For much of its history, Americans have nurtured the idea that their country is different. Not just different, but better Whether true or not, the idea was put forward right from the beginning. The revolution was about achieving freedom and self-governance and kicking out the king. Europe, by contrast, was mired in its own bloody, unjust, and aristocratic traditions. America, the ideal, was inspired by enlightened rational values.
This has been translated into the way Americans thought about foreign policy. America was not supposed to crave an “empire”. It was not supposed to engage in war for the sake of conquest. Instead, while protecting its interests, its dealings with other powers was supposed to be friendly and neutral. Americans were more concerned with building prosperity than conquering other peoples. In other words, relations between states was not a “zero sum game” where more for you means less for me and vice versa.
This was the basis for America’s post World War II vision of the world. Neutrality was out because the ideological conflicts of the time made that impossible. Communism had to be contained because it imposed a zero sum game on those who lived under its yoke. Collective security was possible because free peoples are all better off when we share the burden of protecting ourselves. While no longer neutral, America still regarded itself — at least in its rhetoric — as a force for good in the world.
Donald Trump doesn’t believe in any of this. His view of the world is that relations between nations are essentially zero sum games. Power is everything, so that more advantageous deals can be struck. Mr. Putin agrees with this world view, while our European partners do not. For that reason, Mr. Trump would like to turn US foreign policy upside down, embracing Putin and disdaining our partners.
Don’t believe me? Check out this report on his recent comments about Europe. Be forewarned, reading this will ruin your day.
My point here is not to assert that the traditional American view of itself was true. It is instead to assert that it was an ideal that at least some believed in and argued should be the guiding force in policy decisions. This will now apparently be tossed under the bus without debate. Even if Trump’s influence in changing the course of affairs is temporary and limited — and one hopes it will be both —- the fact will remain that America elected a leader who publicly advances these views. The vision of doing things better is weakened. Trust is lowered. We all are worse off, and the man has not yet even been inaugurated!
Follow Up: One of the more grave aspects of the issues raised i n this post is that we cannot be sure WHY Donald Trump is taking a pro-Putin position on foreign policy. The election was not a referendum on this issue.The above is my best effort to explain why Trump talks the way he does. On the other hand, Trump may have other reasons that he has not disclosed. Regardless, it is beyond per adventure at this stage that Trump wants to turn American foreign policy upside down and embrace Putin.
Given the extreme shift that this entails and its potential for mischief, it is not a radical idea to demand to know why it is being advanced as a policy idea. Bill Moyers and Michael Winship argue that we need a bi-partisan investigation to get to the bottom of this.
The truth must be known. Left to fester in the dark, lingering suspicions will hang over our politics like a poisonous smog. We will become a society marked by permanent and penetrating distrust, by whispered allegations and rumors, by ill will and a lust for unbridled power. We do not exaggerate when we say this is the most critical moment for the United States since politics failed in the 1850s and the thunderclouds of civil war spread north and south until the nation was engulfed and split asunder.
Strong words. And yet, given the stakes, I cannot say that they are out of place. We need to know what is going on and why. And we need to know NOW! Or we will have to prepare for a very different type of future than we expected just a few months ago.