Nearly fifty years ago, then-New Yorker columnist William Whitworth authored one of the strongest critiques of America’s disastrous war in Vietnam. In a book based on lengthy interviews with one of the war’s prime architects, Whitworth showed clearly that America’s Vietnam intervention had become its own justification – “a tiger eating its tail.” The “best and brightest” American leaders had decided, in the words of this review, that the United States needed a balance of power in Asia to protect its interests, and it needed to protect its interests to protect the balance.
I couldn’t help but think of Whitworth’s book when I read the latest Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria. For this supposed strategic guru has (unwittingly, of course) indicated that he and the the rest of America’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment no longer support far-reaching U.S. global engagement and assertive leadership against perceived Trump-ian assault because they’re considered essential to achieve vital national goals. Instead, Zakaria made clear that in his own mind, this engagement and leadership has become nothing more than a good in and of itself, devoid of a concrete rationale. And because he has his finger on the establishment’s pulse, it’s likely that his colleagues’ justifications for America’s basic post-World War II diplomatic blueprint are dissolving into this form of strategic incoherence as well.
According to Zakaria, there’s strong evidence that, due to Mr. Trump’s “bizarre candidacy” and “chaotic presidency,” the world is undergoing a “bout of anti-Americanism” that “feels very different” from previous versions. Based on a recent poll, he writes that “people around the world increasingly believe that they can make do without America. Trump’s presidency is making the United States something worse than just feared or derided. It is becoming irrelevant.”
What’s most fascinating and revealing about this judgment is that Zakaria is not making the standard case that any Trump-ian or other form of retreat from the American globalism of the past 75 years or so will damage the United States directly. (It’s true that foreigners either “fearing” or especially “deriding” America could have damaging results, but the fact that Zakaria seems to regard both – strikingly different – possibilities as equally likely reveals that even he doesn’t take them especially seriously.)
Nor does Zakaria make the equally important globalist contention that such a U.S. retreat will be disastrous for the many countries that have benefited from this worldwide American engagement and leadership – and that their misfortunes will eventually harm the United States.
In fact, he’s making exactly the opposite argument – that these beneficiaries are now confident that they can stand on their own two feet.
Now there are any number of reasons to view this development with alarm – but Zakaria doesn’t make these either. And it can’t be entirely coincidental that none of them jibe well with the “enlightened” part of the “enlightened self-interest” globalists constantly insist their approach exemplifies.
For example, Zakaria and his establishment colleagues could be worried that the rest of the world is profoundly and dangerously wrong, and that globalism’s foreign beneficiaries cannot in fact “make do without America.” And the globalists could be right. But does anyone really expect Zakaria et al to start arguing that the United States and especially its globalist leaders know better what’s in those countries’ interests than foreign leaders themselves?
The Zakarias of the world could also argue that, without American leadership and engagement, the rest of the world will miss few opportunities to oppose or threaten U.S. interests. But would those countries that have been depicted for so long by the globalists as such staunch allies, which so thoroughly share American values, really change their stripes so suddenly? Could six months of a Trump presidency possibly spur such a dramatic turnabout? And why would it loom so much larger in foreign minds than the three quarters of a century of such enlightened American globalism?
Indeed, as just suggested, why isn’t Zakaria drawing from the foreign sentiments he describes a much more encouraging conclusion? That his brand of globalism has (finally!) achieved its intended goal by fostering at least in crucial centers of wealth and power like Europe and Japan both the capabilities to defend themselves when needed and the cooperative beliefs required to sustain a rules-based global political and economic order.
As I see it, the real message of Zakaria’s column is that America’s globalists have turned engagement and leadership into ends in and of themselves, like their Vietnam-era forerunners came to value the act of intervening itself higher than their eventually empty definition of victory.
But I wouldn’t exclude another possibility – which isn’t inconsistent at all with the above: That the globalists want America to keep playing international leader (or value this leadership whether it’s still real or not) simply because they find this role emotionally and psychologically gratifying, and because shilling for this position has created so many careers that have been so lavishly rewarded in so many ways.
And in this respect, the rest of us could be lucky that the Mainstream Media gives the globalists such free reign to express their unvarnished, unedited views. Because as their complaints about Trump-ian foreign policies get louder and more forceful, their fundamental irrationality could become more apparent as well.