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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’m relative well informed and I don’t know what the cause was. My grandfather fought because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My other grandfather wanted to because that’s what all the men were doing. WWI was the great crusade (lot of good it did us).
Flippant: It’s in Latin.
Less Flippant: They have these things called “lives,” which we all lack.
Serious: why should they? Do all Americans need to be fully versed in American Foreign Policy? Is this really an essential part of, say, raising children or working a day job? That’s what we hire you for. The question Americans should be able to answer is “are the people we hire to run the foreign policy shop doing a decent job representing us, our interests, and our image to the rest of the world.”
I take that as a “no.” I was not as sure 16 years ago.
Then there are those of us who don’t know who Talleyrand is without googling him, and only feel guilty because you brought his name up.
You are accurate Claire – even though there are still people alive today who were part of WWII, the current generations are not taught this history and why there was a war, and why we got involved, and even why many of the beliefs that led to it are still present today. It is not taught anymore – or is generalized.
That’s the “glass half-empty” view.
Does this include the Cold War, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, George H. W. Bush, Nixon outside of Vietnam, and some luck and caution during the Clinton administration?
Every war must always be Vietnam? Competence is not doing anything? Maybe, but a few people in Rwanda and elsewhere might disagree.
I think the clown car would be the United Nations. About the only ones that seem to be fighting off that clown car are a few American-Anglo conservatives and Israel.
To keep Germany from taking over sovereign nations.
I think it was the most important foreign policy speech since… probably ever.
I also think it will do no good whatsoever, in the long run. Our goals are unrealistic and foolish, our methods are pathetic, and our resolve doesn’t exist.
Don’t despair, Claire.
Despair is the worst of sins.
Flippant: Well, then, Mission Accomplished. Why are we in Poland?
Less flippant: “Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” That’s going very well for us.
Almost serious: Germany knocked over, what, 4 sovereign nations before we got involved? Is that really the great cause, 4 nations was OK, but 5 nations, that was intolerable? Is that really supposed to be the motivating force of Americans now, 60 years later, to maintain the Pax Americana?
What do you mean by “we?”
I say that most American are very aware of all that. But they are also aware of the great costs we incur for it, perhaps because they lost their job to an Asian economy made dynamic because we grant them access to our market, or because they served in the US military, or because they knew someone who died serving.
The members of the political class apparently are not. They are the ones who regard the so-called Pax Americana as “just the way things are,” because in fact the United States has not been at peace. Our
protectoratesallies are at peace. Not us.
It seems to me that our globalist political class has been carving the United States up like a Thanksgiving turkey, doing expensive favors for our
competitorsallies, to maintain their pretensions of empire- and thinking very well of themselves while doing it.
The people actually paying the price and bearing the burdens aren’t so enthused.
Sabrdance’s point about the justifiable limits of any democratic citizen’s knowledge of foreign policy merits repeating.
Claire wants us to know as much as possible about other countries, treaties, and wars. Kudlow wants us all to thoroughly understand economic theories, histories, and current trends. Peter wants us to understand the ins and outs of legislative procedure and campaign history. Paul wants us to understand histories of grand political movements from 19th-century America to ancient Greece. Richard wants us to know histories of torts and SCOTUS decisions, judges, and Renaissance judicial systems. And on and on it goes.
Yes, democratic government demands responsible citizens willing to educate themselves. But it is unreasonable to demand that every citizen be an armchair President with devotion to studying every political question simultaneously. We have representatives so that we can pursue our own careers and interests.
This is one of many reasons big government is inherently disastrous. Every year, the interests of government multiply, but each citizen remains just one mind to summarize it all into the occasional plea to representatives.
The US was supplying Britain and Germany was sinking our merchant vessels directly off our coasts when we declared war on Germany. Alliances, of trade and diplomacy, are complicated and slippery.
Every so often, we manage to stop an evil before it is fully realized.
… but there is no final victory. Does that mean the struggle is pointless?
You are spot on for the whole post, and then dead wrong here.
A liberal will sacrifice everything at the altar of feeling good. 99% of Americans are, in their heart of hearts, liberal. They will sacrifice their children gladly, as long as they can pat themselves on the back.
Trump supporters are different only insofar as they fell ass-backwards into supporting one of the 1%.
Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen wrote a book about this scenario, entitled 1945.
WWI was the war to make the world “Safe for Democracy.” That was the cause, and that we did not achieve.
WWII was not the war to save the Jews (the full extent of the Holocaust not being known until after hostilities), but even if it were, that’s hardly a cause that shapes the world today -and that was the claim: “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.”
What cause that we fought for in WWII that if we still believe it, we have not lost?
Incidentally, I hope my mocking is taken in the right light -I am trying to be ironic in its original meaning. Everyone seems so sure that there was some great plan that we could just get back to -even Patrick Lawrence believes there was a plan.
So tell me, what was it?
<Sabredance: I’m relative well informed and I don’t know what the cause was.>
I’m sorry Sabredance. You are mistaken. If you don’t know what the cause was, you are not “relatively well-informed,” or minimally well-informed, for that matter.
I suggest you begin educating yourself. Start with Frank Capra’s films entitled “Why We Fight.”
I doubt that very much. Or else the globalism of the political class would be much more popular.
Because that’s who appeared, voicing our complaints.
I have. Those movies give a lot of reasons to fight 1930s Japanese and Germans. Actually, they give a lot of history on the rise of the Fascists. Only the 7th attempts any type of great cause, and even that cause was “eventually, the violence came here in the form of Pearl Harbor.”
You think it is so self evident what the cause was? Then state it in 250 words.
I have further things I wish to say, but will bite my tongue so as not to violate the spirit of the CoC, but if this is the actual level of discourse of our foreign policy experts -vague platitudes about how we all obviously know what to do, *wink wink* then you deserve to have your apple cart upset by Donald Trump. If you can’t even be bothered to put even the pretense of an explanation on your plans, rather than throwing up psuedo-academic BS and waving your hands while hiding behind an intellectual air of superiority, then the people should throw you out of power and never trust you again.
My rebuttal would be simply: you vastly underestimate the popularity of globalism. It hasn’t been the policy of the US since WW1 because everyone hates it. People get what they want, and when they get something every single time, for over a century, you can be damn sure that they all want it, whatever they say.
I hope you’re right on the second point, but I’ll reserve judgement for now. Trump has impressed me. His supporters, in large, have not. Good, honest, salt-of-the-earth people. Woken up? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Freedom of speech
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear.
One day, someone will put those on the gravestone of America.
Thank you. I don’t actually think you are right -that speech predates the war by nearly a year, so while it might have motivated FDR, I doubt it motivated Americans. Nor do I think this has much motivated American Foreign Policy during the Cold War or the War on Terror (we supported enough anti-Communist dictators, and good grief, we’re failing on all four domestically, right now).
However, I will agree that if the US actually had a foreign policy based on those principles, it would be better than our current one.
I heartily agree. It’s been as long time since I read it, but I remember thinking at the time that it was one of the best alternate history books I’d ever read.
Nope. Globalism hasn’t been unpopular this whole time- just lately, when it has come to mean smearing the United States out of existence to please foreigners, and sending Americans to the unemployment line to lift foreigners out of poverty.
Your call. My experience differs, however.
Some of us realized this in 2008 with Obama, and knew the game was over when he was re-elected.
We don;t get to fight like we did in 1980 and 1984. Those days are gone Failing to realize that causes us to lose ground, while the rest of the country and the world fights effectively for what they want.
Naturally I have an issue with the last two, so-called “positive” rights, which impose action upon the government, and which as a pass-through, requires provision from one’s neighbors.
Not sure if you’re adhering, or simply providing context.
Interesting opinion on Trumps speech.
Okay, now you’ve motivated me. I’m going to finish the darned book and write a post about Talleyrand.
Yes, I thought of you when I was writing this post, realized that maybe this is what you’ve been trying to say all this time.
Yeah, I read that. What’s most striking about Trump is what I suspect increasingly is his deliberate ambiguity — one which allows people to see what they’re looking for, if they want to. I think very highly of Friedman when it comes to a certain kind of analysis, and I do think he’s basically right that in general, what presidents want to do in foreign policy has little to do with what happens. But that changes if there’s a serious crisis — Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor, Kennedy and Cuba, Bush and 9/11 — and given the level of instability and chaos in the world, I’d prefer to have some sense that the occupant of that office has thought through what he or she’d do in such circumstances.
But no one seems to be calling me to ask what I’d prefer, so …