From Behind to Nothing
President Obama’s foreign policy was famously described as “leading from behind”. Perhaps President Trump’s foreign policy will be described as plain old "not leading".
With a flagrant disregard for world order, Saddam Hussein invaded tiny neighbor Kuwait on August 2, 1990. This blatant act prompted US President George H. W. Bush to put together a coalition of other nations (comprised of 45 nations that included the United States and most of the European powers) to oppose Saddam Hussein’s aggression. The military operations to free Kuwait from Iraq’s takeover began January 17th, 1991 and lasted about five weeks with devastating results for the Iraqi army.
This is called leadership. While it is true that the greatest burden fell on the United States, the other nations not only participated in some of the military activities, their presence reaffirmed the strength of the world order under US leadership and served notice to rogue nations the consequences of attempting to violate that order. And President Bush also managed the global response to the breakup of the Soviet Union that could have turned badly but instead proceeded relatively quietly and with little violence.
After 9-11 in 2001, President George W. Bush put together a so-called “coalition of the willing” to support the ill-advised invasion to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein that his father had refrained from attempting. Although this coalition had fewer active members, its creation still highlighted the ability of the United States to bring together many nations to support our foreign policy.
President Obama’s leading from behind foreign policy represented a shift from the out-front policies of former presidents but had backing from many people in his base of progressive supporters. Nelson Mandela, a hero of President Obama’s, supported leadership from behind saying, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur.” But Mr. Mandela added a very important corollary, “You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
President Obama ignored this corollary when he drew and then ignored a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria and when he pushed Afghan and Iraqi troops to the front line before they were ready. He again ignored it when China began terraforming reefs in the South China Sea into tiny islands with large military bases on them. But, although president Obama’s foreign policy appears to have been relatively ineffective and counter-productive, it was still recognizably American foreign policy.
President Trump has turned American foreign policy completely on its ear. For over seventy years, American foreign policy has been based on building a rules-based world order backed up by a strong group of allies and friends. But President Trump has sharply criticized our allies and principal trading partners while giving a pass to authoritarian leaders and dictators. As Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine noted, “Trumpism is about winning, which is something you do to others. The (world) order requires leading, which is something you do with others (emphasis added).”
President Trump’s foreign policy appears to be based primarily on appealing to his base. A base that is not appreciative on the nuances of foreign policy and who believe (with some justification) that they got the short end of the globalization stick. While the post-WWII global world order has brought many benefits to the world and to America it has not been without cost. And, as is the case in many economic scenarios, while benefits are often generalized (such a wide variety of products at low cost due to trade) the costs are focused and specific (lost jobs from foreign competition or offshoring).
But progress and growth often leave certain groups out in the cold. Economic advancement was described by Joseph Schumpeter as “creative destruction” and it is often the workers that are the ones destroyed.
And it is our American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines that pay a disproportionate price with life and limb in maintaining the global world order. But as Nelson Mandela noted, when there is danger it is time for the leaders to be out front. And the relative peace that we have achieved since World War Two means that the sacrifice our sons and daughters are making is not in vain. While there have been 7,584 service personnel deaths since the end of the Viet-Nam war, this numbers pales in comparison to the more than four hundred thousand US service personnel deaths in WWII. But even those numbers are relatively small compared to the estimated WWII military deaths of 21 to 25 million deaths and of civilian casualties of up to 60 million during six years of war. And while there have been many civilian casualties to the various regional conflicts that number has decreased substantially, especially since the Vietnamese War. So although our global leadership has cost us many American lives we have saved literally millions upon millions (including a large number of our own) by avoiding a major war between great powers. The Pax Americana has not been perfect. But it has been much better than other outcomes that could have occurred if it had not been for American leadership.
President Trump’s foreign policy appears to intend to destroy all the global institutions and procedures that have been created to manage the global order over the last seventy years. He has attacked NATO, our Western allies, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. And he has offered no replacements or reform plans for the global institutions he trashes. President Trump is tearing down an admittedly imperfect Lockean world order that will impel us into a dangerous Hobbesian world of every nation for itself.
President Trump believes that because America is the strongest country on the planet, we would be okay is this perilous Hobbesian world. That we would be winners. Secretary of Defense Mattis disagreed stating that America’s greatest strength lies in our allies and friends. That’s why he was pushed out. But if you think a bunch of bilateral agreements pitting nation against nation like the many shell corporations and special-purpose-vehicles in the Trump business organization will make the world a safer place, you are sadly (and perhaps fatally) mistaken.
And while we’re at it.
I do not know if President Trump is consciously trying to destroy American democratic institutions along with the institutions that maintain the global order. But he is used to getting his own way. That’s why he ran a family company and not a public company where he would be subject public disclosure of finances, to regulation by the SEC and be at the mercy of shareholders if his results weren’t up to par.
President Trump doesn’t like to be blocked or prevented from doing what he wants and lashes out viciously against anybody who he believes opposes him. Not just porno stars and sleazy lawyers. But any candidate who has the temerity to oppose him in a primary or general election. Not just little rocket man but also any world leader that disagrees with him. And not just those that oppose him but also any person in his administration who places loyalty to America ahead of loyalty to the great leader, oops I mean President Trump.
He has lashed out against the democratic institutions that have frustrated his plans or besmirched his glory such as the FBI, the CIA and the Federal Reserve Bank. And just wait for the fireworks after a Democratic controlled house of Representatives is seated in January 2019.
But the Founders purposefully designed our Constitution to frustrate the ability of any one branch of government or any chief executive to gain too much power. Checks are meant to frustrate rash actions and balance is to assure that decisions are not one-sided. The Founders feared the power of a potential tyrant and designed a governmental structure that would frustrate attempts to gain disproportionate power. And if we are to survive the Trump Presidency, it will be the checks and balances created by the Founders that will get us through.