The Vision Thing

In his Wall Street Journal column William Galston wonders if President Trump isn’t a lot better at tearing things down than building replacements up:

The late House Speaker Sam Rayburn, a connoisseur of the art of the possible, often said “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”

In foreign affairs thus far, President Trump’s deconstructive prowess has been much in evidence. Mr. Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear agreement while challenging the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He sidelined negotiations for a trade deal with the European Union, withdrew from the Paris climate accord, threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and began a trade war with China. His decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem ended, perhaps permanently, America’s longstanding role as broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Two astonishing summits—with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin —upended decades of American diplomacy.

For 70 years, America’s role in the world was clear: We would use treaties and multilateral institutions to defend our friends, deter our foes and promote peace, prosperity and democracy around the world. We believed that the strength of our allies strengthened us as well. We made many mistakes and a handful of grave errors, but at least we knew what we stood for, and so did everyone else. No longer.

If President Trump were to offer a calm and coherent defense of what he is doing, it might go something like this: “Yes, I’m breaking up the status quo. But I have no choice. The arrangements that strengthened our country after World War II no longer work. Complex treaties and institutions force us to pursue our interests with one hand tied behind our back. We must be free to use our military, economic and financial superiority to advance our purposes. If we encounter other countries directly, one on one, we are bound to prevail. If we allow our adversaries—and even our friends—to gang up on us, we will lose out.

“And besides,” Mr. Trump might add, “as time went on, we lost sight of what really matters. To maintain our position as leader of the free world, we sacrificed our core economic interests on the altar of diplomatic status. We encouraged our friends and allies to take us for granted and even to take advantage of us. As democracies in Europe and Asia prospered, they could have done far more to defend themselves. Instead, our security umbrella allowed them to be free riders. Our insistence on promoting democracy poisoned relations with autocratic leaders and blocked advantageous deals. In our economic treaties and military alliances, we were willing to accept economic disadvantages in the name of security gains. America’s elites did fine, but our working men and women lost out.

“Look at China. The so-called experts in both parties said that once China entered the World Trade Organization, its economy would become more like ours, as would its politics. Build China’s middle class today, they said, and free markets and representative institutions would follow tomorrow. What did we get? State-subsidized overproduction, increasing autocracy—and millions of stolen U.S. manufacturing jobs. Why should we listen to the carping from the people who got us into this mess?”

In effect, President Trump has issued a huge promissory note to the American people: After I bust up existing arrangements, I’ll replace them with something better.

Mr. Galston may be on to something. Trump’s foreign policy may be an “Underpants Gnome” scheme, from a famous episode of South Park. The gnomes have a plan for getting rich. It goes like this:

Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

If President Trump has a vision for Phase 2, he has not elaborated on it. In fairness the world order that Mr. Galston is implicitly defending was such a scheme, too. It assumed a more robust American economy than presently exists. It assumed a more benign ruling elite than we actually have. It assumed less selfish and more prudent allies.

What we have gotten for our trillions in spending and hundreds of thousands of American lives is a Germany that sold the makings of a nuclear weapons program to Iran and factories to China, a hollowed out economy, a China that threatens its neighbors, a plutocracy, and 73 years of nearly continuous war. Only the nature of the enemy has changed. It’s fine for the plutocracy, of course.

9 comments… add one
  • Guarneri Link

    Please don’t tell Mr Galston that holding occurs on every football play, that the refs don’t always call it, and the players take advantage of that. It might ruin his day.

  • TastyBits Link

    The globalist plan:

    Phase 1: Create as many agreements as possible
    Phase 2: ?
    Phase 3: Peace & Prosperity

    The biggest difference between President Trump’s plan and Mr. Galston’s plan is that the globalist plan has been a complete failure.

    Being a globalist means never having to admit how wrong you have been.

  • I think this is one of the examples that highlight to me how different my view of law is from that of many progressives, whether of the domestic or transnational sort. I think that we should have no more laws than we genuinely need and do our best to enforce them and follow them. The alternative view is that laws (or international agreements) are primarily aspirational in nature. They express your hopes and dreams. You can never have too many of them.

  • TastyBits Link

    @Dave Schuler
    … how different my view of law is from that of many progressives

    My impression is that you are an FDR/McGovern ‘liberal’ with some classic conservative (pre-20th century) concepts thrown in.

    I think you have more in common with a dead possum than with progressives.

  • Steve Link

    The actual Trump version of the underpants scheme is…..1) Collect underpants. 2) Announce best profits ever. 3) Profits?

    This plan works great for him. He is the best manipulater of media in the modern era I have ever seen. His fans, like Drew, really believe him when he makes his tweets. Korea gave up their nukes. Health care is solved. Our debt is gone and we have record growth.


  • Guarneri Link

    I don’t tweet, read his tweets, or care about his tweets, steve. But you keep grinding on it……..and here’s some Maalox.

  • walt moffett Link

    Let not forget all those agreements beget a host of government sponsored NGOs, agencies etc which employ the children of the elite and give them a place far away to stash the troublesome.

    As to what Trump’s plan is, after reducing diplomacy to zero sum games in the US favor, who knows, his partisans don’t care whilst his enemies would rather harumph about bulls in china shops, etc.

  • steve Link

    Drew- You think I want to miss a chance to remind you that you are Trump supporter? No way!


  • Gray Shambler Link

    Steve: Even with all his warts, Trump is the only Pol standing up for America. I.E: US. Name your champion and we’ll discuss the pros and cons.
    Still waiting…..

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