Donald Trump is just ripping off the mask.
FROM POLITICO | JUNE 2, 2017
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords is widely attributed to the now-waxing influence of the America First nationalists in the White House, but several days before that announcement, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn — two of the supposed leaders of the globalist contingent — penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that in many ways neatly mirrored the logic behind the Paris withdrawal.
Titled “America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone,” the piece was a stark study in realpolitik. “The president is unequivocal in declaring that America’s primary interest is the safety and security of our citizens,” Cohn and McMaster argued. “The world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” In that spirit, the authors promised that the Trump administration would engage allies and adversaries from the starting point of American interests. Where there is common ground, that would be nurtured; where interests diverge, the United States would “use the diplomatic, economic and military resources of the U.S. to enhance American security, promote American prosperity and extend American influence around the world.”
Reading this op-ed in light of the Paris decision, it is hard to see much daylight between competing camps in the White House. The current administration has decided to approach the world purely on the basis of self-interest, and in that sense, the White House today has more in common with a stark, simple version of 19th century realism than it does with the more complicated, multifaceted diplomacy that has characterized the 70 years since the end of World War II. It represents a repudiation not just of Barack Obama but of decades of America genuflecting in the direction of “the community of nations” and peace through global institutions, such as the United Nations and multilateral alliances such as NATO.
Just because it is a repudiation, however, does not on the face of it make that new position a bad one. There’s something of a knee-jerk tendency to call this new policy wrong and misguided simply because it appears to break so dramatically from the tone of the past; witness pundit David Frum calling it “The Death Knell for America’s Global Leadership,” in a blazing reaction typical of the op-ed’s reception.
In fact, U.S. foreign policy since the middle of the 20th century has been characterized at best by a powerful tension between naked self-interest, idealism and retreat from the world. America as a global leader is almost entirely a product of World War II and the economic and political system established in 1945, anchored by the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic framework that led to the dollar as a global reserve currency. Before then, the United States was at best ambivalent about “entangling alliances” (George Washington’s warning at the end of the 18th century) and entering into any long-term global commitments. The U.S. entered World War I only reluctantly, did not sign on to the League of Nations treaty it helped craft, then retreated from global affairs until forced to confront the challenge of Germany and Japan in the late 1930s.
Americans’ widespread belief that theirs is a special country, an “indispensable nation” as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to say, was a powerful strain of U.S. policy in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the arena of human rights. Yet, it is simply wrong to think that the U.S. ever pursued a foreign policy rooted primarily in that idealism. Yes, the United States led the way to craft numerous multilateral institutions, but most of those served America quite well and did not always serve others quite so nicely. The economic system championed by the United States has undoubtedly been a major cause of greater global affluence and economic flourishing, but in pure power politics, the U.S. has been closer in spirit to what McMaster and Cohn wrote.
The U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia comes to mind, as do the various covert interventions of the 1950s and 1960s in Guatemala, Iran, Laos, Chile; the Vietnam War; the invasion of Granada in 1985; Panama in 1989 that removed Manuel Noriega; the various arms deals that made up the Iran-Contra Affair; the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the rather promiscuous use of drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan during Obama’s first term. And that is only a partial list. All of those were grounded primarily on ruthless pursuit of America’s security. Whether they actually made America more secure is another story, but they hardly represent some noble vision of a global community. They are essentially manifestations of an America First agenda, even if they were at times cloaked in language that suggested more principled motives.
Henry Kissinger, who has done and written enough over the decades to make it difficult to generalize about his core beliefs, was known in his foreign policy prime in the 1970s as a staunch believer that nations are best served in pursuing their interests rather than attempting to impose ideals that other countries are bound to reject as impositions on their sovereignty. His views made many Americans uncomfortable because they seemed to eschew universal ideals, but they were closer on the spectrum to Trump’s current approach than not.
And of course, who can forget—as many certainly have—that under George W. Bush, the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in the spring of 2001, which elicited reactions almost verbatim to the Trump moves of this week, with widespread condemnation of American arrogance and unilateralism in spurning the global community that McMasters and Cohn so nakedly dismiss as a chimera.
But Americans’ embrace of that community has always been more cynical than we like to admit. Much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment signed on the idea that when it came to idealism about working collectively with other countries to preserve the global order, that was fine if it worked and was to be jettisoned if it did not. As the late Richard Holbrooke said (though he did not coin the phrase), the basic tenet from FDR onward was: “Multilateral if we can; unilateral is we must.” Not as blunt as America First, for sure, but not so far from it.
The Trump team has no patience with many of the platitudes that have characterized past policy. In that sense, it is constructing a foreign policy that will have to remove one major vulnerability that has plagued America for decades: a widespread perception of hypocrisy. Many countries have chaffed under the impression that America likes to proclaim ideals, lecture, hector and often coerce other nations to adopt a similar tone and then goes off and acts like a typical great power from time immemorial by doing what it wants, when it wants and how it wants when that suits its sense of security and self-interest. A policy that unabashedly proclaims such a stance the sole basis of foreign policy is, at least, honest.
Whether it is wise, however, is another question. One point of idealism is to establish a framework for what might guide us collectively to a more secure, less fraught future. There’s a distinction between accepting that the world is—as Hobbes brilliantly observed in the 17th century, a less-than-happy place for concord—and refusing to work to construct a world where self-interest does not run amok. Rigid realists have always had a blind spot to the inevitable consequences of too much realism: By breeding a climate of suspicion and distrust for other nations, such realism can bleed easily into conflict and war.
But it is a mistake to take the Trump White House as an aberration. You may not like how they say what they say, but they are articulating what has been a powerful guiding strand of U.S. foreign policy for many long years, even if few have been so unequivocal in expressing it. Much of the world has long struggled with America’s tendency to speak nobly and act selfishly. Now we are all confronted with an America that acts selfishly and speaks selfishly in a world where many other nations do the same. Progress? Perhaps not. But it is a bracing moment of clarity and honesty that could lead to a more mature and sober debate about who we are and what we actually want in the world, without the moralizing platitudes that have long clouded not only how we perceive ourselves but how we engage a global community that does indeed exist whether we call it that or not.