Giving historical context to the Trump presidency

Predicting, even imagining the future of the Trump presidency is a fool’s errand. “Unprecedented” was used repeatedly to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the word has kept appearing as he has pivoted from campaigning to governing. “Unprecedented” leaves a lot of room for speculation and not much to ground that speculation on. Will the narcissist show up every day in the Oval Office, driving the administration into constant, self-defeating dysfunction? Is there a craftiness at work that observers may still underestimate and that may produce significant achievements? Will the new president preen and strut and leave the real governance to his uneasy coalition of conservative Republican politicians, businessmen, and white populists?

While history can’t tell us which Trump will show up over the next four years, it can identify the context in which he will be operating. There are two long-term developments which not only helped elevate him politically but also are now likely to constrain him. Both might fairly be described as part of a tectonic shift dating back to the 1970s.

The first is the crisis of U.S. nationalism. (A previous post has dealt with the important aspect of this crisis related to citizenship.) The consensus about collective purpose and identity has eroded over the past several decades. As the nationalist formation that dominated much of the twentieth century has come into doubt, a three way debate has taken shape over the American future.

The debate began in the 1960s with a conservative challenge to the dominant nationalist point characterized by an activist state, a commitment to international leadership, and a multi-cultural conception of citizenship. The challenge was inspired by the growing appeal of neo-liberalism with its faith in the role of markets freed from state intervention and regulation both at home and internationally. By the time of the Clinton presidency Democrats had joined the neo-liberal chorus even as they defended old progressive government programs. To confuse matters much of the public seemed to side with the small government cause with its irresistible promise of lower taxes, yet that same public was not prepared to give up the government programs that provided a modicum of security.

Further destabilizing the nationalist consensus has been the recent revolt of the marginals. They included whites who felt displaced in an increasingly diverse society and put off by a black man occupying the White House. They were disproportionately found among older Americans who dreamed of restoring an idyllic 1950s America. They were workers with limited education and thus limited access to the job market and stagnant or declining wages. They were residents of backwater counties where manufacturing and mining jobs had dribbled away, where population was shrinking, and where longevity and other indices of welfare have pointed downward. They became politically relevant with the appearance of the Tea Party in 2008 and helped power an insurgent candidate to victory in the 2016 presidential contest. As the ostensible champion of the marginals, Trump has scrambled the old left-right debate by questioning free trade and overseas commitments, both cornerstones of the old nationalist faith, while also exploiting the resentments of whites who felt ignored and left behind.

What is now in broad terms a three-way division over national identity will not be soon resolved. Along the way there will be a lot of intense division and discord much as in the past when U.S. nationalism has moved from one phase to another.

The other tectonic shift has been playing out globally since the 1970s. U.S. policymakers after World War II had rescued globalization much battered by war and depression by promoting supportive values and institutions. For their commitment Americans were repaid in international leadership, world-wide prestige and influence, and economic prosperity. By the 1970s globalization under U.S. auspices began to accelerate with consequences that have since shaken U.S. dominance. New powers in regions around the world emerged resistant to U.S. direction. International institutions and organizations have multiplied and wielded increasing authority, thus further eroding U.S. clout. A more open international economy has prompted U.S. corporations to move abroad, leaving rust belts behind. As it went into financial overdrive, that economy demonstrated a tendency toward instability, first evident in regional crises in the 1980s and 1990s and then in the 2008 meltdown that shook the United States and spread to Europe.

In general, free movement of goods and capital brought not good GDP numbers but a growing inequality that spelled stagnant income for most and a rising fear that a system that was supposed to produce for each generation a better life than the one before was broken. Americans fell prey to political alienation evident in voter turnout and to distrust of institutions and the elites who run them, resulting in democratic dysfunction and sharp political contention. Here we see the connection between the inroads of globalization and the loss of nationalist consensus. A society disrupted by global forces has good cause for domestic disagreement about the way forward. The more profound the disruption, the deeper the disagreement.

Until Americans face the pervasive effects of globalization and decide how to find a fresh accommodation with it, the problems noted above are likely to persist. Building walls, renegotiating trade agreements and putting America first are good bumper sticker solutions, but they are not likely to either restore comfortable small-town values or “make America great again.” No matter what the Trump administration does, globalization will remain a potent force technologically, economically, and culturally.

The task engaged Americans now face is formidable. On the one hand it involves understanding the global influences now deeply embedded in their lives so they can figure out how to channel them. On the other hand it involves coming to some kind of agreement on the kind of society they want they want to create and protect in a dynamic, globalized world. All the evidence to date suggests that Donald Trump lacks the sophistication to address either the challenge of figuring out how to live with globalization or how to resolve the contradictions disrupting the national consensus. But the troubles likely to attend his presidency may well help clarify for many of his fellow citizens and even some of his supporters the hard choices before us. The road is likely to get rougher before there can be any hope of smoother going.

Trump and foreign policy troubles ahead

Donald Trump will enter the White House next month intent on a disruptive foreign policy. His campaign promises pointed in that direction, his recent key appointments give no reason to doubt his resolve, and his initial free-form contact with foreign leaders provides confirmation. The next four years could bring whole-sale change in the U.S. global position — from trade and regional commitments to nuclear proliferation, human rights, and the environment (to name only the most obvious in what is a long and mind-bending list). On the table are changes greater than anything seen since World War II and the early years of the Cold War.

There are good reason for concern that are intrinsic to the very scope of Trump’s ambitions. Given the magnitude, breadth, and intricacy of the looming policy shifts, the odds on misadventure are quite high. Any big changes carries big consequences that are hard to foresee, and a raft of such changes make the future even more murky, dangers harder to anticipate, and mishaps thus difficult to forestall.

Historical perspective can add an additional layer of concern. The diplomatic record suggests strongly that what presidents know when they enter the Oval Office, how well formulated their ideas are, and how systematically they make their decisions matter a great deal. While these features do not guarantee a successful foreign policy, the absence of any one increases the odds against success.

It may be obvious that knowing something about the world, the U.S. policy record, and the institutions that shape that policy can be extremely helpful to the new inhabitant of the White House. But few postwar presidents have met the mark. The exception are Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and arguably Lyndon Johnson. Ike wrote tellingly on his first day in office: “Plenty of worries and difficult problems. But such has been my portion for a long time — the result is that this just seems (today) like a continuation of all I’ve been doing since July 1941 — even before that.”

If Ike felt that the woes of the world had fallen on him, they were woes he knew. Trump’s woes will be compounded many times over by an ignorance of policy and process deeper than any of his recent predecessors. Will he recognize how little he knows? Does he understand that what he has learned from negotiating deals overseas should not be confused with a command of statecraft? In any case, Trump will learn that limited knowledge carries serious consequences. Presidents who have to embark on a crash course on world affairs are likely to pay tuition for a couple of years (assuming they have the time and discipline to go to class). Meanwhile, world affairs come crashing in on them from all points of the compass, while the bureaucracy clamors for guidance and the public expects reassurance. In the long and awkward interval devoted to on-the-job training, the damage done to the presidency not to mention the country and the international community can be substantial.

Presidents ideally not only know the world but also have managed to assemble their ideas into some coherent form that approximates a strategic vision — some cultivated sense of the forces in play on the international stage and the best way for U.S. policy to engage them. In fact, few presidents have had enough exposure to international affairs and enough time before election to reflect and test their ideas. Nixon is perhaps the most notable and instructive exception. His exposure to varied aspects of U.S. policy extending over years provided more than an education; it forced him to think in an ordered, systematic way about the nature of the global system and the most promising direction to take U.S. policy. In his first weeks in office he began exploring courses of action that would culminate in détente with the Soviet Union and accommodation with China.

Trump does bring some broad policy notions to his presidency. But they don’t amount to a coherent body of ideas grounded in experience. They are rather a hodge podge of undeveloped, even conflicting positions that are likely to produce policy disarray and in turn generate mistrust abroad and dismay at home.

Finally, Trump gives every promises of turning his back on a little noticed and easy to ignore feature of a successful policy: the orderly formulation of policy options followed by their careful evaluation by senior staff with the president’s active, informed participation. A successful policy process requires taking experts seriously and involving them intimately. It also requires that the president listen to senior advisers with the expectation that they will speak candidly in private while executing policy decisions loyally in public.

Attention to staff work at all levels can make an enormous difference, as Eisenhower demonstrated during his eight years in the White House. He had learned the virtues of a good staff during a long Army career including his oversight of the massively complex reconquest of continental Europe in 1944 and 1945. The Kennedy White House was by contrast free-wheeling, and the results were policies that damaged and pained the president. The Bay of Pigs is a good example of the former; the assassination of Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem serves for the latter. From recent presidents, George W. Bush is a good example of the failure of staffing, whereas no-drama Obama has from all appearances been scrupulous in listening to the specialists and engaging in a sustained way with his advisers.

Trump seems likely to suffer the Kennedy fate — or worse. His reported disinterest in receiving daily intelligence briefings, his misplaced self-confidence, his off-the-cuff comments, his love of theater, and his appetite for public acclaim combine to give reason to expect a lot worse.

The coming months will be interesting. Policy veterans inside the beltway, already suffering one heart attack after another, will watch in anguish as things go from bad to worse. The media that Trump likes to bash will make much of his misadventures and the leaks that will begin to flow from his administration like the sap in Spring. The public, perhaps even in the Trump heartland, will begin to recognize that something is amiss. Faced with setbacks to national interests and reputation and mounting criticism, Trump is likely to follow his favored ploys of denying, diverting, discrediting, and decrying. That may suit him and it may work politically but it won’t make the troubles go away. Almost certainly we can look ahead to greater dysfunction afflicting U.S. policy and an acceleration of the national decline already decades in the making. The Trump presidency could be revolutionary — but not in the way intended. It could very well turn his “Make America Great” slogan on its head.

Trump and the reshaping of American nationalism

Vast quantities of ink have been spilled over the astonishing rise of Donald Trump. The explanations for the Trump phenomenon are now legion, ranging from an economy that has been unkind to many Americans to generational conflict to a media-savvy candidate in a supremely media-fixated age. The one perspective that deserves more attention is the way the Trump campaign, knowingly or not, has posed a direct challenge to a long established and still vital aspect of American national identity.

Though most Americans may not realize it, their country entered the twentieth century a white male republic. White men dominated the electorate; virtually everyone else was excluded from full citizenship and in some cases flatly denied citizenship. By the 1960s the outsiders who had gained or were claiming a fuller place in national life included women, native Americans, and Americans of Asian, Jewish, Italian, African, and Hispanic descent. The pressure for inclusivity has persisted down to the present, with the most recent wave of change evident in LBGTQ demands for rights enjoyed by others. Immigration legislation passed in 1965 further diluted the dominance of white males by opening the doors to peoples from all around the world to a degree not seen since the influx of newcomers that peaked around the start of the twentieth century. Collectively, these changes in status and demography have transformed the country and especially its understanding of citizenship in ways more dramatic than anything earlier in U.S. history.

How and why this happened is an important story. The short version is that the American state came increasingly under pressure during World War II and the Cold War to make good on its much vaunted international claims to embody a fully functioning democracy free of racism and prejudice and devoted to opportunity for all. That pressure was generated by citizens demanding change. It was also generated by political leaders such as Truman and Johnson who were determined to make good on claims to global leadership by closing the gap between the promise and reality of American democracy.

The consequences were the rise of an inclusive, multi-cultural polity and society but also the marginalization of white males as once subordinate groups made good on calls for equality. In short, as women, ethnics, blacks, and others have claimed a full place as citizens, white male privilege has inevitably suffered. A black man in the White House and a woman trying to follow him there are galling reminders of the continued deterioration of the old order. They pose the question “How far to the margins will white males ultimately be pushed?”

What is surprising is how long this transformation in our understanding of citizenship has taken to generate a full blown challenge. The Tea Party was a harbinger; the Trump candidacy is its full fledged expression. Skillfully Trump has managed to tap white male resentment by demeaning talk of women plagued by periods, Muslims bent on harming the homeland, Mexican criminals and spongers, and African Americans who don’t grasp their own interests. While always careful to leave room for retreat or denial, Trump has played on old, still potent ethnic, gender, and racial stereotypes.

We would all do well to recognize what is at stake in this presidential election. It is nothing less than the reconfiguration of American nationalism. Trump should admit that his claim to the presidency rests on renegotiating the terms of citizenship in what would amount to a reversal of the long-term trend toward inclusion and to a restoration of at least a modicum of white male privilege. Hillary Clinton for her part should directly confront the magnitude of this challenge and make explicit its long-term meaning for all Americans. She needs to explain what she means by her bland claim that we are “stronger together.” Perhaps most important of all, Americans of all political persuasions should recognize that they like other peoples operate within an envelop of their own nationalism and that nationalism is not fixed but undergoes changes, sometimes dramatically for better or worse. We now may be approaching one of those times of change and the consequences could be momentous.

A council of historical advisers on foreign policy: a misguided idea revived

I first encountered in the 1970s the idea of a council of historians to provide foreign policy guidance to the president. It was a proposal made by Ernest May in his classic The Lessons of the Past. I had my doubts then. Encountering the idea today in the form resurrected by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic, I find my doubts even more pronounced.

Certainly a massive gap separates the work of professional historians and the policy world. Arguably that gap is wider today than earlier because the nature of the historical enterprise has expanded dramatically beyond what policymakers are schooled in. Scholarship has in recent years become more diverse in its interests, broader in its coverage, and more sweeping chronologically. By contrast, the past that rattles around in the mind of those in the policy community tends to be dated, often shaped by readings in college decades past. It also tends to be invoked opportunistically to support some already fixed line of policy.

So what is wrong with the idea of a council of historical advisers when it seems to address a real problem? Three things do the most to put me off.

First, there is a practical concern. Where does the multiplication of council of experts end? The economists are already formally represented at the highest level. Once historians get their nose in the policy tent, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, international lawyers, scientists of various stripes, and so forth will all want to be heard. Imagine the poor policymaker faced with so many kinds of experts with a seat at the table, all eager to help and all quite capable of generating an avalanche of well intentioned guidance. Faced with the choice between getting overwhelmed or keeping the experts at arms length, guess what the harried president or presidential adviser is most likely to do?

Perhaps even more worrisome is the question of which historians deserve a seat at the table. Historians disagree in their understanding of major issues and hence in the interpretive significance they would draw for policymakers. Neither of the alternative solutions seem satisfactory: create a council diverse in its composition and inchoate in its advice or opt for a more homogeneously composed body wedded to a predictable and limited perspective.

Beyond this fairly obvious point about diverse points of view is the tendency of historians who have things to say to policy to approach their role in dramatically different ways. There has long existed a kind of court historian who plays a therapeutic role in relation to the policy world by gazing admiringly on its achievements. There is also a kind of historian that aims at helping policymakers do their job better but within their framework of assumptions and current concerns. Yet a third mode of doing history takes a step back from work-a-day policy concerns and asks questions not about policy per se but about the context — both international and domestic — in which policy operates. While history in the third mode might be the most useful in bringing a fresh perspective to a policy community heavily invested in a particular set of assumptions and convictions, its subversive, disruptive influence is unlikely to be welcome.

The ultimate reason for regarding the historical council skeptically derives from classical realism. History is a critical tool that makes the most difference when it is part of the mental armory of the policymaker. A sense of the past offers both the self-knowledge and the knowledge of others essential to the wise management of great-power relations. Farming out historical wisdom is a poor substitute for a disciplined mind steeped in the historical approach as a way of understanding the world.

The gap between history and policy will not be easily closed because the sources are so deep. The U.S. policy community operates within a national culture estranged from the discipline of history whether in its K-12 educational curriculum, its media coverage, or its political discourse. This doleful situation is not likely to be much helped by the instruction of a council of historians however well intentioned.

The American greatness debate

A leitmotif of this election year has become American greatness. As with much else, Donald Trump set the terms of the conversation by making his rallying cry “Make American Great Again.” That cry has not only resonated in his campaign but also featured prominently during the Republican convention. The country had fallen from grace and who else but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were responsible. The Democrats had, of course, to respond to the gauntlet Trump had thrown down. America, according to party luminaries, is great and has to be kept that way by making sure that Clinton follows Obama in the White House. Clinton in her acceptance speech returned to the theme already sounded by earlier speakers at the Democratic National Convention: “American is great — because America is good.” Every generation, she explained, has made the country freer, fairer, and stronger. She promised that if Americans continued to work together “America will be greater than ever.”

What is most striking about this nationalistically charged exchange is how empty the Democratic response has been — more a knee-jerk denial that the country has been on a downward slide than a considered appraisal of where the country is and where it ought to go. Trump’s bill of particulars supporting his charge are, to be sure, simplistic whether considered in relation to the economy, immigration, or international affairs. But to respond with blanket denials seems not the most compelling route to take, especially when the a substantial part of the electorate appears to share with Trump the sense that all is not well in the American house. The same doubts afflict Democrats who fervently backed Bernie Sanders. Denial and empty rhetoric doesn’t seem a good strategy for winning anxious Republicans and fervent Sanders supporters, and they don’t seem a good basis for governance were Clinton to win the election.

Let’s step back and consider where in reality the country stands. How great in fact is the United States? Scholars and pundits have been contemplating that very question for a decade and a half. They have come to a rough consensus that the U.S. position in the world has declined. Shaping their conclusion was the doleful outcome of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a general Islamist upsurge in the Middle East, and the growing resistance to U.S. leadership on the part of emerging regional powers (from Iran and Russia to China and North Korea). The consequences of the neo-liberal experiment in freeing the market caste an additional pall over the U.S. global position. The broadly damaging 2008 economic crisis began with upheaval in the financial markets, plunging the United States into the Great Recession and pushing Europe into its own prolonged and painful troubles. These mishaps mushrooming during the Bush administration and burdening the Obama presidency have shaken the confidence of many in the future of the country and renewed debate over whether the “American century” has come to an end.

Where these observers differ is on the prospects for American greatness though they hardly follow the lines drawn by Republicans and Democrats. Their division is over whether the decline is so marked that it cannot be easily overcome or whether by determination and skillful leadership U.S. dominance can be restored.

Historians joined by political scientists with a historical bent have presented the more distinctly pessimistic case. A comprehensive and compelling survey of an eroding U.S. position flatly predicts: “At a minimum, the United States will suffer decline in wealth, standard of living, and global influence.” (David S. Mason, The End of the American Century [2009], 215.) Deepening difficulties suggested to those in the pessimist camp that the United States was already caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating national morale and diminishing material power.

On the other side, prominent political leaders, influential commentators, and students of international relations (political scientists for the most part) have questioned the depth of the U.S. slide and even expressed optimism about reinvigorating global dominance. The United States, they pointed out, sat astride the largest of the national economies and commanded a military force of unrivaled potency. Whatever ground had been lost in recent years could, so they argued, be made up by smart grand strategy directed by astute leaders. Sustaining the country’s premier international position was important in its own right but also to global stability, world peace, and human progress.

The optimists’ position was weakened by the narrow way it was framed. It imagined reversing decline without paying serious attention to the domestic foundations on which the U.S. international position has depended. The optimists thus missed the role of socio-cultural and ideological forces such as rising individual preoccupation with consumption or a fractured sense of national purpose that polarized politics and debilitated governance. Calls for smarter grand strategy to revive U.S. fortunes seem in this light facile, wishful thinking. The optimist position is further compromised by its understanding of dominance in terms of military force and to a lesser degree economic prowess, with little weight given to the international limits of U.S. influence. Claims to international leadership depend for legitimacy on more than military and economic prowess. Those claims are deeply discounted when they issue from a society that fails to inspire admiration and emulation and a polity that falls short even by its own standards. The rise of strong regional powers and competitive economies reflects not a world homogenized; rather they sustain multipolar and multicultural trends that make the exercise of U.S. dominance inherently difficult in a way omitted from the calculation of the optimists.

The optimists have also suffered from weak historical perspective. They take a drastically foreshortened view of the evolution of U.S. dominance, ignoring the long period of preparation before 1945 and the erosion of that dominance since the 1970s while fixating on the Cold War triumph as confirmation of enduring U.S. strength. When they do invoke history by drawing comparisons between Britain’s dominance during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the subsequent American rise, the case they make is thin and tendentious. The optimists contended that the British case could offer lessons and inspiration for Americans striving to stay on top. But theirs was a distinctly dated school boy version of the British position that failed to recognize how significantly different was the British case from that of the United States in regard to both national power and the international context in which each operated.

“Is America great — or what?” That’s the simple-minded way the question has been posed in the current political season. What neither Trump the Restorer nor Clinton the Cheerleader are willing to confront is the fundamentally paradoxical position the United States is in. The country can fairly claim a strong military and a robust economy. But it also cannot hide a compromised democracy and a people divided on multiple and fundamental lines including the basic ones of identity and wealth. Sloganeering on either side of the political divide is not going to alter these circumstances. Facing reality would, so some smart people who have given the matter some thought, be a good first step.

 

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Those interested in recent works on American standing in the world will find them split fairly neatly between optimists and pessimists. Good examples of the latter include Mason’s The End of the American Century (noted above); Vaclav Smil, Made in the USA: the Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing (2013), especially chaps. 4-6; and Andrew Bacevich, ed., The Short American Century: A Postmortem (2012). My own views, which are distinctly on the side of the pessimists, are spelled out in a July 2011 post that is, I think, still pertinent. On the other side, Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (2012); Zaki Laïdi, Limited Achievements: Obama’s Foreign Policy, trans. Carolyn Avery (2012); Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (2010); and G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (2011), all profess optimism that the United States can retain its dominance. Vaclav Smil, Why America Is Not a New Rome (2010), makes a compelling case against those on both sides of the decline argument who invoke imperial comparisons.

Brexit’s real global significance

To many American pundits and denizens of the policy community, Brexit represented an existential threat. England’s gullible voters and opportunistic politicians seemed to have eliminated Britain as a prime fixture of the U.S. foreign policy landscape. A surge of Euroskepticism across the continent was bound to follow and in the bargain encourage a nationalist revival while weakening NATO. A Europe in crisis would tempt Putin to reach farther into eastern Europe. Amidst this upheaval, Trump’s presidential candidacy was bound to flourish and feed the U.S. drift back toward isolationism. With American global leadership abandoned, the world was headed for exceedingly perilous times.

The Brexit hysteria has begun to die down. The EU stands, perhaps even reinforced by the British rejection (to judge from recent polls taken across the continent). Britain has never fit well with the European project at least as it’s understood on the continent. Even the Remain campaign defended the EU as no more than a convenient economic arrangement. The international system still turns with the same speed and frequency that it did before Brexit. Britain isn’t after all that important (except in the minds of American Anglophiles and Brits still living in the shadow of the empire). Financial markets have rebounded after the initial shock.

Only in Britain have the effects been predictably pronounced, above all in London. Its inflated real estate prices are on the downswing as foreign investors look elsewhere, and London’s financial sector begins to consider exporting jobs into the EU as a hedge against a split. The pound has deflated even as Britain’s political class self destructs, with party leaders either resigning or facing pressure to quit. Scotland and Northern Ireland are contemplating leaving the UK. But there is no rush to the exit. Indeed, the decision in favor of Brexit has not brought much of a rush to actually leave the EU.

Brexit does have global implications that the hysterics have largely overlooked. Its a reminder of the consequences globalization (or at least a particularly free market friendly version of it) has visited on two countries that have enthusiastically thrown themselves into its web. In the UK long-brewing popular disaffection drove the Leave vote. Communities and regions found themselves marginalized economically while London prospered. Feeling powerlessness and unrepresented, they vented their frustration against immigrants, Brussels, and their own politicians. The emergence of a large disaffected class of citizens is no less a feature of the U.S. political scene. Like the British, Americans have neglected welfare and allowed class and regional inequality to rise. Immigration has become the lightning rod for unhappiness over a system that creates ever greater economic and social distortions while failing to deliver for many on the promises of a good middle class life.

For striking evidence on the broad and deep-seated nature of these discontents on both sides of the Atlantic, see The Guardian articles by Daniel John Harris, “Britain is in the midst of a working-class revolt”; and by Rob Ford, “Older ‘left-behind’ voters turned against a political class with values opposed to theirs”; and the impressions on the U.S. side by Amy Walter in the Cook Political Report, “When Conventional Wisdom Gets Ahead of the Voters”; and by Susan Bee, Why Are Voters Drawn to Donald Trump? in The Atlantic.

None of this is new. Globalization in its full-throated version been around since the late nineteenth century. So too has the popular reaction against the economic destruction and social disruption that global forces have inflicted. Over a half century ago Karl Polanyi described what he called a double movement consisting of a rising tide of globalization and the reaction against it as those most hurt by creative destruction mounted a political resistance. Polanyi’s insight into the link between globalization and popular anger seems more pertinent today than when I called attention to it here five years ago. Neoliberals with their blind faith in the market may imagine they live in a world irresistibly shaped by economic forces. Anyone who wants to fully understand that world and the political resistance and social discontents that it generates should take a lesson from Polanyi.

Why Brexit makes historical sense

With the vote looming on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, commentators have gone into overdrive. What is notably lacking is a historical perspective on Britain’s distinctly ambivalent relationship to European integration. That ambivalence is hardly a recent phenomenon.

The British stood aside as the idea of European integration began to gather momentum in the 1950s. They refused a role in the European Coal and Steel Community, proposed in 1950 by French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann and set in motion in 1952 in an effort to coordinate economic policy. They again held back in 1957 when the member states of the ECSC created a more ambitious European Economic Community. This initiative resulted in a single market, more wide-ranging economic coordination, and the establishment of political institutions to facilitate cooperation. This was all a bit too much for British leaders fixated on a glorious imperial past and determined not to have Britain become “just another European country” (as a Labour government’s foreign secretary had put it in early in the postwar). Better to concentrate on salvaging something from a rapidly dissolving empire by promoting a British-led Commonwealth.

London had second thoughts once the EEC proved a success. Concentrating on imperial prestige had proven a costly dead end. Moreover, manufactured exports, the basis for Britain’s reputation as a great trading nation, slid dramatically. Britain’s growth rate lagged behind those of the major economies of the EEC, and Britons enviously watched the rising living standard of their neighbors. But gaining membership was not easy. France’s Charles de Gaulle was adamantly opposed. In 1963 and again in 1967 he blocked Britain’s admission in part because he saw London as a rival for European leadership but also because he feared Britain would serve as a stalking horse for American influence on the continent.

Even after finally gaining admission in 1973, the British remained ambivalent. Margaret Thatcher during her time as British prime minister (1979–1990) embodied that ambivalence. While supporting membership in the EEC, she forcefully articulated widely shared reservations. She feared that centralized power in Brussels would encroach on British ­national identity and political autonomy. She disliked the European attachment to “welfare capitalism” with its proclivity toward intervention in the economy. The large subsidies directed toward the agricultural sector were a source of special irritation. Her critique had at times a distinctly contemporary ring: “Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel throughout the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.”

Hesitation about a close relationship with the continent again came to the fore as talk of deeper integration culminated in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 creating the European Union. While British leaders signed up for the EU, a familiar set of doubts held them back from full participation. They opted out of one of its signature initiatives, the single currency. The British pound was a reminder of past glories and a symbol of a distinct national identity. On the free movement of people within the Union and on aspects of social policy, they also demurred.

In recent decades, this habitual ambivalence about the relationship with the continent has persisted. The leading grievances have been the population influx from other EU states and the meddling of the Brussels bureaucrats. These are the very grievances trumpeted by the current campaign in favor of leaving the EU. That these complaints have now come to a head can be traced to some of same anxieties and resentments that have in the United States fueled the rise of the Tea Party and more recently the Trump presidential candidacy. Immigration, slow economic growth, and inequality have become the bane of the Anglo-American world in an era of globalization. Euro-skepticism has taken hold within the Conservative Party and fueled the rise of the UK Independence Party, finally forcing Prime Minister David Cameron to schedule the referendum on membership now nearly upon us.

The vote this coming week, no matter which way it goes, is not likely have cataclysmic consequences. Britain will remain a multi-cultural society. Defending Englishness against outsiders will remain an uphill battle even outside the EU. The British economy may well take a hit if the Leave-takers prevail, but the damage will probably not be deep or long lasting. Inequality, which cannot be blamed on the EU, is likely to persist in a global economy dominated by the neoliberal preferences that Thatcher instilled in her party. In promising dramatic changes, the Leave campaign is as misguided as the proponents of Little America. Both are looking for scapegoats and simple solutions.

Whatever the consequences for Britain, Brexit might prove a good thing for the EU. Its expansion eastward since the Communist collapse along with the continued British presence has created a political entity with widely divergent points of view. This divergence disrupts consensus on fundamental values and objectives and makes decision-making difficult. The priority given expansion has done the EU cause no favors. A deepening of integration — both economic and political of states on the continent — might well become easier to achieve were Britain to depart. A diminution of membership might seem to some a setback but losing the ambivalent Brits could prove a long-term blessing.

What a difference a year makes: U.S. policy orthodoxy in question

How different the U.S. foreign policy scene looks today from a year ago when I began a medical sabbatical. Now I return to find all hell has broken loose!

This is most obviously true in the presidential primaries dominated by insurgent candidates critical of business as usual and intent on pressing policies well outside the mainstream.

Bernie Sanders seems most concerned with insuring that international activism doesn’t get in the way of addressing domestic needs. He has pointed repeatedly to his own opposition to the Iraq invasion as the kind of tough-minded skepticism that should greet any call for fresh overseas adventures. His opposition to trade deals that work against ordinary Americans is another part of an “American First” approach. So potent has been the Sanders’ critique on both intervention and trade that Hillary Clinton, the epitome of establishment thinking on both points, has had to move in the direction of her opponent.

Donald Trump goes Sanders one better. Trump attacks free trade with abandon. He favors scaling back U.S. commitments in Europe and Northeast Asia that date back to the Cold War. He would be happy to raise the immigration drawbridge to judge from his controversial proposals for a wall along the Mexican border and a ban on Muslim arrivals. His strong nativist and populist appeal, wrapped up in his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has had great appeal among segments of the electorate even as it has defied the expectations of learned pundits and horrified policy elites with their longstanding fear of an emotional, ill-informed electorate.

Those now gone from the Republican race made their own contributions to upsetting the apple cart. For example, Ted Cruz suggested nuclear strikes as the best response to the ISIS threat while Rand Paul rekindled the old “fortress America” position once influential in the Republican Party but distinctly out of favor for decades in orthodox policy circles.

The election has thus put a lot in play, much of it fundamental to the country’s identity and its relationship to the broader world. The free trade ideals of the neo-liberals have lost their glow, the interventionism championed by the neo-conservatives is distinctly out of season; the financial institutions associated with the brave mew global order are in distinctly bad odor; globalization more broadly has come into deeper question than ever in a country ill equipped (or at least disinclined) to deal with its adverse effects; and a multi-cultural conception of the nation is under attack spearheaded by an older generation of whites who first rallied behind the Tea Party and now back Trump.

Perhaps most striking of all is the way President Obama has rounded on the policy establishment (to include the Pentagon, the State Department, the array of Washington think tanks, and even some on his own national security advisers). In his view (nicely articulated in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic last month), they are entranced by “power projection” as the foundation of U.S. leadership, prone to favor “tough” military solutions, overly fixated on credibility, and disinclined to think through the likely consequences of their favored courses of action. In particular, the president’s refusal to get drawn into the Syrian civil wars set him at odds (as he put it) with “the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus.” This included heavy weights within his own administration such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Leon Panetta, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice not to mention Republican hawks Lindsay Graham and John McCain.

The preoccupation of these worthies with the loss of American credibility and their faith in U.S. military power collide with Obama’s instinctive caution, captured in his mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

The pattern of caution is evident not only in Obama’s refusal to take on the mess in Syria but also in his resistance to becoming more deeply engaged in the Middle East and North Africa, a region that he is convinced the United States cannot fix. He has no patience with the soaring vision of countries transformed under the American aegis. Caution is also evident in his avoidance of confrontation with other powers on matters not central to U.S. interests and in his acceptance of constraints on U.S. policy. This has led him to pursue what some would dismiss as “weak” diplomacy and led to some notable successes including deals with Iran, an opening to Cuba, and the creation of an alliance bulwark against China. Finally, Obama’s caution is evident in his cool attitude toward longtime American allies–notably the Saudis, the Israelis, the British, and the French–who fail to carry their weight (the free riders) and who try to manipulate Washington into making unwise commitments. In all these ways the president has proven himself self consciously at odds with attitudes that have long prevailed within the policy community.

The policy discontents given voice over the past year may well mark an inflection point. But the crystal ball is not so clear on where we go from here. Toward some new consensus that will soon give U.S. policy consistency and direction? Or is the disarray likely to prove prolonged? Might the warfare over fundamentals turn into a long term affair, absorbing energy and attention for many years just as it took many years for the critiques of policy to reach critical mass? Developments over the past year leave no doubt that change is afoot and that watching it play out should be endlessly absorbing.

Putting China in a History-Free Zone

In confronting any policy problem, a grounding in the past is well nigh indispensable to accurately framing the present and plausibly projecting the future. (The case for the public relevance of the past has been admirably made in the recent The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage.) The current U.S. policy preoccupation with the China problem offers a glaring and disturbing example of the failure to take advantage of historical perspective.

Recent comments on the South China Sea controversy (prompted by China’s push to consolidate its claim to disputed islets and reefs and the U.S. push-back) reveal the failure in spades.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s statements during his recent swing through Southeast Asia invoked a version of the past so divorced from historical reality that I’ve described it as “fairy tale.”

Amitai Etzioni, hardly a proponent of policy orthodoxy, gestured in the right direction when he observed that “history shows that states should be leery of stepping on an escalator without first asking how far they are willing to ride it and how to get off.” But then he failed to bring that point down to earth and consider the nature of the crises that have plagued U.S.-China relations or at least the lessons that might be drawn from them.

John Glaser writing from Washington for The Guardian tried to get a handle on the controversy by citing a string of authorities none of whom are historians. To his credit, he framed his account with an eminently historical concept — the idea of an American empire — but then provided no historical grounding. Thus left amorphous and ahistorical, empire means everything and nothing.

The Obama administration’s broader “privot to Asia” rests on the same presentist concerns evident in treatment of the South China Sea dispute. Washington seems perilously close to becoming a history-free zone even when it comes to dealing with China where behavior and outlook are famously shaped by the past.

Relevant work is available in abundance for anyone interested in cultivating a historically-informed position. Several generations of scholars have labored with considerable success to make sense of China’s past and suggest implications for the present. The long and often troubled record of U.S.-China interaction and U.S. involvement more generally in eastern Asia are also well developed parts of the historical literature.

Just looking at my book shelf, I see pertinent works of recent vintage:

–Mao: The Real Story as well as Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, both by Alexander Pantsov with Steven I. Levine and both excellent on the system these two dominant figures created and the enduring national visions they promoted;

–Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 , invaluable on the trajectory of a regional and global player;

–Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, which provides a more astute, historically informed treatment than its breathless title suggests; and

Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (which I co-authored with Levine), notable for highlighting the prolonged — and continuing — conflict between the U.S. and China over regional dominance.

The challenge, it seems clear, is not the paucity of appropriate works to consult but rather the resistance of those absorbed in making and talking about foreign policy to consult them — and in the process to open their minds to the broad insights and the cautionary tales they offer. If policy were all tactics, then history would be largely irrelevant and its neglect of no matter. But most in Washington insist they are committed to a “strategic” approach, and for that a good grasp of the past is not optional but mandatory.

The Pentagon’s Durable Asian Fairy Tale

The Pentagon’s fairy tale history of U.S. involvement in eastern Asia appears alive and well. So at least statements made by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent visits in Singapore and Vietnam suggest. Following the lines of the mythology that seems to exercise strong appeal in official U.S. circles, Carter claimed that the United States by playing a pivotal military role in the region over the past seven decades has “helped maintain peace and stability.” (See the transcript of his address in Singapore on 30 May and his interview in Vietnam with the BBC dated 1 June.)

The notion of the U.S. military as a force for peace and stability doesn’t hold historical water now any more than when Carter’s predecessor invoked it. (See my earlier post on this topic.)

From the late 1940s Washington extended the Cold War struggle from Europe to Asia and in the process spawned regional disorder. U.S. policymakers recruited clients, created dependencies, and resisted calls for revolutionary change wherever they were heard throughout the region. In defense of the status quo, U.S. forces fought in Korea and Vietnam, helped defeat insurgents in the Philippines, and devastated Cambodia from the air. These efforts twice resulted in costly military collisions with China, first in Korea and then in Vietnam. To the surprise and dismay of the U.S. political class and military leaders, neither confrontation with Beijing went well — and this at a time when Mao Zedong’s China was just getting on its feet. (Readers interested in the details are invited to consult Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, which I coauthored with Steven I. Levine.)

An important shift in the early 1970s has no place in Carter’s simple generalization about America in Asia. President Richard Nixon recognized the quixotic nature of this effort to maintain the status quo in what was even then a dynamic Asia. The U.S. might be dominant but, Nixon reasoned, China could no longer be marginalized. In 1972 he accepted China as a regional power in a world in which he saw regional powers more and more defining the international system. What Nixon left to his successors was how to adjust policy as China’s power waxed and U.S. power waned at least in relative terms. This has been no easy task for U.S. policymakers who recognize the strong impetus behind China’s rise but who also cling to a dream of global dominance and regard regional powers as threats to that dominance. Carter’s simple history conceals the fundamental contradiction facing U.S. policy not just in Asia but also in the Middle East, South America, and Eurasia.

Carter and others in the Obama administration who fancy themselves realists should not think in a historical haze however comforting they might find the official mythology. They would do well to base their grand strategy for Asia on real, not imagined, history.