Americans like to have a general idea of what’s going on. It’s comforting. It settles the nerves in troubling times. Americans elect a president to settle their nerves, to let them in on the general idea of what the country is doing in this messy chaotic world. There’s a plan, isn’t there?
James Monroe had a plan – the Monroe Doctrine – the Western Hemisphere was ours, damn it – or it would be from December 2, 1823, forward. That’s when James Monroe laid it out. Any further efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States” – so the New World and the Old World would now be distinctly separate spheres of influence – period. This is our part of the world. Everyone else keep out.
That was the plan, until Fidel Castro messed it up. He hooked up with the Russians – but the Monroe Doctrine held. The CIA-sponsored Bay pf Pigs invasion was a farce but President Kennedy got the Russians to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba. Or maybe the Monroe Doctrine failed. Cuba is still hooked up with the Russians, causing trouble in Venezuela and elsewhere, with the Russians. James Monroe would not be pleased. President Obama tried to normalize things with Cuba – open full diplomatic relations, open up trade, work out the issues of human rights and all the rest. Prosperity and freedom from collective rules and collective planning would foil the Russians. They’d be gone soon enough. They’d slink away – but President Trump has vowed to reverse all that. Punish those people with total isolation until they give in and shape up. That had been our policy since the sixties. It didn’t work at all, but it should have worked, and it will work, damn it, if we just keep at it, in spite of the clear evidence that it didn’t work at all. President Trump and President Obama have two different ideas on how to implement the Monroe Doctrine, but they both are fine with it.
It may be the same with Manifest Destiny – but that was no president’s doctrine, or has been every president’s doctrine. It was an assumption, not a formal doctrine. It was the manifest destiny of the United States to stretch from sea to shining sea. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was all in. John Quincy Adams wrote this – “The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union.”
In 1836, the Republic of Texas declared independence from Mexico and, after the Texas Revolution, sought to join the United States as a new state, and that was fine. Welcome, boys. There were the Homestead Acts – Oklahoma is Okay! (Native Americans are not.) This snowballed. America would finally stretch from sea to shining sea – but it didn’t stop there. We were the good guys. Thomas Paine had argued that the American Revolution provided an opportunity to create a new, better society, everywhere in the world – “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”
That may be how we ended up in Iraq, trying to remake the Middle East – and the world. That didn’t work out – so much for Divine Providence. No one begins the world over again. It seems that American exceptionalism and Romantic nationalism while both immensely comforting are both kind of silly. There would be no birthday of a new world. Deal with this one.
Americans, however still like to have a general idea of what’s going on. Americans long for a comforting doctrine to calm the nerves, but that gets tricky. There was the ABC News interview with Sarah Palin in Fairbanks, conducted by their “World News” anchor Charlie Gibson, on September 11, 2008 – a yearly day for deep thought about what we should be doing in the world – and that went like this:
GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush – well, what do you – what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view?
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war… The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?
PALIN: I agree that a president’s job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America. I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.
GIBSON: Do we have a right to anticipatory self-defense? Do we have a right to make a preemptive strike again another country if we feel that country might strike us?
PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.
GIBSON: Do we have the right to be making cross-border attacks into Pakistan from Afghanistan, with or without the approval of the Pakistani government?
PALIN: Now, as for our right to invade, we’re going to work with these countries, building new relationships, working with existing allies, but forging new, also, in order to, Charlie, get to a point in this world where war is not going to be a first option. In fact, war has got to be, a military strike, a last option.
GIBSON: But, Governor, I’m asking you: We have the right, in your mind, to go across the border with or without the approval of the Pakistani government?
PALIN: In order to stop Islamic extremists, those terrorists who would seek to destroy America and our allies, we must do whatever it takes and we must not blink, Charlie, in making those tough decisions of where we go and even who we target.
GIBSON: And let me finish with this. I got lost in a blizzard of words there. Is that a yes?
Who knew? No one was comforted, but even if Sarah Palin was unaware of it, the Bush Doctrine had been debated endlessly. Does the United States have the right to anticipatory self-defense, to wage war on any country we think might, in the future, attack us, even if they’re only thinking about it, or might be thinking about it? What if the evidence is faulty? With Iraq, it was. What if the evidence is hyped-up nonsense from rumors from odd and unreliable sources, assembled for other reasons, because there is no threat? That happened here too. Some in the Bush administration finally admitted that. They did want to remake the Middle East – and the world – to create a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq, with a free-market economy with a Starbucks on every corner, and a country that was fine with Israel being Israel too. Other Muslim nations in the region would see how wonderful that was. They would do the same. It was manifest destiny again. There was no threat, just an opportunity.
Sarah Palin knew nothing of this, but that’s okay. All of it turned out to be nonsense anyway, but now we have a new president and perhaps he has a new and comforting doctrine. President Trump spoke at the United Nations. It was his turn to let everyone in on the general idea of what this country is doing in this messy chaotic world. He could be comforting.
He wasn’t. The reviews are in, and the New Yorker’s John Cassidy has them:
He promised that, as President, he would always put America’s interests first, threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” and described Iran as a “rogue state.” Afterward, many people on the right hailed his blunt language. Ed Morrissey, a conservative blogger and talk-show host, said that Trump had dispelled fears that “globalists” inside the Administration had moderated his approach. The evangelist Franklin Graham said that the speech “made you proud to be an American.”
In non-conservative circles, the reaction was very different. Hillary Clinton, appearing on “The Late Show with Steven Colbert,” described Trump’s address as “very dark, dangerous, not the kind of message that the leader of the greatest nation in the world should be delivering.” Slate’s Fred Kaplan called it the “most hostile, dangerous, and intellectually confused – if not outright dishonest – speech ever delivered by an American president to an international body.” When Vox’s Alex Ward asked Melissa Hanham, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, for comment, Hanham sent him an image of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
Yet there was a third view, too. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, pointing out that Trump had condemned human-rights abuses in places such as Myanmar and Cuba and promoted international cooperation among sovereign states, wrote that the most surprising thing about the speech was “how conventional it was.” Zachary Peck, a fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told Vox, “This was basic American foreign policy with Trumpian characteristics.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board suggested that “perhaps Mr. Trump’s definition of ‘America First’ is even evolving to recognize the necessity of American global leadership.”
It seems that Sarah Palin is now the president, as this was just a blizzard of words:
No sooner had the President assured the nations of the world that “making a better life for our people also requires us to work together in close harmony and unity” than he proclaimed that, “as long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else.” His assertion that U.N.-led peacekeeping missions have made “invaluable contributions in stabilizing conflicts in Africa” was undercut by his criticism that “too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results but on bureaucracy and process.”
Cassidy sees no Trump Doctrine here:
Trump has no coherent foreign-policy stance. He only has instincts, many of which have lately run up against the realities he faces as the leader of the sole global superpower. He assumes that the United States has a divine right to behave as it likes, regardless of its previous commitments. He mistakes belligerence for power. He fetishizes strongmen. And he is disdainful of problems he views as liberal confections. (Nowhere in his speech did he mention climate change.)
Thus, the search for a Trump doctrine is like the hunt for the Loch Ness monster. Does it have one hump or two? How long is its neck? Is it a mammal or a reptile? Depending on where you look in the library of “Nessie” stories, you can justify many descriptions. Since the monster doesn’t exist, answers to these questions are all equally false and equally true.
So don’t expect comfort:
Taken over all, it was as if the framework for Trump’s U.N. speech had been laid down by those in the Administration who recognize some fundamental geopolitical imperatives, such as the need to avoid a descent into Hobbesian chaos, and then had its rhetoric turned up by someone like Stephen Miller, Trump’s right-wing nationalist aide, to please the President’s supporters and satisfy his insatiable desire to draw attention to himself. The sound bites produced by this rhetoric only added to the dissonance.
In calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and threatening to turn North Korea into a radioactive ashtray, Trump was presumably trying to goad the North Korean leader into opening negotiations about an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But, immediately after his remarks about North Korea, Trump signaled his intention to tear up the nuclear deal that the Obama Administration reached with Iran – despite the fact that the other countries that signed the agreement – France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia – all insist that Tehran is living up to its terms. Not only is Trump “courting a second major nonproliferation crisis, but he is putting a negotiated solution to reduce the North Korean threat even further out of reach,” Kingston Reif, an expert at the Arms Control Association, told Vox. “If Trump unravels the deal, Kim will understandably conclude that the United States can’t be counted on to live up to any agreement he might strike with it.”
Agreements do get lost in a blizzard of words, but that’s Trump:
We can assume that Trump’s sensible advisers recognize that the President was undercutting his own efforts to deal with Kim. Evidently, they have given up trying to impose some over-all coherence on his utterances. Trump hates being managed. The best they can do is to inject some reassuring passages into Trump’s script and hope that he doesn’t veer too far off it, and that nobody takes everything else he says too seriously. This is the man, after all, who during the campaign promised to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, withdraw from NAFTA, and label China a currency manipulator.
So forget being comforted and try just coping:
It’s become a truism with Trump: watch what he does, not what he says. This week at the U.N., many countries have adopted this approach. Among America’s allies, the responses to Trump’s General Assembly address were muted. The countries Trump referred to as “the wicked few” reacted more pointedly, but on the whole they were dismissive. The North Korean foreign minister, who is in New York, likened the speech to “the sound of a dog barking,” adding that if Trump thought he could “scare us and that’s really a dog’s dream.”
All there is, now, is this:
On Thursday, Trump, after meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, announced that he is extending U.S. sanctions on individuals and firms that do business with Pyongyang. This move seemed to indicate that, for now at least, he is sticking to the diplomatic path. But that raised the question of how much of his fiery rhetoric is brinksmanship, and how much of it is real. The scary thing is, nobody knows for sure. Perhaps not even the President himself.
All is lost. Now no one, not even Donald Trump, will know what this country thinks it is doing in this messy chaotic world, but at The Federalist, Robert Tracinski hears distorted echoes of the Bush Doctrine:
Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations does its best to form a synthesis out of Steve Bannon’s nationalism and George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but it’s not exactly a coherent combination, and we can already see its blind spots.
It has been a bit odd to see Bush-era neoconservatives applauding Trump’s speech, but it’s easy to understand why. Trump trashed the Iran deal and threw down some deadly threats against North Korea, a relief after years of the Obama administration’s passivity. (President Obama loved what I call “off-ramp diplomacy” always seeking the “off-ramp” that would not actually resolve a crisis but temporarily remove it from the president’s plate.) More deeply, though, Trump’s speech actually incorporates recognizable elements from Bush-era foreign policy.
That may have been inevitable:
That’s no surprise when you look at who is left in President Trump’s cabinet. He came into office surrounded by a coterie of quasi-isolationist “nationalists” in the mold of Bannon, but one by one they have been purged from the administration, including Bannon himself. Between Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, national security policy in the Trump White House is now largely being shaped by men who rose during the Bush years and are sympathetic to its overall foreign policy goals.
This is not a subversion of our electoral system. It is the system working as intended. Our system requires that the president act through his advisors and cabinet officers, who are mostly drawn from senior figures with experience and a long track record in government. This makes it hard for one man to radically change the country’s ideological direction or long-term policy priorities – and that’s how things are supposed to work.
But there was a fly in the ointment:
The only member of the “nationalist” camp remaining in the administration in any prominent position is Stephen Miller, a White House policy advisor and Trump’s chief speechwriter. So we can see in this speech the effort to merge elements of the Bush-era policy being re-established by top military and foreign policy strategists with the rhetoric of Bannonite nationalism.
Yet there is something lost in the synthesis. What is lost, primarily, is the central idea of a freedom agenda – the idea that freedom and representative government are crucially important to the peace and security of the world, to America’s vision for the direction it wants the world to go, and even for America’s own identity.
What is lost, primarily, is manifest destiny:
Freedom is certainly mentioned at a few spots but pointedly missing at many others. Consider Trump’s peculiar exegesis of World War II: “We must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved. Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.”
So the defeat of an aggressive nationalist dictatorship, Nazi Germany, was really a victory for… nationalism? I can only think of one country that has long held precisely this perspective on World War II. It is the Russians, who view that war not primarily as the defeat of tyranny but as a defense of Mother Russia, as the Great Patriotic War. No, I’m not suggesting that Trump’s view of World War II is a result of Russian propaganda or “collusion.” Rather, it is the sign of a vague ideological affinity with Russian-style nationalism.
That won’t do:
Trump is never more frightening than when he is talking about America’s own history, where he inevitably leaves out the most important bits. For example, he cites John Adams on the “revolution in the minds and hearts of the people” by which Americans “understood that we were a nation.” As far as America’s history and culture were concerned, the Americans viewed themselves as British right up to the end.
As late as 1774, Thomas Jefferson wrote a pamphlet proclaiming the “rights of British America,” and the Founders always described themselves as defending the traditional “rights of Englishmen.” America would not have separated from Britain on the basis of national identity or culture, because we were British. We separated from them on the basis of individual rights and limits on the power of government. You can look it up, because we actually published a declaration detailing these causes.
But Trump doesn’t tend to think of the world in these terms.
Obviously, he should think in terms of manifest destiny:
Americans have traditionally regarded liberty as the central defining characteristic of our civic culture and as our primary interest, particularly in foreign policy. From the beginning we defined ourselves as the global standard-bearer for liberty and the chief nemesis of tyranny.
Trump’s downgrading of our national interest in liberty leads him to specifically reject the promotion of liberty. In one passage, he says, “We are guided by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.” For those who follow this closely, what he’s saying is: democracy-promotion is out, the freedom agenda is out, we’re going back to the realpolitik of “shared interests.”
Yet this is not a position that can be consistently maintained in dealing with the actual condition of the world. The importance of liberty is not just an ivory-tower abstraction but a longstanding pattern borne out by history. Countries without political freedom, countries that do not gain the “consent of the governed,” governments that impose themselves on their subjects for the purpose of plunder or arbitrary rule, are inherently illegitimate, and that lack of legitimacy makes them fundamentally unstable and insecure. Such regimes are a threat to every country around them, not only because of the internal chaos and turmoil they create, but because they usually seek to protect their predatory rule by expanding it to the countries around them.
That’s why America always comes to the rescue – we’re the good guys – and Trump doesn’t get that:
There has been a drumbeat on the Right for a long time to the effect that U.S. foreign policy should be based strictly on a narrow interpretation of our interests and drop all this stuff about promoting freedom in the world. This speech is a move in that direction.
A hybridized George W. Trump foreign policy forged between the president and his top advisors will probably be better in many respects than the not-so-benign neglect the last president practiced. But we can also see the incoherence and the blind spots that such a compromise creates – and the risk that what remains of America’s role as a standard-bearer for freedom in the world will be ignored by an unenthusiastic commander-in-chief.
Wait. Donald Trump is not unenthusiastic. Far from it – he’s the opposite of No-Drama Obama. He’s all energy. He’s simply as confused and clueless as Sarah Palin was in Fairbanks on that September 11th long ago – but now, unlike her, he really is the president. Expect no comfort. Expect no Trump Doctrine. Expect periodic blizzards of words. That’s our manifest destiny now.