The Alcove

Our Foreign Policy Provincialism

At a time when political institutions are under strain across the globe, American public debate shifts toward navel-gazing.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Foreign Policy

It’s hard to disagree with Arthur Goldhammer’s gloomy overview of the current geopolitical moment in The American Prospect:

The United States is still the dominant power but now in a multipolar system in which the ineffectiveness of the substantial American advantage in military assets and spending has been repeatedly demonstrated. Europe, whose alignment with the U.S. President Bush all but took for granted, is hamstrung by internal difficulties and facing possible disintegration in the wake of Brexit. Less powerful but still nimble players such as Russia and Turkey are testing the limits of American forbearance, while China is increasingly uninhibited about asserting a leadership role in the Far East. The pious wish of a New World Order has proved to be a mirage, and the American overconfidence that it inspired has turned into its opposite. Distracted by terrorism, we have lost sight of broader strategic challenges. Our current uncertainty about the true nature of the new global order has encouraged Russian adventurism and led to neglect of less developed countries and to a largely ad hoc policy in response to Chinese assertiveness. The world has consequently become a more dangerous place.

It is striking, amidst global instability and a series of crises within major liberal democracies, that these shifts have generated so little public attention or debate about American foreign policy. The distinct provincialism of the ongoing campaign could partly be chalked up to the ongoing spectacle of Trumpism, which has a way of directing attention away from competing concerns. But this explanation seems inadequate for at least two reasons: first, it’s not as though the Clinton-Sanders primary offered much in terms of a substantive foreign policy debate, and second, Trump’s careening recklessness has (on a few occasions) challenged some of the basic premises of our foreign policy—like whether we should honor the NATO alliance.

Consider: the Obama administration’s imperiled Pacific trade agreement (whose merits Michael Froman and Jared Bernstein debated in these pages) is discussed chiefly in terms of its effects on one segment of the U.S. workforce; scarcely mentioned is the fact that its achievement was seen as a major strategic victory for the U.S. and its allies over China. The Syrian civil war, cause of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, is mostly ignored except insofar as the Islamic State is concerned—another example, as Goldhammer notes, of Americans being drawn from a conversation about strategic challenges to one about terrorism. The suffering of millions of Syrians and other Middle Eastern refugees is disturbingly distant from public attention; even the relatively bloodless political implications for European stability are hardly mentioned on this side of the Atlantic.

To make matters worse, candidates in both the primary and general campaigns have consistently cast global politics in needlessly narrow terms, when they took notice of them at all. On the eve of Britain’s EU vote, Donald Trump literally didn’t know what “Brexit” meant. By now, that astonishing fact has been forgotten amidst an avalanche of other belligerent and stupid remarks. For her part, Hillary Clinton’s reaction barely addressed the issue at all: In a statement, she declared that “Our first task has to be to make sure that the economic uncertainty created by these events does not hurt working families here in America.” To conclude that the U.S. should regard the possible disintegration of Europe as primarily an issue for American working families is both facially ridiculous and inexcusably parochial, especially coming from a former secretary of state. A core element of Clinton’s pitch is that she represents enlightened American global leadership in contrast to Trump’s ignorant isolationism, but reactions like that weaken the plausibility of the claim.

This holds true even if, compared to Trump, Clinton’s statement is the pinnacle of enlightened diplomacy—just as, compared to Republican fearmongering, the left’s foreign policy conversation is an illustrious salon. But this sets the standard altogether too low. There’s something less than reassuring about a foreign policy discourse where the mark of relative expertise is: “Hey, at least we know what Brexit means.”

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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