The tick-tock of the recent Republican rebellion against President Trump was telling. It was just over one week ago that Trump’s late-night announcement that he was pulling U.S. special forces out of their deployment along the Syrian border caused an uproar across Capitol Hill. Congressional Republicans found themselves in unfamiliar territory, as they actually stood up for those kinds of things that Republicans once stood for.
It was a Brigadoon moment, as those members appeared to have woken from a long slumber and imagined that they were part of the Republican Party of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — the Republican Party for which to cut and run was a cardinal sin — or perhaps the Republican Party of George H.W. Bush, for whom sticking by one’s allies and commitments was the essence of honor. The moment culminated early last Wednesday, with the House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly to condemn the President’s Syria withdrawal, with House Republicans voting 2 to 1 against their leader.
It did not take long for Republicans to come around, however. The afternoon of the House vote, an Economist/YouGov poll was released that suggested that 57% of Republicans approve of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the Syrian border. The poll should have surprised no one, as Republicans across the country have unswervingly supported the President for three years now, regardless of how far he might have strayed from GOP orthodoxy.
By the next morning, Republicans in the Senate wasted no time in falling back into line and throwing their errant colleagues in the House under the bus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fled for cover and declined to allow the House resolution to come to the floor for a vote in the Senate, explaining his tactical retreat by pronouncing that the House measure was too weak.
It may be unnerving to watch Donald Trump single-handedly dismantle the role and credibility of American leadership in the world, but in his populist isolationism he is not treading new ground. Against the long span of history, the modern era of American leadership in the world is a relatively recent phenomenon, In contrast, the skepticism of political and military engagement with the rest of the world that Trump has voiced since he began his campaign for the presidency is deeply rooted in the nation’s DNA, dating back to George Washington’s farewell address to the nation, when he warned that “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”
Standing apart from the turmoil of the broader world has remained part of our political culture. Separated by the Atlantic Ocean from the turmoil engulfing the European continent, isolationist sentiments kept us out of World War I until the last year of that conflict, and but for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR might have failed in his efforts to bring the United States into the World War II alliance against Hitler’s Germany.
The era of American global leadership that began with the end of World War II embodied the liberal democratic belief that the rule of law should replace might-makes-right in world affairs. Dubbed the American Century by Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, it was characterized by the development of the rule-based architecture of international organizations and treaties, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Law of the Sea Convention and myriad others.
While World War II established the United States as the dominant power across the world, it did not erase skepticism of global engagement at home. Conservatives have attacked the United Nations for decades, along with the panoply of multi-lateral treaties that in their view impinge on the sovereignty of the United States.
Writing in The American Conservative in 2017, long time defense policy analyst Charles Peña offered a conservative vision of America’s role in the world that is consistent with Trump’s actions. “Rather than being the world’s policeman and primary balancer of power,” Peña wrote, “in a multi-polar world the United States can and should allow countries in each region to establish their own balance-of-power arrangements. The U.S. would still be committed to security in those regions, but as a balancer of last resort — intervening if, and only if, the nations in the region cannot contain the situation.”
As the world appears to be unraveling around us, and as Peña’s vision appears to be coming into view, the Monroe Doctrine looms in the background. Two centuries ago, President James Monroe warned the European powers of the day to stay out of our neighborhood — by which he meant North and South America. The United States, our fifth President declared, would view “any attempt to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
The White House has not released a transcript of Donald Trump’s recent phone conversation between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, which led to the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. special forces from along the Turkish-Syrian border, but one can imagine that Erdoğan’s words mirrored those of James Monroe. ‘This is our neighborhood,’ the Turkish strongman appears to have argued, ‘and we have the right to determine what goes on here.’ President Trump, who has been looking for an excuse to bring troops home, acceded to Erdoğan’s demand. Within a matter of days, Turkey seized Syrian territory to create the security buffer that it had long sought, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds who lived there.
While not referencing the Monroe Doctrine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly and publicly asserted that Russia has a similar right to control its near abroad — Putin’s term for Russia’s neighborhood. For Russia, the states that were once part of the Soviet Union — and before that the Russian Empire — have historically provided a defensive perimeter protecting Russia against invasion from the west. Despite being a charter member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the Security Council, Putin has declared that U.N. rules prohibiting acts of aggression between member states do not apply to Russia’s annexation and occupation of Ukrainian territory, and accordingly that U.N. sanctions in response to those actions should be lifted.
In a similar vein, despite being a signatory to the Law of the Sea Treaty, China claims — based on something it calls the “Nine-Dash Line” on historical maps — to have sovereign rights over most of the South China Sea, a strategically located waterway through which one-third of all global shipping passes. Despite a ruling from the international court empowered to hear disputes under the Treaty that the area of the South China Sea in question belongs to the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, China has continued its military buildup and insists that the international court has no authority over its sovereign rights.
Turkey, Russia and China are each civilizations that are far older than the United States, and each of their leaders look longingly back to a past where their countries were empires that dominated their neighborhoods, unencumbered by international rules. Some no doubt might argue that if the Monroe Doctrine was fine for us, it should be fine for them, but to argue that would be to deny the rights of Kurds who were displaced this week, the rights of Ukrainians and Syrians who have seen their land seized by more powerful neighbors, and the fears of countries in Southeast Asia who understand the power that China could wield unilaterally over them. For Turkey, Russia and China, among others, the weakening of the rule-based system of international relations and the restoration of a world of multi-polar, regional powers — as Peña describes and Donald Trump’s actions promote — offers the prospect of regional hegemony and empires reborn.
We may well find ourselves at a pivotal historical moment, confronting as a nation whether we are prepared to let go of the vision of a liberal, rule-based world order that we have done so much to create. The flip side of the Economist/YouGov poll last week was the 76% opposition to Trump’s Syria pull-back among Democrats. It runs against type for an overwhelming majority of Democrats to endorse a military engagement, just as it does for a majority of Republicans to endorse Trump’s decision to cut-and-run. The poll did not explore which portion of the response among Democrats reflected a belief in the importance of America’s military presence as a force for good in the world, and remaining true to our commitments to our allies, and what portion simply reflected a knee-jerk anti-Trump response.
It is useful, in any event, to reflect on data published by Gallup on how the American public views our engagement in the world. As shown in the graphic here, Gallup suggests that the electorate can be apportioned into five camps, which it describes as Hawks, Status Quo Moderates, Liberals, Populists and Doves. Of those, Populists — who according to the Gallup model prefer a reduced U.S. role in world affairs along with increased military spending — reflect the stance to which Donald Trump has most nakedly sought to appeal. Taken together, Populist and Hawks, the other traditional part of the GOP coalition, make up about 30% of the electorate, but they hold opposite views on America’s role in the world.
Trump’s alienation of Hawks this week may constitute the most significant political risk he has taken over the course of his presidency. To date, Hawks have been placated by Trump’s commitment to significant increases in the defense budget. Defense spending alone, however, is a far cry from a proxy for a commitment to recognizing real threats that exist in the world — threats that have become more pronounced as the world has continued to grow smaller — and the importance of America not continuing down the path that the President seems determined to lead the nation. Overall, the Gallup data provides a ray of hope, as it suggests that an overwhelming majority of Americans continue to value the liberal democratic order that our nation has done so much to help build.
The former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Admiral William McRaven, summed up this view in a scathing rebuke of President Trump published in the New York Times this week: “If we don’t care about our values, if we don’t care about duty and honor, if we don’t help the weak and stand up against oppression and injustice — what will happen to the Kurds, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Syrians, the Rohingyas, the South Sudanese and the millions of people under the boot of tyranny or left abandoned by their failing states?… If we are not the champions of the good and the right, then who will follow us? And if no one follows us — where will the world end up?”
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.