remains in a position of strength.

Our economy is still a safe haven for international investment. Even with unfathomable growth in public debt, demand for U.S. government “IOUs” remains robust. The ability of our armed forces to project force is unparalleled.  

Which is why we still have an important role to play in the world.

You can state the case in moral terms. People — regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, race, religion or countless other attributes — do not get to choose the circumstances of their birth.  And if we are equally endowed with rights and dignity from our creator, then there is an imperative to help others.

Or you can approach it from a position of self-interest. Economic development and investment is predicated on stability, security and the rule of law. In order to open markets overseas, where we can trade “IOUs” for materials, products, labor and the like, others need to have confidence in us. Confidence built through relations.

After World War I and the 1918 flu, America retreated inward. We enjoyed the Roaring ‘20s and suffered the Great Depression.  

After World War II, America remained engaged with the world. In 1950, more than half the world lived in “extreme poverty.” By 2015, it was below 10 percent. And no world wars have broken out.

Addressing domestic concerns is all well and good. But America remains the indispensable nation in our world; Washington forgets it at our future peril.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.