Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Trump and Expatriatism
I wasn’t going to write about Trump anymore. (In fact, I suspect some of you explicitly paid me not to write a book about Europe, but to shut up about Trump.) But I want to sort out my thoughts about his foreign policy speech. A bit.
I didn’t realize America was a country that could propel a character like Trump to frontrunner status. The surprise of this has made me more open-minded than I’d usually be. It’s led me to reading things I wouldn’t usually spend money to read. (Before buying a book on Amazon, I always look with guilt at the hundreds of unread books on my shelf, asking myself reproachfully why I need a new book when I’ve never once opened J.F. Bernard’s biography of Talleyrand.)
Yesterday on an impulse I bought a book by Patrick Smith, who also writes under the name Patrick Lawrence: Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. I bought it, probably, because he’s a long-term expatriate and foreign correspondent, and because the way he described the book on his website made some kind of sense to me:
I had long suspected that my true subject was my own country, and by the time I started on this book, my most recent, it was a certainty. One learns about oneself, ultimately, by going to and fro among others.
That made me wonder if that was true of me, too — whether in writing about Europe, or any other part of the world, my true subject was really my own country, and by extension, myself.
Most expatriates wind up suspecting they’ve come to know something about America that other Americans don’t know. When you rub up against other cultures for a long time, it’s inevitable that you realize many aspects of yourself are owed to an accident of birth. But Trump’s campaign has so surprised me that I’m beginning to wonder if I know what I thought I did about America — which means I’m wondering whether I know myself.
I’d never heard of Patrick Lawrence before, but he wrote a column about Trump’s foreign policy speech, and like a moth to a flame, I clicked on it:
I think we need to think again. I urge everyone to watch Trump as he delivered his big foreign policy banana Tuesday at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. I am not a Trump man by any stretch, and I will not pretend to assign percentages to what Trump got right and what wrong. Only this for now: What he gets wrong he gets very wrong, while what he gets right he gets stunningly, pithily right. It is not a combination destined to prove at all workable. But in a single morning he has made himself worth listening to, from whatever distance one may choose.
Leave aside the speech’s internal contradictions and the question of whether Trump means any of it. I too found the speech surprising. I would not have expected the putative 2016 GOP frontrunner so passionately to assert that all of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been an epic, arrogant mistake. That means there’s something about America I really didn’t understand.
Lawrence agrees with Trump. He takes this position further back in time: He sees all of American foreign policy since the Spanish-American war — more or less — as an epic, arrogant mistake, and sees the way we fought the Cold War, in particular, as ruinous. As he puts it on his website,
Our “American century” is over—an excellent thing, as I see it—and we must dispose of the myths that have led us astray so often. We can do this by dropping “destiny” and taking up “purpose”—a distinction Herbert Croly taught me to draw. Decline awaits us only if we choose it. In this book I began to encourage readers: Discover the optimism within the apparent pessimism, and do not confuse the two.
Croly was a turn-of-the century leader of the progressive movement. Once I would have thought of someone who tried to sell me a book about the disaster of our Cold War policies by appeal to Croly as a doctrinal leftist, full stop. But as I said, the Trump campaign has made me more open-minded about these categories and what they really mean — even about whether they exist — than I’d usually be. Here’s Lawrence on Trump’s speech:
“Our rivals no longer respect us,” Trump said at one point. “In fact they’re just as confused as our allies, but an even bigger problem is they don’t take us seriously anymore. The truth is they don’t respect us.”
No, Donald. Our rivals think we are reckless but respect us the way one respects what is fearful. The word you are looking for is “admiration,” and you can forget about that across the board. And our allies are not confused: They know the score perfectly well. It is only we Americans who find our conduct abroad confusing.”And later: “America is going to be strong again. American is going to be reliable again. It’s going to be a great and reliable ally again. It’s going to be a friend again. We’re going to finally have a coherent foreign policy….”
No, Donald. Drop the nostalgia because there is no going back. You have to distinguish between a strong nation and one that is merely powerful. We are the latter, not the former. And our foreign policy is perfectly coherent: It is only that its purposes cannot be articulated to a democratically minded people whose ignorance of our conduct abroad is essential to sustaining it.
Last night I spent a few hours reading Lawrence’s columns, then finally bought his book. I just finished it. I haven’t made up my mind about whether he’s saying anything coherent. But there’s something in his tone that I recognize. It’s the shock I, and probably many Americans before me, have felt when I realized that (contra Trump) America ruthlessly pursues the American interest. Or what policymakers see at that time, perhaps myopically, as the American interest. It’s the suspicion that our foreign policy is not always benevolent, or even sane. It’s the dawning conviction that if other Americans knew what we were doing overseas, or not doing, they’d be horrified. It’s the growing sense that surely it can’t be in our long-term interest for there to be such a huge disparity between what we tell ourselves about our foreign policy and the reality of it.
I had assigned the blame for moments like this (and there have been many of them) to Obama. Trump seems to assign the blame to our entire post-Cold War approach to foreign policy, which he suggests has been predicated on an outdated conception of America’s role in the world:
Unfortunately, after the Cold War our foreign policy veered badly off course. We failed to develop a new vision for a new time. In fact, as time went on, our foreign policy began to make less and less sense. Logic was replaced with foolishness and arrogance, which led to one foreign policy disaster after another.
Lawrence agrees. He just (explicitly) takes it further: Our policy has been off course for more than a century. It was always illogical, foolish, and arrogant. This is of course the belief that many conservatives have ascribed to Obama — a belief that America is not exceptional, nor has it been on balance a force for good.
Trump’s speech made him seem to me Obama’s natural successor, and made me decide that neither are the aberrations I thought they were. Both reflect an external reality: the relative loss of American power. Both envision a limited role for America in the world. Trump’s wrapping Obama’s view of the world in the American flag, and making it palatable to people who weren’t willing to hear it from Obama, but it’s the same message. We’re no longer able to be a benevolent global hegemon. Indeed, we never were a benevolent hegemon. The world will be fine, and so will we, without our efforts to lead it. If we’re an exceptional country at all, our destiny is to lead by example, not force. “America First” is not an accidental slogan. Trump certainly knows where it comes from, and I suspect most Americans at least intuit it.
Trump in many ways echoes the themes of Obama’s first presidential campaign:
We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.
They have benefited so much, so sadly, for us. Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster.
Here’s Obama in 2008:
… we have lost thousands of American lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies and neglected emerging threats – all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
And with just a few changes in tone,
I am running for President because it’s time to turn the page on a failed ideology and a fundamentally flawed political strategy, so that we can be intelligent about keeping our country safe. I stood up and opposed the Iraq war from the start, and said that we needed to fight al Qaeda.
Hillary Clinton says she’s passed a “Commander in Chief test” – not because of the decisions she’s made, but because of all the years she’s spent in Washington. But here is the truth, folks, believe me: there is a gap in this country – a gap between people who claim to be tough on national security, and how unsafe we are because of their stupid, disastrous decisions. Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster.
The war in Iraq enriched Iran, continuing its nuclear program and threatening our ally, Israel. Instead of the new Middle East we were promised, we got nothing. The war in Iraq has enriched North Korea, which built new nuclear weapons and even tested one.
The above passage is Obama in 2008, with a few words changed so that the voice sounds more like Trump’s, although the meaning is intact.
A world — including me — that’s been looking at Obama for eight years and wondering if the American century is over is now watching the Trump campaign and realizing that it’s long since past. Come 2016, Trump or Hillary Clinton will be in the White House. Clinton is explicitly running on “more of Obama’s foreign policy.” Trump is implicitly running on the same promise, and proposing to get there at warp speed.
Lawrence argues that this was baked into the cake already by September 11. The date, he writes, marked the end of the American Century, and we’ve wasted the first 15 years of the next one by refusing to confront this honestly.
As I said, Lawrence and I disagree fundamentally. He thinks, on balance, that the American century overwhelmingly did more harm than good to the world, and that constructing a myth of American exceptionalism and denying the reality of our policy and its effects fundamentally warped America.
I don’t think this, but I’m willing to give him a fair hearing, because I’m realizing he speaks for much more of America than I realized. Two Obama terms and a prospective Trump or Clinton term don’t add up to voters making a one-off mistake in the voting booth. Americans view America very differently from the way I do. And whether they’re right to view it this way or not, that they believe this will shape the future. So perhaps Lawrence is right. In which case, where would an exploration of a “culture of defeat” lead us?
“If Americans do not accept the advance of history,” he writes, “relative decline will devolve into absolute decline.” Only if we admit defeat, he argues, can we escape this, the final defeat.
He doesn’t ask what would happen to the rest of the world, and to us, if we embraced defeat. This is an easy question for him, because he thinks the American Century was on balance bad for the world. I don’t.
But I think far more Americans do than I’d realized.
What did you make of the speech?
And now back to that biography of Tallyrand …Published in General
What struck me the most about Trump’s speech (and consequently, Obama’s attitude) is its historical ignorance. America can choose to diminish its standing on the world stage, but this will come with consequences – not just to America, but to those who have relied upon us in trade and defense.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does history. America won’t descend and simply leave a lacuna in its wake which stays unfilled. There will always be another great power just waiting to seize the spotlight – and in our case, the size of the hole left will invite multiple claimants. Ironically, we won’t be able to stay out of the inevitable squabbling and will merely be drawn back in later, but with lessened stature and tarnished moral authority.
Lawrence’s argument — and I can’t decide whether it’s worth considering or vapid — is that Americans are, generally, historically ignorant, and that this has long been an aspect of how we’ve understood our identity: We’re exceptional; we escaped from Europe and its history; we aren’t limited by the weight of history. It’s hard to argue with the judgment that Americans don’t see history, theirs or anyone else’s, as particularly relevant. As you say, Trump’s speech seemed historically oblivious, but he could only exhibit that quality, he could only be so successful, in a culture that isn’t burdened by painful memories of its past.
But his speech wasn’t exactly a reflection of sunny optimism either – it was a fundamentally pessimistic speech, full of dire warnings about our myriad failures and the costs we’re going to suffer if we don’t follow along with his vision.
I’m not sure what the hopeful elements of his vision are, aside from “we’re not going to mess around with the world anymore.”
I agree. But this vision — which seems to me very close to Obama’s vision — seems to be more in touch with what Americans feel than I would have expected.
I’m sorry, can you expand on this – I think I got some crazy in my ear? Because most Americans I know find history extremely relevant.
There are in fact angry nationwide social movements based on historical grievances – although I have no idea how much #BlackLivesMatter shows up in French media.
I’ll agree that most Americans don’t think the history binds them in place. We’re not yet resigned to living in the shadow of our ancestors as the best possible destiny we can aspire to.
This sums up my thoughts exactly.
I’ve been saying for a while now that America is long past the tipping point, Trump’s nomination removes any doubt.
I agreed with some things in Trump’s speech, but I don’t see it through Patrick Smith’s tinted glasses. You are asking two points of view. Patrick echoes Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., when he returned from Europe and stated don’t get involved – we can’t win against Hitler.
America has been a force of good and strength around the world, militarily, financially, economically and on and on. We help out allies and stand up to enemies. Trump sees, like many frustrated Americans today, that we’ve given away our strength to globalist thinking, some of which does not combine well with a strong Republic.
I’m not talking about isolationism, but about education, creating a great workforce, making imports and exports work more fairly, being sensible about threats to our safety internally, making corporations who offshore jobs and shelter $ accountable. Being a strong country, with strong borders make us a force to be respected, makes better and more prosperous citizens, and reassures more peace, as well as being a good example of what works.
You wrote about it in your Thatcher bio and her relationship with Reagan. Her fight was to make England strong again and she did it. That’s where we are headed – not down the defeatist drain that Patrick describes. You need to come home and see. This is the mood here.
Trump’s speech, like Trump himself (and Obama before him), seems to be a blank screen upon which the viewer projects what she or he wishes (or fears) to see. It has been seen as a reversion to the foreign policy orthodoxy of the last couple of decades and as the incoherent ravings of a madman. (The point of this article would seem to be that it can be both.)
[Again with the unitary collectives – “what Americans feel” here versus “what Europe thinks” there. Vast millions of Americans voted against every President – and every administration – in recent memory.]
Lawrence’s argument is that this era is over: Americans are learning that history does indeed bind them in place, and is thus joining the rest of the nations of the world in having a normal relationship with history — as a normal country, rather than one that views itself as exceptional, destined, or providential.
While some of our commenters here have cause and effect all backed up like a toilet in Saipan, there’s much agreement here that things have changed.
I don;t much like the idea of letting bad guys run around the world unmolested, but that’s the world we live in. America has been so debased and degraded that it is simply no longer an option to stride about setting anything right. Accept it. We are defeated, and must look to our own defenses before our domestic enemies finish the job which is well underway.
Our domestic enemies have proven an awesome power and a monstrous will to destroy whatever is built. etc nevermind
Then Lawrence needs to spend some time here in Texas. Here, at least, “The Sky’s the Limit” still reigns supreme.
I realize Trump doesn’t speak for all Americans. But the continuity between Obama and Trump makes me think more Americans share the underlying worldview than I’d thought. Perhaps Obama wasn’t as much a creature of “the Left” as I’d thought. He was, or is, expressing mainstream views, so much so that they’re hard to distinguish from the GOP frontrunner’s.
I agree that Trump gets some things spectacularly right and some others spectacularly wrong.
I want that wall (and maintain that alone drives his popularity; there are many things he’s said that his supporters could do without, but none will say they can do without the wall).
I want Muslim immigration addressed until the hotwar with ISIS/al-Qaeda is over and Islam gets its house in order.
Yet on economics, Trump is a mercantilist. He will tinker with the economy and trade by manipulating tariffs. On the other side of that he will find uncooperative capitalists who won’t hold prices steady when theirs is the only product on the shelf. The cost of goods will skyrocket and inflation with it.
Trump’s claim to making places like Europe and Japan pay more for the security we afford them (I assume with the threat of our no longer doing it) can only lead to those places ramping up their own security. It’s not in the best interest of America to have every other nation on earth beefing up its ability to fight. Trump sees our defending parts of the world as a liability, ignorant to it being an asset that brings peace.
Add his temper and penchant for vengefulness and Trump is an element we can’t count on.
Look at his business dealings. When he can’t get his way, he runs to the bankruptcy court, leaving his allies to fight the creditors. Diplomatic bankruptcy court is a war! Diplomacy is owed first to the solider. I don’t trust him in diplomacy. His negotiating skills oft prove a failure despite his protestations to the contrary.
How much am I willing to cash in to get that wall? Not our economy and peace.
I don’t think Trump’s speech yesterday reflected anything like the Obama foreign policy. Sure, if the choices are put American boots on the ground or don’t, it sounds like Obama. But that is way to simplistic. The juxtaposition of Bush vs. Obama has tended the discussion to be limited in scope.
Just take Iran. Think of the massive difference in the current shenanigans in the Middle East if, instead of negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that eliminated sanctions, President Trump starts publicly threatening to confiscate assets of companies who do business with Iran. Imagine what happens in that part of the world when he actually does force some bank somewhere to hand it over by using public and not so public pressure.
Or if instead of trying to negotiate peace with Israel and Palestine, he just starts calling Palestinians terrorists all the time and stops funding them entirely.
Not saying any of that is good policy. I am just suggesting that it is entirely consistent with his apparent foreign policy and radically different than Obama.
What would make you think he’d do that? He’s complained that Iran isn’t doing business with America, not that it is. His complaint is that Airbus is getting the deals and Boeing isn’t.
my reaction to the Trump speech was, the first 95% was written by a foreign policy type and the last 5% were pure Trump, inconsistent with the rest of the speech and dangerously misguided. That’s the 5% that matters. The broader issues about US foreign policy and our place that you raise are more complex, and the left has never gotten any of it right. We’re awaiting your take from your perch. Of course we pursue US interests and of course we’re ignorant. That is true of every country and all peoples and is why basic principles, strength and humility are essential what ever role we believe we must play.
A small aside…Trump’s voters probably supplied most of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, and most every American, know it was a bloody, costly useless endeavor. Saying the hell with it comes naturally after such a monumental screw up. Tim
My guy lost. Looks like for better or worse 2016 is going to be Trump v. Clinton.
Maybe when Claire has a chance she can expatiate on Clinton’s foreign policy.
Long story short, I agree with Machiavelli: It is better to be feared than loved. Right now we’re neither.
We should have simply destroyed Kabul in 2001 and communicated to the world “Any questions? Who’s next?” The world is inarguably better off that Saddam Hussein is dead, but I have to believe we could have accomplished that end with an infinitesimal expenditure of blood and treasure compared to what we’ve poured out with such profligacy in Iraq.
“I didn’t realize America was a country that could propel a character like Trump to frontrunner status”
Claire, why is frontrunner status for a character like Trump than frontrunner status for a character like Hillary?
I think you missed a word or two there – do you mean “more surprising?” If so, because I thought half the country was basically sane.
This is his text on Iran:
Granted, nothing in there suggests he would threaten unilateral confiscation as suggested. At a minimum, he would not have signed the deal, and that deal has radically reshaped the Middle East. So that is different. But there is also nothing in there to suggest he would not use those types of pressures to accomplish the first goal in that quote above. My point being, I don’t think his foreign policy is necessarily the same as Obama’s. I think it shares Obama’s strong reluctance to use foreign troops. But I suspect, based on the campaign so far, that Trump, unlike Obama, would be perfectly willing to threaten adversaries if he thought it would get him what he that was in the national interest. And he wouldn’t apologize for it.
There are ways to change foreign policy drastically other than troops in vs. troops out.
Oh, dear, no. Obama is most definitely a creature of “the Left.” Trump is just the “Republican” version of the same. I think what you’re noticing is “the Left” is the mainstream now. Just because mainstream America has bought into the arbitrary use of power to achieve desired ends does not mean there’s no longer a distinction between Left and Right.
The success of the Left shouldn’t be surprising given its complete takeover of the “news” media, the education establishment, and the entertainment media over the last fifty years or so. Virtually every vehicle by which Americans get their information is driven by the Left. The direction of decline was fixed with Obama’s election and, I would argue, the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans chose decline in 2008, having been indoctrinated for generations and having swooned over a “clean, bright, articulate, black” man.
Is this really one of the things that marks the difference between Conservatives (who believe that America is an indespensable, exceptional nation – there may even be a religious gloss to this) and Progressives (who don’t)?
Or to put it another way, is American exceptionalism and the traditional view of its role/duty in the world (Peace, Liberty, Justice and the American Way) part of a bundle of beliefs (Christianity, traditional marriage, the drug war/morality laws) that the rest of the country is, at best, less emotionally committed to?
Modern progressives don’t believe in the nation state at all, so I’m going to say Yes.
Yes, conservatives view American exceptionalism as self-evident. Even Bono gets that the “idea” of America is unique and uniquely good in human history.
But, you’re giving progressives a bit of a pass, Z. It’s not just that progressives don’t see America as exceptional — they actually revile her. American hating leftists are nothing new. What’s new is they’ve infused the poison into the general populace and a whole lot of people don’t even know they’ve been poisoned.
Isolationism seems to be the default position of Americans when facing large conflict abroad, and we get drawn into foreign conflicts anyway:
We were drawn into England’s war with France in the French-and-Indian war. We resented having to pay high taxes to support troops after.
We were drawn into the Barbary War.
We were drawn into war with England in 1812 after passing a disastrous embargo to avoid it.
Exception to the pattern: we wanted a war with Mexico or Canada, and got the former.
Besides the Mexican-American war, we avoided foreign wars for a century (1812-1912). There were no huge, globe-spanning conflicts to avoid.
Exception: we were feeling rambunctious when our ship exploded in Cuba’s harbor, but even then it took terrible journalism to get us into the Spanish-American War.
We stayed out of WWI until the Lusitania and Zimmerman note made it impossible.
We stayed out of WWII until Pearl Harbor.
The great exception: The Cold War. After WWI and WWII, we were willing to fight abroad to contain the commies. We did so in Korea.
We initially did so in Vietnam, before handing over the war to the Vietnamese and coming home.
We ignored Al-Qaeda until 9/11, then attacked. Same as after WWII, we were willing to fight and invaded Iraq. Like Vietnam, we handed the war over to the Iraqis and went home.
We’re not going to go abroad until we’re attacked again.
Perhaps Progressive is not the right term? Conservatives/not Conservative [whatever term one uses] might be a more accurate division. Which would include, but is not limited to, Progressives. We need a new term.
That’s very much the subject of Lawrence’s book: A lot of it aims explicitly to trace the origin of the idea of American exceptionalism to the Puritans. He argues that this doesn’t just have a “religious gloss” on it, it’s entirely a religious idea, but one whose historic and religious origins have been so lost to contemporary memory that we don’t recognize it for what it is. (It’s easier to argue if you think American foreign policy in the past century has been on balance overwhelmingly harmful, and you’re trying to account for why Americans would believe against all evidence that they’re doing something good and self-sacrificing abroad when in fact they’re obviously not.)
He’s very much a “progressive,” or what I would have called one, except that these categories are now blurring into each other — with some “progressives” looking at Trump at saying, “Hey, I could learn to like this guy,” and many foreign-policy “conservatives” looking at Hillary and saying, “We’d be better off with her.”
I’m not inclined to believe in American exceptionalism or destiny in a religious sense, but I do think we have a global empire, that we’ve basically run it more benevolently than previous imperial powers have, and that if we cease to run it, it will probably not result in global order, the self-determination of nations, and growing prosperity for all (or even for us); it will in all likelihood devolve into Hobbesian chaos or be run by another power — one apt to be a very nasty piece of work. It’s not a thrilling foreign policy vision, I know, but I think it’s realistic.
What may not be realistic is my sense that we have the option of “continuing to run it.” We’re no longer as powerful in the absolute sense, we’re exhibiting all the classic signs of imperial overstretch, and what’s more, Americans don’t want to do it anymore.
My question is whether there’s a responsible way to organize our imperial retreat — one that’s less likely to leave the world an absolute mess, and less likely to result in a WWI or WWII-like conflagration that ultimately draws us back in, on a horrific scale.
I’m not sure: I’m the one who’s realizing that Americans might not view things that way I thought they did.
Interesting post and comments, and while infested with some of the usual anti-Trump boilerplate, they have summoned for me the one explanatory fact that informs a lot of recent history.
The USA is in fact a unique and exceptional country, founded on the primary principle of individual freedom, with the state only on the scene to provide security in the always dangerous world.
The idea of national purpose, believed by Croly and his followers is anathema to us. The idea of a diminished role in a progressively more global culture is antithetical to our moral underpinnings as a firmly Judeo-Christian formed nation.
On a more common level, the airport is named Reagan National because he understood our citizens’ motivations and pride in being the shining city on the hill. One can interpret history in countless fashions to support whatever argument you’d like to make, but after the dust settles, are people more free, more safe, more prosperous, and more optimistic under autocratic or republican systems? Maybe we’re not as smart and as evolved as we think we are. Even Marcus Aurelius knew the answer to that fundamental question.
Trump is barely relevant to this discussion.
So, if you’re interested in improving our country, and not in counting coup, then it’s time to return to the fundamentals that enabled our historic success: faith in God and rule of law.
In all likelihood we will be attacked again, although perhaps not as dramatically as we were in 2001. So the question for the candidates is what they propose to do when that happens, assuming the attacker is, again, a non-state actor. Or a quasi-state one. Do we wildly vacilate back to hyperactive globalism again?
And we are already “abroad,” in every meaningful way, including having boots on the ground in many parts of the world. Should we keep them there? Increase them? Bring them back?