Trump is the Symptom, Not the Problem

November 22, 2019

President Trump in the Oval Office on Christmas Day, 2018. CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Public Domain

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog

Astute observers of U.S. foreign policy have been making the case, as we move into the 2020 elections, not to see the interruptions in the flow of U.S. foreign policy solely as a result of the personality and foibles of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In other words, we need to move from thinking that Donald Trump is the problem—and that once he is removed, U.S. foreign policy snaps back like elastic into its accepted and familiar shape—and viewing his political rise and his administration in the context of longer-term trends in both American domestic as well as international politics.

Nahal Toosi, speaking on The Takeaway a few days ago about the appearance of career Foreign Service officers before the Congressional impeachment inquiry, noted that many of them, in their testimony, worked from the assumption that there is a broad consensus on U.S. foreign policy interests that transcends specific administrations, an observation amplified by Congresswoman Val Demings, who noted that while specific policies may change, U.S. interests do not. But what if that is no longer the case? Both Colin Dueck and Ian Bremmer are sounding the warning that we should no longer take for granted that Americans—or at least their political leaders—share the same broad outline.

Speaking in Tokyo at the G-Zero Summit, Bremmer pointed out:

There is one superpower in today's world, one country that can project political, economic, and military power into every region. That superpower is still the United States. That's why it matters so much that Americans themselves no longer agree on what role their country should play in the world. Everywhere I travel, including here in Japan, I hear questions and concerns about President Donald Trump. As if he is the source of all this confusion. As if his departure from the political stage, either next year or in five, would set America and the world on a path back toward some idea of normal. That's not going to happen, because Donald Trump is a symptom, not a source, of this anxiety and confusion.

Similarly, Dueck, in his new work Age of Iron,  notes that there are constituencies, certainly within the Republican Party, and also, I would argue, within the Democratic Party that believe that "existing international military and commercial arrangements have been disproportionately costly for the United States and must be reoriented or renegotiated in the opposite direction."

A renegotiation of the American role in the world is taking place, both within the context of the U.S. domestic political system but also among the U.S. and other countries. This is the underlying backdrop to "great power competition."

There is an important ethical question as part of this renegotiation, and it has to do with the universality or particularity of values. Thirty years ago, the assumption was that we were emerging into a single unified global system that would be defined, over time, by common values. Today, the trend that Bremmer and others identify is the possible redivision of the two into two broad informational ecosystems, and by extension, two different ideological approaches to the questions of how human society is to be organized. At the same time, the globalist/nationalist divide Dueck identifies as a revived driver in U.S. politics raises the question as to whether the American population will be inclined not to push for universal standards if there is no immediate threat to U.S. preferences within its zone.

This brings us back to the hearings. The default DNA of the U.S. national security establishment remains embedded around forward engagement and spreading power outward. What happens if U.S. politics continue to drive towards a countervailing trend of retrenchment and withdrawal? Can we then speak of a common approach?

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