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When the Leader of the Free World Is an Ugly American

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Bad times are often interesting times. So it is with President Trump, whose insults and assaults have caused his critics to rethink what they know about their country. For the past year, American intellectuals have largely risen to the challenge, igniting new debates about race, class, gender and democracy itself, reported The New York Times (US).

Whether these debates will translate into electoral victory remains unclear, but at least Mr. Trump’s foes are grappling with the forces behind his rise. The president’s critics realize that long-festering social divisions must be confronted.

But one area of debate has remained strikingly stagnant. On foreign policy, Trumpism’s critics wax nostalgic for an imagined golden age before the president took office. The foreign policy establishment — from media pundits to think-tank wonks to government veterans — has reached near-perfect harmony in insisting that he radically departs from American foreign policy since World War II. The news this week that he intends to introduce tariffs on steel and aluminum is seen as just one more dramatic deviation.

These critics exaggerate Mr. Trump’s abnormality, allowing him to outperform prognostications of doom. This line of thinking offers nothing better than the status quo ante that voters found uninspiring at best and repellent at worst. In effect, our finest minds are using this president to avoid addressing the problems of American foreign policy.

How did Mr. Trump manage to confound America’s foreign policy mandarins? The trouble began during the campaign, when he pitted the United States against the world. On one level, this bluster promised the same thing candidates always do: Win wars decisively or don’t wage them; get more benefits for fewer burdens. But after Mr. Trump chanted “America First,” a string of experts concluded he’d resurrected the so-called isolationism of the 1930s, rather than believing him when he explained he was just seeking a good slogan (one not unlike John McCain’s “Country First” from 2008). And what was the harm in piling on? The brute deserved to be barred from office. Branding him an isolationist seemed disqualifying.

This warning — delivered by scores of bipartisan national security experts — failed to dissuade voters. Still, the experts stuck with it. They detected isolationism in everything from his inaugural address to his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which even Hillary Clinton had pledged to abandon. This misdiagnosis handed Mr. Trump the opportunity to outflank his critics. When he bombed a Syrian airfield, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, wondered whether the president was “something wholly unique in the history of the presidency: an isolationist interventionist,” as though yoking opposites together provided insight rather than revealed confusion. Mr. Trump now says he is willing to meet with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, more proof that catastrophe-mongering leaves his critics flat-footed.

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Just over a year in, Mr. Trump has escalated military operations in every theater. He has endorsed NATO and doubled down on America’s traditional alliances from Japan to Saudi Arabia. Few can call him an isolationist full stop.

Nevertheless, the president’s critics continue to insist that he is retracting American power in some unprecedented way, rather than attempting to extend it more ruthlessly. Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s chief policy advisers, casts the Trump doctrine as “America Last.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, charges the president with giving up a “position of leadership in developing the rules and arrangements at the heart of any world order.” Acknowledging that Mr. Trump is not retreating to isolation, the critics now advance a subtler case — that he is wrecking what they describe as the America-led “liberal international order.”

Leave aside, for a moment, why Mr. Trump is said to spurn such a liberal order whereas George W. Bush, who broke international law by invading Iraq, is having his reputation resuscitated. Leave aside that Ronald Reagan pulled out of Unesco 34 years before Mr. Trump followed suit. Leave aside that a version of the Trump administration’s steel tariff was imposed by Mr. Bush in 2002. Leave aside that Dwight Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons in defense of the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

Beyond being a historical myth, is the rallying cry of the “liberal international order” likely to impress voters?

Foreign policy experts are betting on a fantasy, one mostly confined to the Acela Express. Those experts who seek to shape public opinion, to judge by their columns, interviews and tweets, have faced this responsibility only halfway. The president could not be luckier. Little short of catastrophe will vindicate his critics. Mr. Trump can clear their low bar by being unspectacularly awful. More important, the current debate does nothing to forge a future foreign policy that improves on what preceded Mr. Trump’s election. Far from devising alternatives, experts are shutting down needed debate by collapsing America’s interests into an abstract “order.” They increasingly resemble the “globalists” whom candidate Trump derided.

The irony is, Mr. Trump was wrong. Policymakers have always put American interests first, adjusting (or defying) the rules accordingly. In 1945, Harry Truman met Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in war-torn Potsdam, Germany. If this was the moment of creation of the “liberal international order,” as today’s commentators maintain, Truman did not know it. (Neither he nor his advisers used the phrase.) The frustrated president wrote to his wife, Bess, “I have to make it perfectly plain to them at least once a day that so far as this President is concerned Santa Claus is dead and that my first interest is U.S.A.”

Truman understood what Mr. Trump’s critics implicitly deny: the possibility that American power can come at the expense of others. The foreign policy establishment clings to the fiction that what’s good for America is necessarily good for the world. They condemn Mr. Trump’s tariffs as an unthinkable breach even though the United States has employed protectionist measures throughout history. They pretend that Mr. Trump, having vowed to take things from the world, must be diminishing American power when he seeks to expand it. Mr. Trump’s actions may not have their intended effect, but the most logical and cutting response isn’t that he is weakening America but that he’s trying to strengthen it in a way we should not want. His outpouring of militarism and chauvinism may or may not reduce the United States’ influence. It does, however, threaten to turn the world’s sole superpower into an unabashed purveyor of violence and exploitation.

Let’s call Mr. Trump’s vision what it is: radical American imperialism. He does not so much break with tradition as bring forward some of its most retrograde but persistent elements. Recognizing this is the start of an honest conversation about the Trump administration and America’s role in a changing world. So far, however, the right has come closer to grasping this point than the left or the center. Mr. Trump and his supporters do identify a conflict (indeed, almost endless conflict) between America’s interests and the world’s. As Rush Limbaugh recently put it, Mr. Trump wants to restore the “primacy of the United States,” whereas his critics think “American leadership should preside over the weakening of America.” The point is perverse, but it is coherent. Fearing decline, the Trumpian right seeks to get tough with the world and take all it can.

Mr. Trump’s challenge can be met. As distributional conflicts surge in domestic politics, they are surging in foreign policy, too — and those who ignore them lose out to those who inflate them. Citizens seeking a better foreign policy ought to be engaged, not ignored. But recent events cast doubt on whether our current crop of experts is up to the job.

Democracy requires experts but it also requires something from them: that they facilitate public debate and respect the ultimate power of the electorate to set the aims of the nation. By rallying behind the lowest common denominator of “anything but Trump,” they are disengaging the public’s discontent, pulling up the drawbridge until the next election. In that sense, Donald Trump is not the only one who might be called an isolationist.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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Category: Politics
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