2016 election, America First, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, foreign policy, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Im-Politic, internationalism, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, national interests, national security, Obama, Peggy Noonan, Richard Nixon, rule of law, The Wall Street Journal, Trade
Welcome to the Age of Trump!
Since ages these days come and go a lot faster than previously in history, this one could well end in November, if he loses the presidency. Who, though, can doubt that, until then, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will dominate the news cycle with his outsiders’ instincts and his matchless flair for publicity, and keep his presumptive rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, the quintessential insider, continually on the defensive?
At the same time, the reasons for supposing that what might be called “Trump-ism” in American policy (and yes, I’m aware of all the contradictory views he still needs to resolve) is no flash in the pan are much stronger than widely realized.
Even given the implacable hostility he’s generated throughout the Mainstream Media, because of all the of digital ink spilled already on Trump’s remarkable rise, it’s hard to imagine anyone recently coming up with something fundamentally new – including me. But the Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan (who gained fame as a star speechwriter for Ronald Reagan) achieved just that objective in her April 28 column, when she wrote that the key to Trump’s appeal has been his supporters’ conviction that “he is on America’s side.”
Moreover, before you say, “Duh,” Noonan’s basic analysis ultimately also explains why Trump is so detested by the nation’s policy establishment across the political spectrum, along with the establishment journalists that flack for them – and why his approach to America’s challenges and opportunities holds much more promise than the reigning framework, especially in world affairs.
As you’ll see if you read the article, Noonan’s definition of “pro-American” entails much more than an avowed determination to defend and advance the nation’s interests. Of course, all public officials will call that their goal, and nearly all will sincerely mean it. What Noonan emphasizes, however, is the tendency of mainstream liberal, conservative, and centrist politicians alike to dilute that goal with numerous other considerations. These often are compatible with what’s best for America, or could be. But they’re not necessarily or intrinsically “pro-American” and can easily – and often have – compromised U.S. security or prosperity.
Noonan’s writes that Trump’s literal America First outlook “comes as a great relief to [his backers] because they believe that for 16 years Presidents Bush and Obama were largely about ideologies. They seemed not so much on America’s side as on the side of abstract notions about justice and the needs of the world. Mr. Obama’s ideological notions are leftist, and indeed he is a hero of the international left. He is about international climate-change agreements, and leftist views of gender, race and income equality. Mr. Bush’s White House was driven by a different ideology—neoconservatism, democratizing, nation building, defeating evil in the world, privatizing Social Security.
“But it was all ideology.
“Then Mr. Trump comes and in his statements radiate the idea that he’s not at all interested in ideology, only in making America great again—through border security and tough trade policy, etc. He’s saying he’s on America’s side, period.
I’d elaborate with two points. First, there’s a fundamental, bipartisan worldview and approach to world affairs underlying all these disparate positions. As I’ve explained, it’s called internationalism, and its bedrock tenet holds that America’s best bet for security and prosperity is pursuing what political scientists call milieu goals – literally trying to shape the world to make it safe for America.
As a result, especially since Pearl Harbor, this strategy has led the nation’s leaders on what I’ve called (especially in writing about national security and international economic policy) a search for abstract (a word Noonan uses in passing) standards to guide policy rather than simply asking what makes America and its people safer or wealthier. In fairness to the policy gurus and their acolytes, they insist that they’re simply taking a broader, more complex (sophisticated, etc.) and indeed more realistic view of U.S. interests. In particular, they claim to understand that the long run is more important than instant gratification.
That’s why even long before President Obama entered the White House, American leaders have been talking about strengthening peaceful global norms of behavior and the international institutions that should be administering them; about preserving relationships; about submitting to a “global test” before going to war (Secretary of State John Kerry’s words as the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate); about creating New World Orders and balances of power and “global structures of peace” (a Richard Nixon favorite); about freeing global trade and commerce to the greatest possible extent; about winning foreign “hearts and minds” (a Vietnam War campaign); about figuring out who’s on the “right side of history” (a big bone of contention during Jimmy Carter’s presidency); about eradicating global poverty; about controlling arms; about demonstrating credibility; about exercising or maintaining “global leadership.”
Of course, America and the world as a whole would indeed likely be much better off if much of this substantive progress (i.e., disarmament, trade liberalization) came to pass. But the main question facing policy-makers is rarely, “What would be advantageous” but “What is achievable at acceptable cost and risk?” Just as important is the question, “Compared to what?” For countries without alternatives, questing for a more congenial world environment is arguably the policy to follow – even though, paradoxically, however, their very lack of alternatives logically reflects a weakness that places this goal far out of reach.
As I’ve argued, however, the United States is in a different, and much more favorable, situation entirely, thanks to its geographically isolated location, its still dynamic social system, its sheer size, and its consequent economic power and potential for self-sufficiency. And logically, a policy of relying on variables that are relatively easy to control (i.e., a country’s own capabilities and actions) makes much more sense than a policy relying on variables that are relatively difficult to control (i.e., the capabilities and actions of others).
The arguments for pursuing the procedural aims of internationalism (those institutional goals) are even weaker for the United States. Given its military and economic superpower status and potential, yoking America to internationally agreed on standards of behavior seems likeliest to crimp valuable freedom of action, and hand influence over America’s fate over to powers that are either indifferent or hostile, without contributing on net to national security or well-being.
Also worth fretting about are time-frames (which are closely related to cost and risk issues). Let’s assume that even all of the above goals would benefit America sufficiently to warrant their pursuit. That still leaves the matter of how long the nation is supposed to wait for the benefits to start flowing. And nowhere is this question more important than in the international trade field, where Americans have repeatedly been told either (a) that their jobs and incomes should be sacrificed for the greater good by decisions to win and keep allies by handing them chunks of U.S. markets; and (b) that whatever economic pain liberalized trade is inflicting will eventually be more than offset by greater efficiencies or wider consumer choices or even more employment opportunities and higher wages (when foreign countries finally decide to open their markets).
It’s important to note that a “Trump-ian” crockery-breaking pursuit of greater and quicker policy benefits has no place in domestic politics. At home, Americans have developed a strong consensus on acceptable standards of behavior that justifies the supremacy of rule of law and its consequent proceduralism. Nothing close to such a consensus is visible internationally.
But here’s something that’s at least as important to note: Even though it’s by no means certain that internationalism’s assumptions have been discredited, or that its promises have been broken, what is certain from the success this year of Trump as well as Democrat Bernie Sanders – another staunch critic of U.S. trade policy – is that Americans increasingly are out of patience. They’re demanding policies that safeguard their livelihoods and raise their wages now. And they’re in no mood to be told that such measures might violate World Trade Organization rules or antagonize allies whose own free trade bona fides are dubious at best – or offend populations in a dysfunctional Middle East that hasn’t exactly been showering Americans with affection lately.
Finally, the politics of the divide between Trump supporters and policy elites has been positively inflamed by the latter’s ability to avoid most of the costs and risks of glittering, quasi-utopian visions still all too far from panning out. Precisely because these electoral considerations dovetail so neatly with a policy shift strongly grounded in geopolitical and economic realities, unless U.S. security and international economic policies start delivering concretely for many more Americans very soon, the Age of Trump could have real legs.