Decline Is a Choice…
… and it comes with consequences.
There are multiple ways to interpret recent history; two come to mind at this moment. The first is that 2016 was a substantial and dramatic break with the previous order. It’s an understandable interpretation, in part because in many ways it is painfully true. Even those who preferred the outcome agree, as so many of them have made clear the pain imposed on their “enemies” was the first and only reason for preferring the outcome in the first place.
There is, however, another interpretation that also has some claim to the truth: that Donald Trump’s election was part of a pattern of creeping isolationism that began eight years earlier. David Ignatius (Washington Post) reveals that this view is particularly common outside the United States (emphasis added).
Even for the closest U.S. allies, friendship is not a suicide pact. They will adjust, accommodate, and distance.
This concern about a United States adrift from its traditional leadership role was evident last weekend at the Munich Security Conference. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke for many at the conference when he complained: “Our closest ally, the United States of America, under the current administration, rejects the very concept of the international community.”
Europeans are realizing, too, that the United States’ turn inward goes much deeper than Trump. Steinmeier bemoaned Trump’s retreat from transatlantic ties, but he recognized, “We know that this shift began a while ago, and it will continue even after this administration.”
Further evidence comes, sadly, from the current crop of Democratic candidates, almost none of whom are keen to even discuss foreign policy – with the lone exception effectively validating Trump’s isolationism.
As Ignatius notes, the tyrants of the world are also taking notice.
Who benefits in a world where Republicans trumpet “America First” and Democrats don’t even debate foreign policy? The answer is painfully obvious to foreign officials. As the United States retreats, China steps forward. Since Xi’s accession in 2013, China has advertised its plans to dominate global technology and business.
The other major tyrant astride the globe – Vladimir Putin – has already responded to the Obama administration’s slow retreat from the world stage … by following us here and trying a hand at interfering in our election. It went so well, they’re ready to do it again (WaPo).
How is the Trump Administration responding? By sweeping the interference matter under the rug and surrendering to the Taliban – on the bizarre notion that it can and will separate itself from al Qaeda (Washington Post). Worse, Trump is not the only presidential candidate suffering under that delusion (WaPo). Do we really want to find out what happens when the rest of the world realizes that a rogue-state regime can harbor and support the forces that struck us on 9/11, wait us out, and win?
Trotsky – of all people – had the quote best representative of the reality Americans face: “You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.”
Ever since our refusal to declare war on Reign-of-Terror France in 1798 put us on an inevitable course to the War of 1812, America has gone through isolationist spasms that have led to dangerous consequences (the more well-known examples being the 1930s and 1970s). This time, we are seeing the consequences in real time: terrorist harbors outlasting us, tyrants interfering in our elections, and allies walking away – and taking their exports with them.
How high a price will we pay for choosing decline this time? Unfortunately, too many Americans seem determined to find out.