Streetwise Professor

July 10, 2018

To Those Hysterical Over Trump’s Jacksonian Resurgence: Internationalist, Heal Thyself

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:42 pm

As Trump wings his way east, first to a Nato summit, and then to a meeting with Putin in Helsinki, the commentariat and political class in the United States and Europe are on the brink of–another?–psychotic event.  The meeting with Putin in particular has triggered panic.

One recurrent theme is that Putin and Trump have similar views on the “rules based, institutions based, international order.”  Therefore, they are effectively allies and jointly a threat to the peace and stability of the world.  The title of one piece in Bloomberg summarizes the angst: Putin is Trump’s brother from another Motherland.

As a factual matter, it is true that both Putin and Trump challenge the existing post-Cold War consensus.  But since they reach that destination by very, very different routes, the similarities are far more superficial than the differences.  Furthermore, the consequences of this apparent convergence are likely to be far less dire for the United States than the angst-ridden claim.

It is only natural that Putin challenges the existing order.  After all, he presides over the main successor state to the Soviet Union, and much of the existing order was designed explicitly to contain and neuter the USSR.  Furthermore, the collapse of the USSR left Russia marginalized,  at best, which does not comport with Russia’s deeply held views that it is a great power–a view that Putin holds, clearly.  Russia also has a truly Westphalian mindset, which holds that the internal affairs of any nation are its business alone, and not subject to the meddling of others–or the “international community” at large.  Indeed, the one multilateral organization that Russia supports–the United Nations–receives its approbation precisely due to the fact that it can be used to derail international efforts to interfere in the internal affairs of states–including pariah states.  Putin’s revisionism is therefore readily understood.

Trump’s is more complicated, and reflects a longstanding divide in the United States.  Much of the criticism of Trump from the American establishment–including the part of the establishment that considers itself conservative, and indeed the sole legitimate voice of conservativism–is therefore a manifestation of longstanding divisions in American politics, which (a) caused his election, and (b) is why it is becoming less hyperbolic to talk of a new American civil war.

The best template to explain and understand this is Walter Russell Mead’s division of American foreign policy thought into Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools.  The establishment is decidedly Hamiltonian and Wilsonian.  As Mead–and I–noted from the onset of Trump’s emergence–he is the avatar of the long marginalized, and indeed scorned, Jacksonian America.  The establishment thought that this component of the American polity had long since been condemned to obscurity, and views its resurgence with the fright of a horror movie character seeing The Mummy or Jason Voorhees come back from the dead.

Jacksonians challenge virtually every aspect of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian consensus.  The foreign policy establishment–whether Neocon or liberal internationalist–believes that America has some grand mission abroad, to bring democracy, peace, equality, freedom, or economic progress, or some combination thereof, to the rest of the world.  Jacksonians (and Jeffersonians) do not believe in such missionary work, and indeed are quite skeptical of it.  In the words of John Quincy Adams (ironically Jackson’s political foe and bête noire) “she [the US] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Jacksonians are deeply patriotic, and believe that theirs is the greatest nation in the world, but that it should lead by example and not attempt to impose by force or more subtle forms of coercion or blandishments its views, beliefs, or mores on others.

This leads them to be deeply skeptical of international engagements, let alone conflicts, when US interests are not directly threatened.  And unlike internationalists, they define American interests narrowly.

On this score, recent history is strongly supportive of Jacksonian skepticism.  As in so many aspects of life, the past quarter century–or perhaps to date it more precisely, since the fall of the USSR in 1991–has demonstrated the incompetence of the architects of internationalist policies, the infeasibility of these policies, or both.  This period has been marked by a litany of bloody, expensive failures, of which Iraq and Libya are the most conspicuous (but not only) examples.  Interestingly, these failures were the responsibility of different parties, different administrations, and different mindsets (Neocons on the one hand, “responsibility to protect” on the other), and differing degrees of international buy-in, but these different parts of the establishment shared a belief that the exercise of American power could make the world a better place by destroying monsters abroad.  The experiences strongly suggest that these beliefs were utterly mistaken.

(A confession: I supported the war in Iraq.  In retrospect, it was the worst misjudgment of my life. One of the main challenges of writing this post is to not overlearn from that mistake.)

Putin was adamantly opposed to US/European action in Libya, but he was prime minister at the time and Medvedev acquiesced to American and European pressure.  Give the devil his due: regardless of his motivations, Putin’s (and Lavrov’s) diagnosis of the consequences of that intervention were far more accurate than, say, Hillary’s, or pretty much any member of the US or European foreign policy “elite.”

Given this woeful record, what person in his right mind would NOT be skeptical of a deeper intervention in Syria, say, with the objective of regime change?  Syria makes Game of Thrones look simple by comparison.  Yet few things attract the foreign policy establishment’s ire like Trump’s oft-expressed desire to withdraw from Syria, or at least sharply limit American involvement there to destroying ISIS.

And given this woeful record, deep skepticism about the competence of the establishment, and the desirability of messianic interventions even if guided by a competent establishment, is well-justified.

Which leads me to reiterate a theme that I have written about for going on three years now: if the established elite hates Trump, and the Jacksonian resurgence that he personifies, they have no one–no one–to blame but themselves.  No one has brought more discredit to the beliefs of the establishment than that self-same establishment.  Internationalist, heal thyself.

Jacksonians also prize sovereignty and independence, and bridle at attempts to subordinate the US to international bodies, or tie it down in alliances with nations whose interests are less than fully aligned with America’s–especially when the US pays a disproportionate share of the expense.  And especially when the alleged allies repay the effort and expense with endless ankle biting and carping criticism.

Here is where Trump’s criticism of Nato resonates.  That Nato nations free ride on US defense expenditure is beyond dispute.  Trump calls the Europeans out on this, and they squeal like stuck hogs–and the US foreign policy establishment squeals right along with them.

More implicit in Trump’s criticism is a question about the purpose of Nato in 2018.  It had a purpose in 1949.  It had a purpose in 1990.  What is its purpose now?  Trump is effectively daring it to find one.

The UN and many other international bodies are often opposed to the US, and even the alliances (especially with Europe) seem to consist of Lilliputians intent on tying down the American Gulliver.  This also rankles independent and sovereignty-minded Jacksonians.  Global progressives think that the US is a malign force that needs to be suppressed and controlled by international bodies.  That also grates intensely on patriotic Jacksonians.

Jacksonians—and many Hamiltonians—are also justifiably critical of an omnipresent nanny state that regulates every aspect of human existence.  This is why his criticism of the EU is justified, and why many Americans nod in agreement.  And why many Europeans also agree, even though intense social pressure forces them to mute their criticism.  Jacksonians also value democracy, and hence are not enamored with the profoundly anti-democratic EU (whose motto appears to be: “you will vote until you get it right”).  So European outrage at criticism of the EU is music to my ears.

The Trump—Jacksonian—critique of the foreign policy establishment in the US and abroad therefore has much merit.  And again, the very reason that Trump is in a position to challenge the elite consensus is that the elite has failed time and again to deliver on its promises.  It is a legend in its own mind.  In reality, not so much.

The Hamiltonian side of me is most disturbed by Trump’s stance on trade.  But even here one can see his point.  It is farcical to characterize the current world system as one of free trade.  Real free trade would not involve byzantine agreements that only a mandarinate can interpret.  China is profoundly protectionist.

I think that Trump is a mercantilist, and that represents a deep intellectual error.  But many of his critiques of China in particular, and to a lesser degree the Europeans, have some basis in fact.  Whether trade wars are the best way to redress what Trump criticizes is anther matter.

Given all this, I discount the shrieks of the establishment—heavily.  One can object to some of Trump’s specific criticisms.  You can criticize his methods.  But if he is a barbarian at the gates, the city that fears he is about to sack it is vulnerable because of its own profound internal failings.

Which brings me back to Putin.  One of the standard attacks against Trump is that by sharing a distrust of the current international system with Putin, Trump is strengthening Putin and weakening the United States.

I am of course no Putin booster (as 12 years of posts amply demonstrate), and think it is desirable to contain Russian influence.  But to believe that Trump’s challenge to the prevailing consensus empowers Putin and disempowers the United States is to engage in the same kind of zero sum thinking that I have criticized Putin for in the past.

Indeed, Putin should be careful what he asks for.  A replacement of the multilateralist international system with a more independent, unilateralist—and Jacksonian–United States will not necessarily redound to Putin’s benefit, and may be his worst nightmare.  The increase in American defense spending, and the aggressive promotion of US energy, are antithetical to Putin’s interests.

At best, the reorientation of US policy may give Putin more freedom of action in places like Syria—to which I say, good luck with that, and welcome to it.  It may also empower Russia to some degree in the near abroad, but even there Russia’s fundamental—and increasing—weaknesses (economic, demographic) will limit the damage it can do.

But fundamentally the US shares few interests with Russia, and has many opposing interests.  America unbound, more unilaterally assertive where it views its true interests to lie, and not distracted or enervated by efforts in peripheral areas, is more threatening to Russian interests in the long run than a Clinton administration would have been.

Further, Trump’s more benign view of Russia may reflect an assessment that Russia is not truly a great power, given its economic, demographic, institutional, and social limitations.  In terms of capability, and arguably intentions, China represents a more pressing challenge to the US, and focusing on Russia represents a foolish diversion of resources and division of efforts.  That is, Trump may be less cultivating Putin than patronizing him.

In sum, the post-Cold War world order has been vastly oversold.  The encomiums heaped upon it reflect intentions—and self-congratulation–far more than results.  Putin challenges it for his reasons.  Trump challenges it for very different reasons.  Arguably both are acting in their national interests.  A meeting between these two challengers to the existing order could not have occurred unless that order had failed, fundamentally.  The hysteria surrounding it is a testament to the failure of the hysterics, not the success of what they are defending.



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  1. “A confession: I supported the war in Iraq.” Oh dear. I was agin it from the start – in spite of some of the deplorable political company I was keeping.

    In political matters the worst misjudgement of my life was to vote to stay in the Common Market (as it then was) in the 1970s UK referendum. That was a case of the wise men all being wrong and the bloody fools proving right. Ever since I realised my mistake I’ve been more willing to listen to what the bloody fools have to say.

    As a foreigner my biggest misjudgement about US politics was to dismiss the persistent claims by the US Left that the FBI was profoundly corrupt. Turns out they were right, dunnit? It would seem that the whole of the US Securitate is in the same boat.

    Comment by dearieme — July 12, 2018 @ 5:00 am

  2. “Russia also has a truly Westphalian mindset, which holds that the internal affairs of any nation are its business alone”

    “Putin was adamantly opposed to US/European action in Libya, but he was prime minister at the time and Medvedev acquiesced

    These two hilarious jokes contrast sharply with the generally serious tone of the article.

    Comment by Ivan — July 12, 2018 @ 11:00 am

  3. as always on spot and brilliant analysis

    Comment by erik — July 12, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

  4. Well considered commentary on one of the items uniting the Democrat and Republican establishments. Perhaps the Europeans would like to pay off some of their NATO debt by replacing US troops and support staff in Syria and Afghanistan?

    Comment by Pacy — July 18, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

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