Foreign policy rarely figures much in U.S. elections. China, Mexico, and Russia were actually prominent in 2016 — though not in a good way. A recent Thomas Friedman column points out that Democratic presidential hopefuls, so far, are focused on domestic issues. As if the rest of the world doesn’t matter.
Many Americans do think that way — “we should worry about problems here at home.” Trouble is, no country is an island. What happens elsewhere can hugely impact us here. Remember WWII?
World history is largely a history of such violent conflicts. Until lately. Steven Pinker has written compellingly about warfare’s decline.
A key factor has been American leadership, after 1945, in building a rules-based world order, knitted together through global institutions and organizations, with a broad web of alliances, and by an international trading system, that makes more nations more prosperous. When they get richer, they have more of a stake in the system, and can buy more from us. Spreading democracy too is key, also promoting prosperity and reducing costly violence. Dictatorships feature in virtually all the world’s wars. More democracy, more stability, and more prosperity in other countries, all make America better off.
But this propitious world order is unravelling. And Trump, far from defending it, is actually helping to blow it up. Ripping up its institutional underpinnings. Like the World Trade Organization, promoting commerce through rules-based norms. Trump refuses to fill the American slots among WTO judges, paralyzing it. And he’s egged on Britain’s Brexit crazies, pulling apart the European Union. As if this reckless nihilism somehow helps America.
Friedman explains that the American-built world order is also under assault from not one but three regimes who see their interests as opposed to ours. Notice I said “regimes,” not “countries.” Those regimes aren’t really serving their people’s national interests but their own power (that’s the problem with undemocratic regimes).
The three are Russia, China, and Iran, all trying to bully their way to regional dominance, in order to whip up nationalistic fervor at home. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine and forcibly seized Crimea, the most brazen of attacks on post-WWII global norms. Russia also works to wreck democracies by subverting elections. China violates international law by grabbing and militarizing a huge expanse of the Pacific, and aims to ensnare many other countries in debt traps.* Iran spreads its influence through destabilizing proxy wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria (where Russia also makes murderous mischief).
Friedman further explains that while these bad actors all grow stronger, some other countries grow weaker — the “failed state” syndrome that creates more big headaches. Including fleeing populations that are politically destabilizing in the better-off nations they try to reach.
Climate change exacerbates all this, further disrupting the world. And while in the past our biggest fear was nuclear war, today a host of miscreants have a panoply of potent tools for causing havoc. A cyber-attack, for example, targeting vital infrastructure (like the power grid) is practically just waiting to happen. And even if we dodge that bullet, the gathering tsunami of technological change is up-ending the world’s economic game board. These are all global problems that require global thinking.
Yet Trump’s America is retreating, abandoning leadership, pulling up the drawbridge. Venezuela is the exception proving the rule (its mistake is using the hated word, “socialist”). But mainly it’s disengagement; a glaring example being the recent escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed. Time was, America would actively work to defuse such crises. The Trump administration’s response was instead, “Go at it.” In fact, he hasn’t even bothered to name an ambassador to Pakistan! Nor to Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia.
And where America disengages, bad guys are all too eager to exploit the vacuum. Thus Russia’s messing with Syria, in response to America’s passivity (which began under Obama).
Some see a tension between a moralistic foreign policy and pursuing national interest. But happily, doing what is right most often actually serves our national interest, if viewed in proper perspective. It is good for America to have a world where morality and democracy thrive; and good for America when others throughout the world see us as standing for morality and democracy. That’s America’s tremendously potent “soft power.”
Trump doesn’t grasp this most basic of concepts; indeed, he’s actually in opposition to it. His foreign policy is assertively amoral. Aligning America not with the angels but with the bad guys. Like when Kashoggi’s murder implicated the Saudi ruler, Trump stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. And professed being “in love” with Kim Jong Un, a truly vicious dictator. These things speak volumes to people throughout the world, who used to look up to America.
But it’s too charitable to see any theme at all in Trump’s foreign policy. It is really just incoherent and brainless.
We have a president astonishingly ignorant about global realities; thinking he knows everything, and most of it is wrong.** In fact Trump’s erratic behavior shows he has no idea what he’s doing and is too arrogant to take sensible advice. This makes all the “America First” chest-thumping a tragic joke. (It’s also terrible for the future of the world’s other seven billion people.)
Trump recently announced U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, bragging that no previous president had acted so boldly. Well, there were very good reasons why none did! (And the great deal-maker gave Israel’s prime minister this gift for nothing in return.)
We desperately need to push the foreign policy re-set button with a new president who is on his or her game — bigly. One with the experience, understanding, seriousness, competence, sanity, and moral center to engage intelligently with world problems. To restore our precious web of invaluable global partnerships — with countries that share our democratic values — partnerships that Trump has been shredding.
Some of the damage will be very hard to undo after four years (God forbid eight), but we must try.
Otherwise you can take your “Make America Great Again” hat and eat it.***
* Don’t know what I’m talking about? Do some reading.
** Am I presumptuous (or worse) for daring to think I know more than the president? Fact: I have forgotten more about world affairs than Trump ever knew. (Reading helps.)
*** My original draft had a cruder suggestion. But I exercise restraint.