America's bewildering imperialism
America's relations in the world are in a state of severe flux in the Trump era. The president loves to denounce NATO, but the alliance is expanding. He also delights in expressing warm feelings for Vladimir Putin at the same time that the administration's policies often put us on a collision course with the country Putin leads. We're preparing to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan at the same time that we're saber-rattling with Iran and Venezuela. And Trump is preparing for negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a man Trump once threatened with nuclear annihilation but whom he now considers a pen pal.
Despite occasional impressive efforts to make this mishmash of impulses and reactions cohere, there is very little about it that makes any kind of broader strategic sense — at least not that the president or leading members of his team have attempted to articulate. Trump has no interest in democracy promotion. He's not a foreign policy realist. He's reflexively hostile to alliances and treaties. There's no sign he favors military restraint in dealing with recalcitrant rivals on the world stage. He hates some dictators (the Iranian mullahs, Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro, Kim 18 months ago) and loves others (Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Kim today). And so on and so forth through a long list of clashing words and actions.
If you hope to break the stranglehold of the bipartisan pro-interventionist consensus on foreign policy thinking in the nation's capital and devise a more sustainable and humane alternative, then there may be cause for expressions of modest support for at least some of the Trump administration's moves. (That's why I've sometimes cautiously praised them.) But that shouldn't blind us to just how confused the U.S. looks and sounds on the world stage — or to the deepest sources of that confusion, which go far beyond the ignorance and impulsiveness of Donald Trump himself.
Americans love to appeal to the Declaration of Independence for its robust and poetic defense of self-evident pre-political natural rights that supposedly serve as the foundation of all legitimate government. But the document as a whole is primarily a statement about national self-determination, with the appeal to rights merely one crucial link in the argument. Thomas Jefferson's words declare a right of the people of the American colonies to decide how they will live and govern themselves. To thwart such self-government, as King George III was attempting to do with the actions enumerated at great length in the Declaration, is tantamount to tyranny.
That rallying cry has animated popular uprisings around the world ever since, from the French Revolution just a few years later to the fall of the Iron Curtain and beyond. It certainly inspired those who led the anti-colonial movements of the postwar period, when country after subjected country in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia threw off the yoke of imperialism and formerly expansionist European powers gave up their colonial ambitions.
The United States' role in this was complicated. On one side of the ledger, it was our ideals that often inspired these movements and (eventually) shamed those who resisted them. We also played a relatively minor role in the imperial projects that led Great Britain, France, and Spain to accumulate vast empires around the world in the first place.
Yet there is considerably more to the story. America's global game of brinksmanship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War led to us to adopt contradictory positions. Rhetorically, we insisted that countries within the American sphere of influence were free to determine their own fates, and we defended the right of countries within the Soviet sphere of influence to do the same, certain they would choose to follow the liberal democratic path if given the choice. But in our actions — in Korea, in Vietnam, in Chile, in Nicaragua, and in many other places — we were quite willing to impose our own (overt and covert) will on weaker powers if they didn't make the "right" choices.
The U.S. did this for complex reasons as well. We saw ourselves as forging what we now call the "liberal international order," with us very much in a leadership role, in order to fend off the threat of totalitarianism and a third, catastrophic (nuclear) world war. With those as our ultimate goals, other considerations, including national self-determination, became less pressing and sometimes even counter-productive. Surely the whole world would be better off with the threat of worldwide totalitarianism and a nuclear holocaust taken off the table. Once the liberal side of the dispute prevailed, self-determination could become the universal order of the day.
That day seemed to arrive in 1989. After the Cold War ended, we spent a little more than a decade tentatively trying to extend the liberal international order while encouraging burden-sharing among allies. The hope was that the world would slowly (or quickly) evolve in a cosmopolitan and humanitarian direction, with an ever-expanding list of liberal-democratic allies working together to keep order as the rest of the world caught up and joined us at the end of history. All good things would go together: Finally every country in the world would be free to pursue national self-determination, since they would all use their freedom to achieve the same thing, which the U.S. could happily welcome, encourage, and benefit from.
But then 9/11 happened and public opinion and the outlook of America's foreign policy establishment grew darker. Now it appeared that the stragglers on the road to the end of history had detours in mind and were far more formidable in their recalcitrance than we'd assumed. They threatened to sow chaos. Might they even be capable of taking down the liberal international order itself with a few well-targeted attacks using weapons of mass destruction?
We had to fight back. Which meant that, once again, self-determination became something permissible only so long as it fulfilled certain conditions. If nations (or factions within nations) used their freedom to back the United States and its aims, then we would cheerfully quote Jefferson. But if they dissented, or resisted, or if people living within their borders plotted against us, then all bets were off. Then American troops or special forces or CIA operatives or armed drones would swoop in to make sure they were stopped in their tracks, self-determination be damned.
Like a behemoth surrounded by a swarm of wasps — or a superpower suffering from an acute case of collective PTSD — the U.S. has spent the past 18 years swatting at insects capable of inflicting pain but falling far short of the capacity to pose an existential threat.
But that hasn't stopped fears that they could. For a country of control-freaks, allowing other peoples to pursue national self-determination looks like an unacceptable risk — a luxury incompatible with American security. Which means, in effect, that the nations of the world must be divided into two camps: those that are with us and those that are against us. Just as George W. Bush said we needed to do.
That is where we are — with Donald Trump haphazardly moving countries back and forth between the two camps as his ill-informed instincts (and the ideological obsessions of his advisers) dictate and demand. Meanwhile, the peoples of the world stand by, wondering whether the capricious commander in chief of the most powerful military on the planet will rain fire on their homes and their heads from the other side of the world if they fail to defer to our self-proclaimed leadership of the "free world."
Precisely how long this arrangement can go on is anyone's guess — but we know it can't last forever, or anything close to it. The U.S. is indisputably in relative decline, bound to be challenged for preeminence by a lengthening list of rising powers, each one of which can and will use Jefferson's quintessentially American principles against our own efforts at imperial domination.
We can't control the peoples of the world; we can only protect ourselves. The sooner we learn to accept that accomplishing the latter doesn't require trying (and failing) to achieve the former, the better.