Category Archives: Isolationism

Postwar consensus about U.S. role under fire from all directions

He believed in it, and so do I.

He believed in it, and so do I.

On a previous thread, we were having yet another discussion of “American exceptionalism.” Never mind where it started. At some point I said this and Doug said this and I said this and then Phillip weighed in.

And I answered Phillip at sufficient length that I thought it should be a separate post, so here goes:

Seeing as it’s Phillip and I have the greatest respect for him, I’m not going to send my seconds to confer with his seconds over his having called me a liar. Which is the only way I know to take “a feat of semantic gymnastics designed to make yourself feel more virtuous about your viewpoint.”

I’ll just say: Actually, no. There are no gymnastics involved when you’re saying exactly what you mean, and I’m saying exactly what I mean. As I suggested, there are people who DO think that way — the “superiority over” way. As I also said, people who dislike the phrase “American exceptionalism” — generally post-Vietnam liberals (as opposed to pre-Vietnam liberals, who saw things as I do) — like to paint the rest of us with that same brush, as a way of dismissing our views. As though we were a bunch of Steve Bannons or something.

But that’s not the main point I wish to argue. The larger point is that this assertion is completely wrong: “‘Responsibility’ in this case is self-assigned, that is, the United States arrogates for itself this ‘responsibility’ globally.”

Not at all. Through various security and other diplomatic arrangements, other liberal democracies have looked to the United States for leadership and support in many ways since 1945. This is most obvious through NATO, but through other arrangements as well.

Again, I refer y’all to the start of that Foreign Affairs piece:

In the 1940s, after two world wars and a depression, Western policymakers decided enough was enough. Unless international politics changed in some fundamental way, humanity itself might not survive much longer.

A strain of liberal idealism had been integral to U.S. identity from the American founding onward, but now power could be put behind principle. Woodrow Wilson had fought “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.” Keeping his goals while noting his failures, the next generation tried again with a revised strategy, and this time they succeeded. The result became known as the postwar liberal international order.

The founders of the order embraced cooperation with like-minded powers, rejecting isolationism and casting themselves as player-managers of an ever-expanding team. They bailed out the United Kingdom, liberated France, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, bound themselves to Canada and Mexico, and more. And for seven decades, the allies were fruitful, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty.

Then arose up a new king who knew not Joseph….

And we know who that king is.

But it’s not just about him. If you go back to that thread where this discussion initiated, you’ll see that Doug enthusiastically applauded the comment from Phillip with which I argued. You may not think of those guys as being two peas in a pod, politically. And you certainly wouldn’t identify Phillip with Trump. Well, that brings me to my next point.

A startling array of people coming from many places on the political spectrum simply don’t believe in the postwar consensus that formed under FDR and Truman.

For a generation, that consensus stayed strong and almost unchallenged, with Democrats and Republicans differing mainly over how best to fulfill that role. Then things started breaking up over Vietnam, but the basic assumption that this country had obligations in the world continued, with variations in emphasis, through the Obama administration.

Now, it’s really under siege.

I mentioned Steve Bannon earlier. He, of course, doesn’t believe in our international obligations in part because he believes the U.S. is inherently superior. He’s sort of like those Chinese emperors who, with China positioned at least as well as Portugal and Spain to become a global trading and naval power, suddenly closed their country off to the world, under the theory that China was the center of the universe and superior to all other nations, so why have dealings with them?

Then there are the post-Vietnam liberals to whom I referred, and I hope Phillip doesn’t mind if I put him roughly in that category — I stand ready to be corrected if I’m being presumptuous. I hate to be labeled, so I hesitate to do it to my friends.

Then there are the libertarians like Doug and the Pauls, Ron and Rand. They hate the idea of the United States having a military for anything much beyond patrolling the border with Mexico. (No, wait — that last part took me back to Bannon.)

Then there are the socialists, the Bernie Sanders types, who in opposition to the libertarians WANT a big state, but they only want it to exist to shower blessings on the populace domestically. They get impatient at the very idea of talking foreign affairs. This is in some ways like the post-Vietnam liberals, only much more so.

Then there are the ideological extremists who have taken over the Republican Party, sharing some characteristics with the Bannon types and some with the libertarians. They can’t see over the edges of the narrow boxes they build around themselves, much less see beyond our borders.

The all have their motivations. One group just wants the U.S. to strut, out of the world’s reach. Another wants America to be humble. Another wants it to be small. Another wants it to be inward-looking, solipsistic. Another can’t see anything past the next GOP primary.

There’s no room in any of their views for a United States that would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Anyway, that thing that JFK said there? That’s American exceptionalism.

Is this really where the light of liberal democracy grows dim?

In a comment earlier I wrote about how concerned I am about the course of my country — and of the world. More so than I’ve ever been in my more than six decades on this planet.

It’s not just Trump — he’s just a glaring, ugly sign of it. Take a step back, and reflect: Who came in second in the GOP primaries? The only guy who gave Trump any kind of a run for his money as the worst candidate ever — Ted Cruz. All the better-suited candidates were stuck in single digits. And the Democrats have nothing to brag about — they put forward the second-most (second to Trump) despised candidate in the history of such things being measured. And she had trouble putting away a cranky old socialist to get that far.

How can I blame Trump when the real problem is that millions of people voted for him? I actually almost feel sorry for this bizarre figure, because he truly had zero reason to expect that he’d actually end up in this position.

I mean seriously: If you don’t even go deeper than his hair, you can tell at a glance that the country’s really, really in trouble. This is what will lead us?krauthammer

And the rest of the world, too. As Charles Krauthammer wrote today, “After a mere 25 years, the triumph of the West is over.” The promise of 1991, with the Soviet Union finally collapsing and the U.S. leading a broad coalition against Saddam in Kuwait — the New World Order in which Civilization, led by the City on a Hill, would enforce its values against aggressors — is behind us.

The United States is pulling back, and the bad guys just can’t wait to flow into the vacuum. In fact, they haven’t been waiting — in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or the South China Sea. Or even in our own backyard.

He sums it up this way, blaming BOTH Obama and Trump:

Donald Trump wants to continue the pullback, though for entirely different reasons. Obama ordered retreat because he’s always felt the U.S. was not good enough for the world, too flawed to have earned the moral right to be the world hegemon. Trump would follow suit, disdaining allies and avoiding conflict, because the world is not good enough for us — undeserving, ungrateful, parasitic foreigners living safely under our protection and off our sacrifices. Time to look after our own American interests.

I think he’s trying a little too hard at false equivalence there, but at the same time, while Obama’s a smart guy who knows how to say the right things (unlike, you know, the other guy), there has been a noticeable tinge of “Oh, this country isn’t all that special” in his stance toward the world. A tinge that some of you agree with, and with which I couldn’t disagree more. But if you’re right, if the United States isn’t all that special — if it can’t be relied upon as the chief champion of liberal democracy — then the world doesn’t stand much of a chance. Because there’s always somebody wanting to be the hegemon, and the leading candidates running to take our place are pretty much a nightmare.

ISIS is a wannabe and never-was on that score. Russia wants to be a contender again, instead of bum, Charlie. But my money has long been on the oppressive authoritarians of the world’s largest country, China.

One of the first editorials I wrote for The State — maybe the first — when I joined the editorial board in 1994 was about the disturbing signs I saw of the Chinese buying friends and influencing people right here in our hemisphere, the long-forgotten Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding. I was worried that nobody else in this country seemed to see it, thanks to the fact that few of my fellow Americans ever took a moment to think about what happens to the south of us. (Side note: We wrote a lot about international affairs when I joined the editorial board; when I became editor, we would focus far more closely on South Carolina, which needed the scrutiny.)

Well, more people have noticed it since then. But not enough people. And not enough of the ones who have noticed care. President Obama, to his credit, started his “pivot” to focus on the Pacific Rim. That was the smart thing to do for this country’s long-term interests, and those of liberal democracy in general. China needs to be countered, with both soft power and, when necessary, hard.

Probably the most chilling paragraph in Krauthammer’s column is this one:

As for China, the other great challenger to the post-Cold War order, the administration’s “pivot” has turned into an abject failure. The Philippines openly defected to the Chinese side. Malaysia then followed. And the rest of our Asian allies are beginning to hedge their bets. When the president of China addressed the Pacific Rim countries in Peru last month, he suggested that China was prepared to pick up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now abandoned by both political parties in the United States….

TPP was smart policy, encouraging our allies in the region to join with us in confidence, tying themselves more closely with U.S. interests in the face of the Chinese challenge. And this year, neither party was willing to stand up for it — even though one of the nominees (the one who lost, of course) knew better. If she’d been elected, at least we’d have had the chance of her breaking that bad campaign promise.

We painstakingly fashioned that strategic instrument, then dropped it like a hot potato when the populists began howling. And China is preparing to pick it up. And maybe you don’t, but I feel the Earth’s center of gravity shifting in the wrong direction.

Oh, but hey, Carrier’s not moving a plant to Mexico — at least, not completely. So everything’s OK, right? We’ve entered the era of short-term, inwardly focused international goals. Or something…

Want to be MORE worried about Trump? Listen to the world

This morning on NPR, I heard a Republican — a supporter of Marco Rubio, I believe (I missed his introduction) — state the obvious: Donald Trump winning the GOP nomination would be bad for the party — and, far more importantly, for the country.

But that’s thinking small. I get most concerned when I think about the effect on the world. That, of course, is the way I think of the presidency — not someone who’s going to “fight for me” (possibly my least fave political locution) on domestic issues, but someone who will skillfully handle our relations with the rest of the globe.

And when it comes to that… Well, speaking of public radio, I recommend that you listen to this discussion from The Takeaway last week, which looks at reactions from around the world, from PM David Cameron’s statement that things Trump has said are “divisive, stupid and wrong” (which doesn’t bode well for the Special Relationship were Trump elected) to a Chinese view that the alleged Republican is an “April Fool’s joke” (although the same speaker likes him better than Hillary Clinton).

Then of course, there’s the apocalyptic view of Trump from south of the border.

What struck me the most was the comments of Edward Lucas, a senior editor from The Economist (I get deeply embarrassed for my country when I think of such smart people as senior editors at The Economist actually paying attention to this election), who among other things said:

We really need U.S. presidents who are deeply engaged in European security…. And I think what really worries me about Trump is not his off-the-wall comments and his rudeness and vulgarity and so on — it’s the isolationism, it’s the idea that he just really isn’t interested in shouldering burdens with other countries. And we here in Europe really need America as our partner in all sorts of ways…

Of course, he goes on to say that the isolationism of some of the other GOP candidates and of Bernie Sanders worry him as well. But I get the impression that Trump stands out.

Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas

And this is a sharp departure from the norm. Lucas notes that all recent presidents — Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama have taken a proper, healthy interest in Europe and the world.

But Trump, and some of the other candidates, do not. And that rightly worries our allies.

Of course, I’ll confess that being the Anglophile that I am, hearing these concerns expressed in a posh English accent make them all the more alarming…