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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
I’d prefer keeping most of them, but I think the electorate and I disagree. The left has no real answer for what to do when attacked again. Trump will consider using nukes.
This is one of those paragraphs that’s a “keeper.” Nailed it WC.
The experience of a lot of conservatism up to the Vietnam War era protests very much argues against conservatism seeing exceptionalism as self-evident. Please don’t confuse the cries of “Who Lost China?” in the early 1950s with the notion of American Exceptionalism.
So obviously I’m one of the poor benighted souls who is confused about American foreign policy. What do our allies see that makes so much sense? What is the score our allies know perfectly well?
Perhaps Lawrence has a crystal ball I lack, but it seems to me that Trump did, indeed, mean “respect,” not “admiration.” The jab is aimed at Russia and Iran, who he wants to be afraid of us the way that gang members on the street want the competing gangs to be afraid of them. He’s not asking for friendship, he’s asking them to stay out of our affairs. And of our friends, he’s asking them to continue supporting us (is he suggesting that we would continue supporting them?).
Well both of us are disabused of that notion now, aren’t we?
Neither, I suspect, do the people who run the empire.
It is a belief that is useful to them, however. It seems to usefully excuse a plethora of sins – certainly it’s shield against questioning the why as well as the how.
I believe that the traditional way to do this is with satraps. (In Europe that would be [sorry Britain and France] Germany.)
Though organising a retreat that doesn’t give your enemies an easy win might involve leaving behind systems that trend towards low level conflict rather than order. Look at how the British retreated from the Raj and the borders they left behind. Or more recently the Soviets and Ukraine’s rather random borders.
(I do get that this approach might be antithetical to how many Americans view themselves and the world. But – what are the options, really?)
Buck up, Berlinski! You’ve lived overseas for a long time. If the country hadn’t changed it would be dead.
I wish I had time to tear apart Trump’s speech and Lawrence’s response to it. Unfortunately, they sound just like everyone else does these days on this subject.
When it comes to foreign policy, America doesn’t break left and right the way it does on domestic policy. It breaks into mature and immature people. Trump has well expressed his allegiance with the immature people.
The difference between mature and immature people is very simple: mature people have loved another person more than themselves at some point in their lives. That changes people irrevocably.
I will try to write out my criticism of the Trump et al philosophy next week.
Trying to utterly replace Saddam set off a chain reaction that destabilised the region. Ideologically it was the right, perhaps the only, thing to do. But on the ground it worked out pretty badly.
Ditto with Ghaddafi.
Pleeeeease don’t try anything like this with Iran. (Which people seemed sort of enthu about.) The regime is absolutely awful but the region can’t cope with another power vacuum.
From the transcript of his speech in the NYT:
Looks like he’s asking for a little appreciation, a little gratitude – is that too much to ask for? Is it?
(Judging by the outcomes so far, it’s too early to tell in Mesopotamia and Libya. And that’s a hard pill to swallow.)
That gets us to “Americans have no idea what they’re doing.” The claim is “America knows exactly what it’s doing, and the allies know it -it’s just Americans that are ignorant.” Were we trying to destabilize the region?
Again, that gets us to “respect” -don’t treat us like the maid -not “admiration.” They like us, they really like us!
That’s a good point, but were the Afghanistan and Iraq wars really that much different than other wars. I would say no.
Andrew C. McCarthy and Victor Davis Hanson have differing opinion about how much Obama was to blame for the Iraq disaster. However, one also can’t completely ignore the Hanson quote: “Only a few dozen American peacekeepers were killed in Iraq in 2011 — a total comparable to the number of U.S. soldiers who die in accidents in an average month.” Obama was determined to lose that war.
Claire, the United States seems to be a few different counties. (After Romney lost, Dennis Miller used to say what this country really needed was a divorce with everyone picking one side of the Mississippi River.) There’s a Clinton/Bernie America. A Cruz America. A Kasich America that even overlaps a bit with the Clinton America.
The trick is that the Trump America includes more than one group who hold opposite views — the danger of supporting a person without of political record.
Everything America did since the Spanish-America War was wrong. Now that’s a real anti-American! World War II vote 470-1. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists vote 518-1. You would have thought the United States would have done something right by mere accident in the past 100+ years!
This is true here in America as well as abroad. Progressives have destroyed our own traditions and institutions with tragic results. Both Democrats and Republicans have done the same overseas.
Imho no, but perhaps stabilising the region was not the objective, and [destabilising it] was an acceptable consequence?
What’s to respect about destabilising a region?
And keep in mind: it happened in Afghanistan, it happened in Iraq and it happened again in Libya. It’s starting to look like a pattern.
I will take this as a concession that Lawrence is wrong, then.
OK, Zafar, there’s editing for space, and then there’s malicious editing. You know darn well those are responses to two separate points you raised.
The claim is that Trump wants admiration from the world. You quoted the section of his speech where you claim it is found, and I pointed out that the statement that relationships be two way -summarized “don’t treat us like the maid” -is a call for respect, not admiration.
Sure, though they seem pretty close to me, but respect for what?
(And I actually don’t think Americans are okay with destabilising a region to achieve political goals.)
There seems to be some muddling here of goals, strategies, and execution. Recenty history of US campaigns involves reasonable justifications for intervention but failures of strategy and execution.
For example, American voters supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but in so doing did not endorse a deplorably vague plan to rebuild Iraq without any regard to our own cultural standards or interests and by permanent occupation as well as friendly relations with blatantly anti-American governments in the region.
That American voters do not appreciate decades-long campaigns and endless series of wars makes them no different than any voters since the rise of democratic citizen participation in the West, or at least since the end of explicitly imperial cultures. Furthermore, many voters perceive the military strategies of our politicians as half-hearted and crippled by political correctness, thereby dooming those efforts from their onset.
If America is receding, then we would do well to facilitate a variety of regional security powers that do not directly rely on our enduring support. A Pacific pact of Canada, Australia, and Japan perhaps; anti-piracy forces near Africa, South America, and South Asia; a Europe-only defense against Russia; and so on.
I think it is important to separate the accidental elements of Trump’s lead from fundamental strengths. In Trump you have a celebrity boosted by billions of dollars of free media running against a fractionated field with no such advantage.
I think that most Americans, by far, still believe in the cause we fought for in World War 2, and so long as they do, we have not lost.
That sums it up perfectly – the puzzle with all the pieces together equal America.
Before I finish reading your post, I need to say something here. This is why you are so much smarter than me. You spent a few hours last night reading some columns, then you bought the book, which you then finished, I assume within a few hours of buying it. That I cannot do. It takes me weeks to read a book.
I don’t like you, not one bit.
Can you elaborate on this please. Why isn’t in America’s best interest to have foreign countries pay that 2% of their GNP for their defense or build up their own defenses? As long as we are spending Billions of dollars protecting other countries annually and most are not paying that 2% they agreed on, that means American tax payers are footing the bill. We can still be allies but not pay for their defense can’t we?
You ask the question “How did you find the speach?” I can only say, it seems that Manafort is doing his job. Somebody got to Trump and said “Look, you’ve got to start doing better.” And seems to have taken that seriously.
As to the broader point, let me first summarize what I think you are saying: You are saying that Lawrence is saying that America spent a century meddling in other people’s affairs, failed miserably, as evidenced by 9/11, and we simply won’t accept it. Obama and Trump are the electoral results of that.
I guess I can see that. We have done some good in the world, and some bad. But I do not think America has failed. Americans are far better off today than they ever have been. And when I sit on my deck, smoking my fancy cigars and drinking my fancy whiskey, I watch the neighborhood go by, people walking their dogs, kids on bicycles, joggers, fancy trucks, and see the new houses being built, new families moving in, I think “This is the American dream.” Life is great. Has America failed? Well, I live in Small Town, USA, and from where I sit I say no. Maybe if I lived in Detroit I’d have a different story.
Yes, but why don’t Americans want to keep the Pax Americana anymore? If American benevolence has led to relative peace and prosperity for the world (not only for Americans, but for us, too), why would Americans give up on it?
I know why. The progressive Left has beaten us down. Shamed and embarrassed us. Led Americans to believe we’re exploiting poor, mostly brown people and literally destroying the planet with our lifestyle. Just listen to the way Barack Obama talks to us and about us. That’s new! We’ve never had such a sneering, condescending president before.
I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve watched this happening right under our noses. The Left rewrote our history and then taught the lies to our children. Our descent went pretty fast once we became convinced of our own wickedness. America has battered wife syndrome, and the Left is our abuser.
On a more basic level, most Americans have no idea what the Pax Americana is. Much like the fish who has no idea what water is.
The Tallyrand biography has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for seven years. Every time I look at it, I feel guilty.
Which is a very, very strange aspect of the American character. How can people not know what this is? What’s going on that makes Americans so unaware of their role in the world?
Yes, but we’ll shortly come to know what it was.
I would have said that too, but “America First” is a campaign slogan with a very particular meaning. And you can tell me, “Oh, most Americans won’t know about that,” but I think by now they’ve been informed by the media. And I’m sure Trump knows by now.
The America I grew up in was not one in which that would have been a winning campaign slogan: The memories were still too fresh, and too many people who had lived through that were still alive. I genuinely don’t know if Americans know enough about that war to believe in the cause we fought for. And we’ve obviously not done a good enough job of passing on the memories — which are, increasingly, “history,” not “family memories.”
Terrible liberal education is the standard conservative answer.
I’ll also add the huge population size, huge economy, and geographic isolation of the USA. How many Chinese living in China (not those that are traveling), know lots about European, African, and Latin American political relations? Same question with Indians living in India? Brazilians living in Brazil?
I don’t even know who Tallyrand is. Some guy who invented an office machine? “The Tallyrand is down again, can someone call the repair guy?”
We notice when things go wrong. We don’t notice when day after day, week after week, year after year, the shipping lanes stay open and secure; so do the skies; energy continues to fuel our economies and the rest of the world’s; bombs don’t go off in 99.9999 percent of the world’s cities; peace treaties are brokered (Israel-Jordan, Israel-Egypt, the Good Friday Agreement, many more); our allies aren’t overrun by Russia or China; WMD technologies don’t spread; AIDS stops spreading in Africa, Ebola likewise; Asian economies grow dynamic because they’re not at war, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty; the former Yugoslavia remains more or less at peace, for now; as does Europe on the whole; countries that were once under the Soviet yoke elect their own governments; and terrorist attacks on US soil are so rare as to be statistically insignificant. All of these are signs of a competent and functional US foreign policy, but we think of them as “just the way things are.” They’re not, actually.