Tuesday, November 22, 2016

When the "Indispensible Nation" Becomes Expendable.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Max Boot argues that "Trump's 'America First' Is the Twilight of American Exceptionalism."

Boot's essay begins with an extensive catalogue of the similarities between Obama's policies and what Trump will likely deliver. He finds Obama a latter day Jefferson and sees in Trump a 21st century Jacksonian. For those not familiar with Jackson's populism, that may not be a very good thing for America:

One of their big divisions is over international institutions. Obama negotiated an international accord to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases; Trump has said global warming is a Chinese hoax and called for pulling out of the Paris agreement. Obama negotiated a nuclear accord with Iran; Trump promises to renegotiate it, calling it a “disgraceful deal” and an “embarrassment to our country.” Obama is a free-trader who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); Trump is a protectionist who vows to withdraw from the TPP, rip up NAFTA, and impose tariffs. Obama has been supportive of NATO, working to expand the forces that the alliance deploys in Eastern Europe and the Baltics to guard against Russian aggression; Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and questioned the need to station U.S. troops to defend countries that don’t pay enough for the privilege.

...Obama is a believer in international organizations and international law; Trump is not. It is hard to imagine Trump saying, as Obama did: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” In turn, it is hard to imagine Obama ever threatening to bomb the “shit” out of another country, to steal its oil, or to torture detainees — all of which would constitute war crimes.
In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, non interventionism — unless severely provoked.

Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East. The result of his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his failure to get more actively involved in ending the Syrian civil war has been to create a vacuum of power that has been filled by the likes of the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Undaunted, Trump has said he wants not only to continue the pullback from the Middle East (he wants to subcontract American policy in Syria to Putin) but also to retreat from Europe and East Asia. He has suggested that he may lift sanctions on Russia and pull U.S. troops out of countries (from Germany to Japan) if he feels they are not paying enough for American protection. It is quite possible, then, that Trump’s foreign policy would represent an intensification rather than a repudiation of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach.

American power survived eight years of an Obama presidency, albeit in diminished form. If the president-elect governs the way he campaigned (which, admittedly, is not necessarily a safe assumption), there is good cause to wonder whether U.S. ascendancy will survive four to eight years of Trumpism. The post-American age may be arriving sooner than imagined, ushered in by a president with an “America First” foreign policy.

American power, and the advantages that flow from it, is something of a con game, a confidence game. American dominance depends on the confidence that other nations, ally and adversary alike, place in it. It's the glue that holds Europe, Asia and the Middle East in America's camp.

Americans, like their president-elect, have largely lost sight of how much depends on this confidence game. America went from being the world's largest creditor nation at Ronald Reagan's first inauguration to the world's largest debtor nation, eight years later when Reagan's work was done. 

America has remained the world's largest economy over the intervening years but it's never been enough. For decades the US has sustained balance of trade and balance of payment deficits, its debts bought by foreign creditors on the strength of their abiding confidence in America as leader of the free world. This confidence has also allowed America the benefits of having the US dollar as the world's reserve currency. That leaves its creditors subject to American monetary policy and parlour tricks such as 'qualitative easing' that essentially discount American debt held by its foreign creditors.

America's allies are already worried about a world led by Donald Trump. He's already fallen in with a bad lot from Putin to Erdogan, Farage, Orban and lePen. Trump may give America's creditors the impetus they never found under Obama to switch the reserve currency to a basket of leading currencies - European, Chinese, Japanese and American. That could leave America forced to borrow in other nations' currencies without the benefit of its own monetary policy manipulations and at potentially higher rates. That's a truly iffy way to "Make America Great Again." As Boot suspects, Trump may indeed usher in the post-American age. And that is a contingency for which our government needs to prepare but who am I kidding?

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