Upholding a Tenuous Pax Americana
To some, President Trump is a dangerous buffoon; to others, a shrewd and continually underestimated strategist. He flies to Helsinki and showers Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian ruler whom U.S. intelligence believe attempted to influence the 2016 American presidential election, with honeyed words. Meanwhile he brands the European Union—one of the United States’ most stalwart allies, both ideologically and in reality—a “foe”. This is not new: the President has repeatedly been criticized for the harsh words he uses on America’s friends, and for the notably softer tone he often employs when treating with authoritarian regimes like the Russian Federation or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In light of recent events, an analysis of recent and historic U.S. foreign policy might shed some light on the confusing actions of America’s present administration, and will more broadly answer an even bigger question: what foreign policy should the U.S. follow?
Despite the seeming irrationality of Trump’s public statements and actions, they are actually typical of a time-tested strategy of various presidential administrations reaching all the way back to the nation’s founding. Trump is practicing realpolitik: a brand of “politics based on practical objectives rather than on ideals... a disregard for ethical considerations” and a “relentless, though realistic, pursuit of the national interest”. (Britannica) Most commonly associated with Otto von Bismarck, the founder of modern Germany, realpolitik has been practiced by world leaders since time immemorial. Prime Minister Palmerston famously told the House of Commons in 1840 that Britain had “no eternal allies, and... no perpetual enemies”, only perpetual and eternal interests. Decades earlier, George Washington warned his countrymen to avoid “foreign entanglements”, by which he meant permanent alliances with European powers which might lead to the United States’ involvement in the Continent’s myriad conflicts. More recent advocates of realpolitik in American foreign policy, many of whom have given the practice an undeservedly tarnished image, include President Nixon, who normalized relations with Communist China in order to weaken the Soviet Union, and who illegally bombed Cambodia resulting in half a million killed civilians and the destabilization of the entire region. The opening of China was, I would argue, a diplomatic stroke of genius; the carpet bombing of Cambodia and the arming of the Mujaheddin, less so. Realpolitik can be incredibly useful, but recent practitioners of the craft have a disturbing record of tragic blunders.
So realpolitik is useful and at times necessary, but it alone cannot guide a nation’s outlook towards the world. The U.S. has always been a proudly idealistic nation, preaching its values—freedom, liberty, and democracy—wherever it could. A great deal of good in the world has come of American idealism. The concept of the modern “nation-state” and the downfall of the old, bloated, multinational empires was brought about because of President Wilson’s strident advocacy during peace negotiations after the First World War. After the next great conflict, it was the U.S. that rebuilt Germany and Japan—her erstwhile enemies—from the ground up, installing liberal-democratic governments and resulting in those two nations becoming the world’s most economically prosperous, behind only America herself. The fact that most of Western Europe is today so rich and free is due in part to the billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of soldiers sent to the Continent after the Second World War. And it was the United States which, by and large, advocated for decolonization and the adoption of capitalism and democracy across the world—a development which has lifted the poorest humans on the planet rapidly and inexorably out of poverty.
Naturally, however, idealism has just as often produced tragedy as fortune when actually put into practice. In the past, as many American schoolchildren are today taught, we made a mockery of our own words: slavery, the mass ethnic cleansing of North America’s native tribes and nations, and a history of imperialism in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia have given reason for many people to scoff at America’s idealism, and her arrogance. America took apart the British Empire, only to replace overt imperialism with a more informal economic imperialism. Britain’s military outposts across the globe were not abandoned: the Union Jack was simply taken down, and the Star-Spangled Banner hoisted up in its place. To many people, America’s so-called freedom, liberty, and democracy means little more than cheap commercialism and military invasion, a McDonald’s on every street corner and soldiers guarding the oil wells. Few Americans now remember fondly President Bush’s famous declaration that he was following the orders of God Himself when he invaded Iraq. This was idealism at its worst.
American leaders—be they Trump or his successors—should therefore walk a cautious middle path between brutal, relentless realpolitik and starry-eyed, well-meaning-but-often-clueless idealism. President Obama should not have drawn a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons by Assad; he never planned on backing his words up with actions, and it made the U.S. look like a weak and ineffectual tyrant. And, to return once again to the present, Trump should not now be casting doubt upon the stability of the EU and NATO, two institutions which have been immeasurably beneficial to the stability and prosperity of the Western world. Neither should he have abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership nor the North American Free Trade Agreement: free trade is almost always a mutually profitable enterprise, and especially so for the more economically powerful entity, which for the past seven decades has always been the United States. He should continue the improvement of Russo-American relations, and his efforts to block China from becoming the world leader in technologically-complex industries are both prudent and farsighted (whether or not he knows it).
In short, the best American foreign policy is one that recognizes two key realities. The first is that the U.S. reached the height of its power in 1945, and that every year since then her power is declining inevitably. The second is that liberal, internationalist values make the world a freer, more prosperous place, and are worth defending. The United States should use the methods of realpolitik in support of expanding and strengthening liberal-democratic capitalism across the globe, and we should adjust gracefully and tactfully to a world in which we are not the sole superpower. We need to know what we’re fighting for, and how to pick our battles.
At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a second year student at the University of St Andrews studying History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and U.S. foreign policy.