The Long View in Politics — Foreign Relations Are Also Domestic (and Vice-Versa)
A month ago I contributed to this venue with a piece titled “It’s Time to Start Thinking Legitimation.” (My thanks to the surprising number of you who read it.) In it, I characterize some of the governmental goings-on in the US that, in my view, were (and still are) leading the country toward what, following Jürgen Habermas, I label “legitimation crisis.” Moreover, I also argue that we are clearly seeing aspects of such a crisis: in broad-based public consternation about governmental/presidential integrity and performance, a consternation sufficient to broadcast doubt within the country that “our” government can retain/regain its credibility as institution with us its constituents, both right now and, more vitally, into the future.
In that process, I also dropped the remark that legitimation crisis may be even more immediately concerning in the area of international relations, but, I noted, that issue fell outside the focus within which I was then working. In the ensuing paragraphs I intend to go back to that fork in the road and take the “international path.”
A couple of procedural notes: 1) in contrast to “It’s Time to Start Thinking Legitimation,” where I develop a traditionally-structured argument and arrive at a conclusion of sorts, I see the following principally as simple ground-clearing, nothing more than the description of a set of interrelationships. The results of this ground-clearing could be plowed back into the earlier essay to make a greater whole, but I do not do that here; 2) the person I am addressing in what follows is, in the main, myself — though I hope this finds general interest as well.
There will still be need for a preamble, though, international relations clearly being its own kettle of fish — really, many different kettles of many different fishes.
First preamble point (obvious but needing to be said just on procedural grounds): in today’s world, if any country is in legitimation crisis, or on the brink of it, other countries are to some degree aware of that situation. In contrast to general practice in the US, people elsewhere in the world do not necessarily ignore other countries, nor do they presume that events elsewhere have no impact on their lives. (I read our practice to the contrary as composed of left-over reflexes of our size and, until the last half-century-or-so, our relative geographical isolation.)
Second: it is obvious that President Trump is not held in high regard — to say the least! — by a number of other countries’ leaders. The public headshaking and outright public laughter at his expense on the diplomatic scene — sometimes in his presence — provide ample proof of that. Moreover, that attitude is pervasive among the leaders of our allies of standing, namely the Western democracies, plus countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others. Confidence in the US as a partner has plummeted to record lows, obviously as a reflex of evaluation of Trump.
Third prefatory point (and handy bridge to discussion): that same attitude, or something very like it, with regard to both Trump and the country, would seem not to be limited to leadership but also to pervade the populations of a goodly number of those countries. I rely in part, here and henceforth, on the recently-released (Sept. 15) Pew Research Center study of attitudes toward the US in thirteen democracies. In that survey, the median percentage of respondents who said they have “confidence” that the U.S. president “will do the right thing regarding world affairs” stands at a mere 16 percent. I.e. a huge portion of the respondents currently see this country as (let me unpack a bit based on the Pew study plus my wider reading) perhaps “not to be counted on to make appropriate decisions”? maybe “irresponsible”? possibly “reckless”? “unreliable”? Likely a mixture of many such predicates, according to each respondent’s particularities. But certainly all in that same general area.
It might be worth noting that shortly ago President Obama and his administration received positive evaluations in this same area — an overall approval rating of over 90 percent, in fact — so generalized hostility toward the US would seem to figure little, if at all, into these current results.
Now, to be sure, as has been said many times, all foreign relations are, inherently, also domestic, and it is therefore hard to tell if the current strong lack of confidence in the US (let’s use that label to cover all predicates) on the part of people from Australia, Belgium, and Canada on one end of the alphabet to Spain, Sweden and the UK on the other, has come from top down or bottom up — or if that is a factor at all.
Taking a more detailed look at the Pew study . . . Of the several obvious conclusions that can be drawn from the data, it is clear that the lack of confidence in the Trump presidency/administration is the principal driving force that has produced the outcome on the international front. And that lack of confidence comes in good part because the administration is seen as incompetent. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the incompetence that the respondents refer to first and foremost would seem to be incompetence within the US. Principally, what they see as the administration’s bungled handling of the coronavirus. I.e, the response would seem to constitute reaction to implicit questions that run something like “what kind of a government treats its own people that way?” and perhaps “if they behave that incompetently at home, what may we expect of them?” (In relation to this factor we might 1) add “uncaring” to our list of “unpacked” predicates and 2) note again that other countries are quite aware of what happens here — i.e, in today’s world, domestic relations are also foreign relations.)
I should point out, to avoid confusion, that these Pew results were in before the news broke about the administration’s decision to scuttle, back in April, the Post Office/Department of Health and Human Services plan to distribute 650 million face masks in the country — a move that, according to expert projections, might have saved tens of thousands of lives had it been carried out at that time.
A second ingredient regarding what we might call the “international vote of incompetence” would seem to involve simple untrustworthiness on the world stage. It has to be telling that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, both receiving decidedly negative marks from the same respondents, nonetheless were still seen as significantly more reliable than President Trump.
Being an internationalist by both inclination and profession, I feel the need to make a preemptive argument here against objections I can hear coming (they always do come). It is this: information like that in the Pew study really must be taken as something more than the results of a meaningless “popularity contest.” Others can have views of us that we are literally not in a position to form for ourselves, and it is in our interest to pay attention to them — especially because we obviously live in the world’s fishbowl country.
(Just as an example, I recall vividly when, years ago, while my wife and I were living in a small village in another country, a friend ran up to me on the road one morning to say, excitedly: “The news just came in . . .” And she told me of a US Supreme Court decision about an issue of no small import that had been pending for a while. Now, she and most of the villagers, the majority of them semi-literate at best, couldn’t really distinguish this country from “England” [though it was primarily the word “English” that caused the problem]. But they had a pretty refined sense of what the US was, what it was about, and what was happening here at that time. To my surprise, our neighbor had apparently been following the ongoing court case, to the point of regularly listening for radio news bulletins. To my greater surprise, over the next few days chatter in the village often circled back to the court decision [to be sure, the case had some celebrity value, which added to its interest]. Long story short, our neighbors had been very aware of matters in play in this country and of US institutions. And they had takes about them that were extremely good — in fact eye-opening.)
Now there is another factor to be taken into account in thinking about an international dimension to legitimation crisis in the US . . . namely, the key role that in recent times this country has played in the world. You hear policy people talk about “the last 75 years,” or “the post-war order.” I know they/we sound like last century’s news, but there is a point there that is crucial for today, one that people under, say, fifty may — understandably — have difficulty giving enough weight to. It just isn’t part of their lived experience. Plainly put, even despite the horrendous conflicts in Vietnam, the Middle East and elsewhere, the period from the end of the Second World War to today has been marked world-wide by relative calm and prosperity. (Believe me, this is a sad thing to say, given the degree of violence we still collectively hear of and/or experience, as well as the very poor distribution of the fruits of the prosperity gained. But by most measures the statement is accurate.) Indeed, one would be hard pressed to point to any other such period in recent history — maybe even in world history tout court. And this country has been the prime architect and donor of the several post-war economic-recovery plans (famously, the Marshall Plan) that helped create this era. Our other role has been that of principal guarantor, morally and militarily, of the (again, relative) order that has provided the background for the era to develop.
Moreover, in roughly the last third of this post-war era, often called the post-Cold-War era (1991 to present), this country has enunciated the doctrine of “the indispensable nation,” primarily articulated by Madeleine Albright, though it was often relied on by President Obama as well. Albright’s principal version, from 1998, runs as follows: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.” Whether or not one agrees with that politico-military stance, or the language used to enunciate it, there is no real doubt that the US has played the central role in the whole 75-year history in question. Moreover, we have done so conspicuously by coalition rather than alone. And we have done so, admittedly, for our own benefit as we have understood it, as well as for the benefit of others.
(As an aside here: in rereading the above paragraph I note that one might think that I am a thorough advocate of all these measures and the language enunciating them. Actually, I am not, on several scores. I just recite here what are facts or what I see as obvious and generally-agreed-upon historical evaluations.)
The contrast with the Trumpian approach, dubbed “America First” — paradoxically, as it seems to be turning out — is obvious. Over against those 75 years of “globalism,” both social and economic, we get the confusing-because-confused articulation of some brand of cultural/political isolationism — sometimes, though, sounding less like isolationism than like unilateralism. And, on the economic front, what sounds like a simplified version of classical mercantilism, a modality long abandoned in modern economic thought.
(I know, I know, those last sentences had too many qualifiers and hedges in them. That comes, however, from the inconsistency, if not confusion, in the President’s various statements and actions in this area as well as similar statements and actions by the current Secretary of State. My take on the President in this regard, for what it’s worth, is that his prime directive for himself is to come out the “winner” in whatever interaction he is involved in at any given moment. And he has faith that “fast talk” and bluster will make that happen. If he contradicts himself over time, so be it; it’s a lesser problem, one to be dealt with if and when the contradiction is brought up.)
Now, obviously, such pronouncements as Trump’s and Pompeo’s, however understood, constitute an abrupt jump-shift in US international relations. To my knowledge, there has been no discussion of what such a change in policy — indeed, in overall US positioning in the world — might mean. And there has certainly been nothing to suggest any ongoing planning for the repercussions — social, economic, diplomatic, etc. — that such a change would necessarily bring with it. The knot in the skein would seem to be a vaguely-held “business model” in which 1) there is a balance-sheet “profit” of some sort to be realized, 2) that realization constitutes the immediate and overriding goal, and 3) that points 1) and 2) constitute all that needs be thought about.
Before getting too far into this area, though, a different angle on the question has to be explored. Plainly put: how seriously should one take all of this, whether one be a US citizen/resident constituent of the actions or a “foreign constituent” of them? (For, as we have just been seeing, there is a sense in which people elsewhere are, in a different but important way, US constituents too.) Now, what has been done so far amounts to abrupt unilateral withdrawal from some (important) treaties, alliances and agreements, a bunch of nasty public pronouncements/threats about others and a lot of blustering-about by both President and Secretary of State regarding relationships with yet-other countries, some of it obviously retaliatory. This sounds, in great part at least, like dominance behavior rather than organized policy-making (and that interpretation would go a long way toward explaining the absence of the planning and discussion that one might expect if principled policy-making were actually being engaged in). Dominance behavior is usually used not to withdraw from something but rather to get (greater) control over it — often while simultaneously refusing to take responsibility for doing so.
But . . . merely as an exercise in these pages, let’s take them up on what they say. Let’s proclaim the nth-degree case that the US declares itself essentially a “free agent” in the world under the banner of the aforementioned business model. And then let’s plunge ahead for a few paragraphs with a look at likely implications of such action.
First, it would clearly be concerning to our closest allies, with some of whom we have centuries-old treaty relationships. One example: the “Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Sweden,” which, on our side, was signed in Paris in 1783 by Benjamin Franklin, five months before the end of the Revolutionary War. It is hard to see the abrogation by the US of that relationship, or any other like it, as anything less than embarrassing for both parties. (Though we do have the precedent of NAFTA, which was noisily rejected by the Trump administration only to be replaced by, basically . . . NAFTA with another name, to much snickering from both north and south of our borders. So maybe we’re just not easily embarrassed.) But . . . then the question of whether we renegotiate all treaties and alliances — or do we reaffirm some and renegotiate or abandon others? Publicly? What do we stand to gain by that and what do we stand to lose? If we have gains in mind in given cases, wouldn’t it be more effective — and likely more advantageous to us — to initiate point-by-point renegotiations through normal diplomatic channels rather than make blanket proclamations? What about the losses?
Then there are the literally dozens of “what-abouts.” I’ll just make a short list of ones that come immediately to mind. What about foreign investment? Is a “loner” a better risk than a country with international connectedness? . . . (Certainly not.) What about US government borrowing? What kind of interest rates/credit rating will be applicable? (Remember, we’ve already lost our traditional AAA credit rating). It is hard to see isolation as a positive in rating agencies’ eyes, and as the rating goes down the interest rate goes up and puts upward pressure on annual budgetary deficits and the national debt. On the business front, what about international commercial alliances? How will American businesses fare without them, alliance-wise as well as interest-rate-wise — and without the “full faith and credit” of the US government behind them, legally or implicitly?
What about trade itself? It is fair to say that our economy has become less the traditional one that supplies domestic necessities than one of technological innovation and service on an international scale. Are we prepared structurally to go into a mode even an iota closer to self-sufficiency? . . . (Certainly not immediately.) Then what would the cost be to the American worker/consumer?
And the biggest what-about of all: what about national security, ours and that of our allies (or whatever they would then be called)? The amount of reworking, diplomatic and financial, that would be needed on that front boggles the mind — and that doesn’t include actual military redeployment (if that were even possible absent treaty relations).
As I think about this. . . it is clear that it can’t be what the administration means. It just presumes it can bully other countries about. But, surprisingly, other countries are . . . well, countries, and they provide a share in treaty relationships, notably including sites for military installations.
Now, after the what-abouts, let’s rotate matters one more turn: what do the American people think about the alternatives? By chance, week-before-last a lengthy (47 pp.) new survey came out from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asking Americans questions on exactly that issue. The newsfolk have mainly used the report, in concert with the Pew results, to background their reportage about the upcoming election. I instead would like to look at the twin perspectives in the long view. (Also, I may well want to dive more deeply into the detail of the Chicago Council survey after I finish this piece.)
The question areas most indicated for the long view describe a consistent picture. By a ratio that varies little from two-to-one, respondents in this country reject the administration’s isolationist outlook (or whatever you might call it) and protectionist economic policies. Just a couple of salient points: 68 percent say it would be better “for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs.” 65 percent say that globalization is “mostly good” for us. And on the coronavirus question — a flashpoint, remember, for foreign views of the US — 62 percent say that the primary lesson of the covid-19 experience is that we need to “coordinate and collaborate with other countries to solve global issues.”
From these several areas of consideration, then, there emerges a picture that should give pause. Summarizing . . . 1) As regards international relations, our allies register a lack of confidence in us; in their eyes we have become unreliable: it is simply unclear what our position is on many scores, except that it is sometimes an aggressive and overly self-involved position; 2) the US state, by my reckoning of some weeks ago, has entered a moment of incipient legitimation crisis in the senses a) that the administration persistently violates, ignores, etc. US norms and laws, b) it has increasingly been rebuked, overturned or challenged in the courts or by state governments for unconstitutional or illegal practices, c) much of this conflict is as of yet unresolved, indeed is currently pending within the US court system, and d) in the interim it remains an area of ongoing, sometimes violent, division in society; 3) the policies advocated and/or put into practice, by the administration have frequently become objects of ridicule, rejection, or worry, both nationally and internationally, and the President is an object of concern both here and abroad; 4) because of 1) through 3) above (and other matters), the administration has put itself — and us — in a perilous place in that it has relatively little constituency, at home or abroad, for its goals, including goals in the area of international relations — all of which is a virtual definition of legitimation crisis with regard to the administration if not the state; 5) we have put our (incipient?) crisis-state on display world-wide, and people elsewhere know all the above and are watching, among them those who do not wish us well; some of the latter, we know from current intelligence reports, are doing more than just “watching.”
There is no simple conclusion to be reached after this ground-clearing, save that there is a clear international factor in our legitimation crisis. It works in both directions: state of crisis regarding our handling of international relations, on the one hand, and, on the other, state of crisis regard to us in the international sphere — though the latter situation is necessarily far different because the constituency relationship is, clearly, different.
This is decidedly not a position that leadership should be putting the country in, not to mention putting itself in . . .
Like it or not, it would seem that foreign relations are also domestic (and vice-versa).