When Yesterday’s Superpower Collapses into Inactivity

Despite their different styles, American Republicans and Democrats share similar views on foreign policy. And the new American isolationism is not about to go away.

Last week’s annual security conference in Munich illustrated the depth of the divide separating the two sides of the Atlantic. Since its beginning, the U.N. has embodied the world’s divisions. Does NATO in turn aspire to become the U.N. of the West? The situation today is very grave, but what will it be like tomorrow? Last weekend, the German chancellor once again displayed the vigor and energy that she appeared to have lost a few months ago to denounce the dangers and confusion of American diplomacy. Since Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, America has simply gotten it all wrong, according to Merkel, from its efforts to isolate Iran to its trade protectionism, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan in between, not to mention its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. On top of that, how can a man who claims that the German auto industry is the greatest threat to U.S. security be taken seriously?

Vice President Mike Pence, whose job was to respond to Merkel, has had no rest. America decides and its allies must follow, Pence reiterated lest anyone forget. He really meant that America’s allies are not paying their share as they should, but everyone understood this. Pence added more specifically that in continuing its ties to Iran, Europe will go down in history as complicit in a new Holocaust, asking, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, will it hesitate to use it on Israel?

A Marketing Approach to Politics

In the nearly 70 years since the creation of NATO, trans-Atlantic relations have never appeared worse. What should Europe do? Must it resign itself to the fact that America has changed, that the world is not what it used to be and that our continent must concede that it is no longer central to Washington’s strategic concerns?

The second meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un will take place in Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28.* Will it result in a reaffirmation of how Washington has pivoted to Asia, with a new meaning for double standard — patience but firmness toward Asia, especially China, yet impatience and irritation toward its traditional European allies? That is an oversimplification; more basically, with his transactional approach to international affairs, the chief occupant of the White House prefers to negotiate with the North Korean leader, even if there is no definite result, maintaining a link rather than any close discussion with Europe.

In such a situation, is it realistic for Europe to turn its back on everything and wait for Trump to leave office? The number of Democratic presidential candidates is now quite high — more than 20 — which gives Trump a significant chance of being re-elected. These presidential candidates are more radical in their positions on issues, revealing a leftward turn by the majority of Democrats. This leads one to ask whether there will be substantial differences in foreign policy between Trump and his eventual Democratic successor.

To be sure, the possibility of a moderate Democrat, like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, must not be underestimated. The Democrats won brilliant victories in the midterm elections owing to their display of pragmatism, so there is no reason why they cannot do the same in 2020. According to the Monmouth University Polling Institute, 56 percent of eligible Democratic voters prefer a candidate with a real possibility of being elected versus 33 percent who pick candidates according to ideology.

6 of One and Half a Dozen of the Other

However, the foreign policy positions of left-leaning Democrats and of the Republicans in power have moved closer together in recent years. They all denounce with near unanimity America’s excessive worldwide interventionism and preach a special form of national egoism. This amounts to a sentiment that can be expressed as “America First. Too bad for everyone else. We can’t be responsible for the world’s misery.” On the right side of the political chessboard is the purest egoism, while the left takes refuge behind ethical considerations, saying, “In trying to do good, we have done evil.” But they all arrive at the same conclusion: “We must draw lessons from the past and avoid policies whose purpose is regime change, including indirect support for military coups.”

The problem with an ex-superpower, to revive the expression of the French socialist politician Hubert Vedrine, is that there is a risk it will go from hyperactivity to inaction. The world is too complex now, and no one can tell what is going on, so it is wiser to stay at home. It is precisely in such an ever dangerous and chaotic world, with a list of challenges from terrorism to climate change, that inaction guarantees disaster. A lack of concern with the suffering of others constitutes an indifference that is not only blameworthy, but reckless.

Paradoxically, it is when solidarity becomes a matter of everyone’s survival that the temptation to retreat — which too often hides the fact of indifference — is irresistible, and passes, like the baton in a relay race, from one ideological extreme to the other.

*Editor’s note: This article was published prior to Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, which was cut short on Feb. 28. The editors feel that the perspective expressed here remains relevant.

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About Hal Swindall 46 Articles
A California native, Hal Swindall earned an MA in English from Claremont Graduate University and a PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside, majoring in English and minoring in French and Italian. Since then, he has wandered East Asia as an itinerant English professor, mainly teaching writing and literature. Presently, he works as an English teacher trainer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hal's interests besides translating, editing and literature include classical music and badminton, as well as East Asian temples.

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