Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How Trump Is Like Obama

There’s more continuity than difference between ‘nation-building at home’ and ‘America First.’

By Josef Joffe
The Wall Street Journal
June 14, 2017

Uncle Sam is getting pushed around by the rest of the world, and we aren’t going to take it anymore.
That is the gist of President Trump’s “America First” doctrine. But let’s cut No. 45 some slack. He is not the first to chop away at the made-in-the-USA global order designed by Harry S. Truman 70 years ago. Pride of place must go to No. 44, Barack Obama.

What, that exemplar of internationalist virtue? True, President Obama did not trumpet “America First.” His standard shibboleth was “It’s time for a little nation-building at home,” echoing George McGovern’s “Come home, America!” from 1972. Let’s lay down the burden and mend crumbling bridges and failing schools, Mr. Obama suggested. Cut to Mr. Trump, who wants to invest $1 trillion in the domestic infrastructure.

Come home or To hell with you—either way, the message reads: The world’s housekeeper will now look out for No. 1. So Mr. Trump keeps bullying the allies on defense spending, demanding zillions in back pay for the security the U.S. has always delivered at a discount. Now listen to Mr. Obama. In a 2016 interview with the Atlantic, he rumbled: “free riders aggravate me.”

Mr. Trump hasn’t brought the boys home, but Mr. Obama did. He drew down the European force to about 50,000 from 75,000. During the 1980s, it numbered 350,000. That was supposed to be accompanied by the fabled “pivot” to Asia, but it didn’t materialize. Instead Mr. Obama presided over a global retraction, most grievously in Iraq. Then, refusing to enforce his “red line” in Syria, Mr. Obama invited Russia in and effectively welcomed Iran, too. Turning away from old allies, he chased the will-o’-the-wisp of Iranian friendship. In Mr. Obama’s view, paraphrased by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests.” Meanwhile, Tehran has expanded to the Mediterranean.

The Obama agenda was self-containment, a first in the history of great powers. So who would mind the global store, as the U.S. had done since 1945? Under Mr. Obama, “Yes, we can” segued into “Others will.” Moscow, Tehran and Beijing did, but not as retainers of Aloof America. Rising powers have never seen a vacuum they did not like.

Set aside Mr. Trump’s in-your-face tweets and savor the kinship between Donald the Crude and Barack the Cool. Each in his own way—softly or brutally—has signaled: America, previously the “indispensable nation,” is vacating its penthouse at the top of the global hierarchy. No great power has ever done so voluntarily; all America’s predecessors were sent packing by more-muscular competitors.

Yes, but doesn’t Mr. Trump want to “make America great again”? First, this is a mendacious slogan. By any measure, America was not a limping giant on Jan. 20 but the greatest power on earth, given its economic primacy, military clout, diplomatic centrality and, not to forget, cultural sway. The world dresses, watches, listens and dances American. Some has-been!

Second, what makes a nation “great”? Mr. Trump thinks it is unbridled national egotism, flanked by the extended middle finger, as when he withdrew from the nonbinding Paris climate accord. Promptly, China began to posture as the guardian of global goodness. Another great victory was pushing aside the leader of tiny Montenegro at the NATO summit’s photo-op last month.

The short take on Trumpist diplomacy: A schoolyard bully is never elected class president. The other kids may fear him, but they won’t follow him. Leadership means taking care of others while going to the top. It comes from authority grounded in consent, not humiliation of the weak.

Still, America’s slide into abdication began in 2009, not in 2017. What made America great after World War II? Sheer clout, at first. So why did the Pax Americana endure while Europe and Japan rose from the ruins and China grew into the world’s second-biggest economy? Because of the genius of pre-Obama, pre-Trump diplomacy: Achieve your own ends not by going mano-a-mano, but by serving the interests of others in the process, like safeguarding security and the liberal trading order.

“Too expensive!” trumpets No. 45. Let’s consult No. 33, President Truman: “Which is better for the country,” he asked with a view to Europe, “to spend 20 or 30 billion dollars to keep the peace, or to do as we did in 1920 and then have to spend 100 billion dollars for four years to fight a war?”

In World War II, U.S. defense outlays peaked at 41% of gross domestic product. Today, the cost of empire has come down to 3.6%—a steal. So the Europeans spend only 1.5% on average? Global powers always pay more for defense; that’s part of what makes them great. The U.S. is not doing the European Union a favor by adding its own weight to an Atlantic order that doubles as the world’s largest trade and investment relationship. The insurance premium is worth it, especially given Vladimir Putin’s blatant strategic ambitions.

Do good for yourself by doing good for others—that has been the secret of America’s realpolitik and exalted position. While Mr. Obama wielded hammer and chisel against the nation’s perch, Mr. Trump is waving a chain saw. As friends retract, rivals rejoice: What a windfall! But take solace from Bismarck, who supposedly quipped: “God protects children, drunkards and the United States.

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