If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d be pointing to the fact that, on the very same day last week, two leading megaphones urging the return to a pre-Trump globalist approach to U.S. foreign policy came out with articles from two leading globalists preaching exactly the same message: The poor responses to the CCP Virus by both the United States and China are leaving the world dangerously leader-less.
Because I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’ll focus instead on the fatal flaws in both these essays.
Beforehand, though, let’s note that at least these items are better than the previous cohort of establishment laments about missing world leadership, which tended to blame President Trump’s America First approach to foreign policy (or, more accurately, an approach that contains lots of America First-ism, as I discussed at length here) exclusively. True, the emergence of the virus in China and the real possibility that it leaked out of a Chinese biological research lab, make it more difficult to let Beijing off the hook for the intensified global tumult resulting from the pandemic. But we do live in an age of widespread Trump Derangement Syndrome, so any progress toward sanity is welcome.
All the same, the articles – in Foreign Affairs magazine, and on the Project-Syndicate.org website (which I like to call the establishment’s op-ed page) – sadly demonstrate the absence of any learning curve on the part of globalists at all, and three ignored lessons continue to stand out.
First, where did these folks ever get the idea that either before the CCP Virus’ outbreak, or before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, there was a world out there full of countries and other actors that either wanted to be led, or that was capable of being led, whether at acceptable risk and cost to the United States or not?
I readily concede that from roughly the end of World War II, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan formed a reasonably orderly grouping of countries with reasonably common objectives and declared agreement over U.S. leadership. Even so, major splits emerged on all sorts of key issues even at the height of the Cold War that provided a crucial common enemy (e.g., Germany rearmament in the early 1950s, the Suez crisis of 1956, nuclear deterrence policy – and especially who would bear the greatest risk and cost of nuclear war – at many different points, exchange rates and related economic and financial issues at many different points, recognizing China diplomatically, continuing the Vietnam War, dealing with the rise of Middle East oil power).
Moreover, as noted by many scholars, other observers (including yours truly), and even political leaders, this order and the version of leadership on which it depended was completely unsustainable for the United States in particular. For the refusal of its leading allies, even long after their post-World War II recoveries were complete, to share the military and economic burdens of the order’s maintenance continually sapped America’s capacity to play this role at acceptable cost and risk.
(It’s really important to recall, however, that Washington was no help, here, mainly because U.S. foreign policymakers and other political leaders liked the notion of running the world, however, illusory, as well as counterproductive for their countrymen. And they didn’t trust their main allies, especially former World War II foes Germany and Japan, to handle their own foreign policies responsibly, either on their own or in formal tandem tandem with others. The Germans and Japanese “going nuclear” was a special – and to some extent understandable – concern.)
Since the Cold War ended, evidence of order worthy of the name, and of support for a definition of U.S. leadership acceptable for U.S. interests, is that much more difficult to find. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember that during the current young century alone, the nation and world have experienced the emergence of global terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons to places like North Korea, a global near-financial meltdown and punishing ensuing recession, the virtual collapse of numerous states in the Middle East and North and West Africa and resulting tidal waves of refugees, the reemergence of aggression from China and Russia). So could the globalists please stop waxing nostalgic about the orderliness of the pre-Trump period?
Interestingly, if anything, the idea and popularity of U.S. leadership actually strengthened. But the reason wasn’t good news for Americans. It stemmed from the willingness of the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations to keep shouldering excessive burdens and tolerating allied free-riding, and indeed to bask in the glow of allied praise for this position, even as the risks and costs to the United States kept rising. Of course, the Bush 43 administration’s launch of the second Iraq War was an exception. But however loud and angry, it was first and foremost exceptional.
The second ignored lesson: Since the Trump presidency began, evidence remains in conspicuously short supply that any significant countries are seeking American leadership on a basis that’s sustainable for the United States. Obviously, China and Russia are outliers. And as for the allies, their prime reaction to Trump criticisms of defense free-riding and trade hypocrisy hasn’t been to acknowledge their clear legitimacy and move to step up accepting more leadership responsibilities. Aside from some modest, and thoroughly inadequate, increases in defense spending, their response has been to whine about Trump being a “unilateralist” and a “nationalist” and a “cowboy” and an ignorant skeptic of the idea that all international economic transactions are by definition win-win. In other words, they’ve had their chance to put their money where their mouths are regarding leadership and order-taking, and they’ve failed this test miserably.
The third ignored lesson: It’s entirely possible, and even likely, that for most of the world – especially U.S. allies – U.S. global leadership (especially of the Bush-Clinton-Obama variety) is indeed their best hope for attaining acceptable levels of security, independence, and prosperity. After all, individually, they’re incapable of achieving these goals on their own. And although their propects look more promising in combination (especially in Europe), the hope of an early Trump departure from the scene and of a return to pre-Trump U.S. policies has clearly dissuaded them from making the effort required for security and economic self-sufficiency. After all, resumed freeloading will be so much easier.
But as explained at length in that National Interest article linked above, in the crucial respects, the United States is not like these other countries. It doesn’t need to be a global leader, or to lead even any group of countries. For it is entirely able to achieve acceptable levels of security, independence, and prosperity on its own. Even better, a genuine America First strategy will greatly reduce and probably eliminate the rising nuclear risks to the U.S. homeland of its current alliance leadership role.
As explained here, however, globalists have been unable (and maybe unwilling) to appreciate the United States’ distinctiveness because of a fundamental misreading of the nation’s geopolitical position (and advantages) dating to the middle of World War II.
Fortunately, and especially for everyday Americans, these dangerously misconceived globalist views have been largely marginalized under President Trump. (At the same time, some avowed and influential America Firsters seem enamored with some version of U.S. global leadership, too.) The unapologetically globalist former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee this year, has based much of his campaign on a return to Obama-style globalism. That’s the clearest political choice Americans have faced since…their last presidential election!