I’m getting to think that in an important way it’s good that establishment journalists and foreign policy think tank hacks still dominate America’s debate on world affairs. It means that for the foreseeable future, we’ll never run out of evidence of how hidebound, juvenile, and astonishingly ignorant these worshipers of the status quo tend to be. Just consider the latest fad in their ranks: the narrative that the only theme conferring any coherence on President Trump’s foreign policy is his impulse to pull the United States out of alliances and international organizations, or at least rewrite them substantially.
This meme was apparently brewed up at the heart of the country’s foreign policy establishment – the Council on Foreign Relations. Its president, former aide to Republican presidents Richard N. Haass, tweeted on October 12, “Trump foreign policy has found its theme: The Withdrawal Doctrine. US has left/threatening to leave TPP, Paris accord, Unesco, NAFTA, JCPOA.” [He’s referring here to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that aimed to link the U.S. economy more tightly to East Asian and Western Hemisphere countries bordering the world’s largest ocean; the global deal to slow down climate change; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the official name of the agreement seeking to deny Iran nuclear weapons.]
In a classic instance of group-think, this one little 140-character sentence was all it took to spur the claim’s propagation by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Marketwatch.com, Vice.com, The Los Angeles Times, and Britain’s Financial Times (which publishes a widely read U.S. edition). For good measure, the idea showed up in The New Republic, too – albeit without mentioning Haass.
You’d have to read far into (only some of) these reports to see any mention that American presidents taking similar decisions is anything but unprecedented. Indeed, none of them reminded readers of one of the most striking examples of alliance disruption from the White House: former President Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw American defense guarantees to New Zealand because of a nuclear weapons policy dispute. Moreover, the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush engaged in long, testy negotiations with long-time allies the Philippines and Greece on renewing basing agreements that involved major U.S. cash payments.
Just as important, you could spend hours on Google without finding any sense in these reports that President Trump has decided to remain in America’s major security alliances in Europe and Asia, as well as in the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (along with a series of multilateral regional development banks).
More important, you’d also fail to find on Google to find any indication that any of the arrangements opposed by Mr. Trump might have less than a roaring success. The apparent feeling in establishment ranks is that it’s not legitimate for American leaders to decide that some international arrangements serve U.S. interests well, some need to be recast, and some are such failures or are so unpromising that they need to be ditched or avoided in the first place.
And the reason that such discrimination is so doggedly opposed is that, the internationalist world affairs strategy pursued for decades by Presidents and Congresses across the political spectrum (until, possibly, now) is far from a pragmatic formula for dealing with a highly variegated, dynamic world. Instead, it’s the kind of rigid dogma that’s most often (and correctly) associated with know-it-all adolescents and equally callow academics. What else but an utterly utopian ideology could move a writer from a venerable pillar of opinion journalism (the aforementioned Atlantic) to traffick in such otherworldly drivel as
“A foreign-policy doctrine of withdrawal also casts profound doubt on America’s commitment to the intricate international system that the United States helped create and nurture after World War II so that countries could collaborate on issues that transcend any one nation.”
Without putting too fine a point on it, does that sound like the planet you live on?
I have no idea whether whatever changes President Trump is mulling in foreign policy will prove effective or disastrous, or turn out to be much ado about very little. I do feel confident in believing that the mere fact of rethinking some foreign policy fundamentals makes his approach infinitely more promising than one that views international alliances and other arrangements in all-or-nothing terms; that evidently can’t distinguish the means chosen to advance U.S. objectives from the objectives themselves; and that seems oblivious to the reality that the international sphere lacks the characteristic that makes prioritizing institution’s creation and maintenance not only possible in the domestic sphere, but indispensable – a strong consensus on defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
One of the most widely (and deservedly) quoted adages about international relations is the observation, attributed to a 19th century British foreign minister, that his nation had “no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Until America’s foreign policy establishment and its media mouthpieces recognize that this advice applies to international institutions, too, and start understanding the implications, they’ll keep losing influence among their compatriots. And rightly so.