US foreign policy, down here and over there
Veterans Day weekend — the centennial of the armistice that silenced the guns of World War I — was a US foreign policy eye opener both in the small world of Panama and the global center stage in France. Surely it was a series of gaffes, snubs and discontinuities that might reasonably be amplified by Donald Trump’s critics, but it would be better to take stock of what’s important, what’s traditional, what’s expendable and the global situation left behind by those who preceded the current US president, with an eye toward where to go after this annoyance passes.
In Panama, Canada was represented by its embassy’s political officer and France and the UK were absent from the Veterans Day observances at the American Cemetery. The Canadian ambassador, along with those of the French, the British and the Germans, held their own observances. Not much reported, but a telling political shift and a sad one for Americans.
More widely reported were Trump’s crude insults in and from France. The rebukes he received from the leaders of France and Canada represented a falling out with America’s oldest and closest allies.
Trump’s insult to the US military might have been the most consequential of that whole sordid weekend. He has picked a fight not only with the so-called “deep state” civil servants, but with the FBI, the intelligence agencies, the men and women of the US Armed Forces and now even California firefighters. Reflect upon the FBI coup aspect of the Watergate scandal to think about what all this means.
The distortions of American History being a central plank of the Republican platform, it’s useful to go back to the 18th and early 19th centuries to review the foreign policy reasoning of the US founders. Most famous is George Washington’s advice against entangling foreign alliances, but the reasons for US independence in the first place and then the agreements and disagreement in Washington’s cabinet are perhaps more instructive at the moment.
The men who declared independence from Britain had thought of themselves as Englishmen with all of the rights and duties that accrued from that status. Slogans like “No taxation without representation” were hallmarks of their indignation about what they saw as a rightful status denied. But taxation was a detail. British policy was that colonies were for the benefit of the British economy, and colonial economies were to be ruled from London to maximize that benefit. Thus the Navigation Acts that restricted American traders and granted privileges and monopolies in the American colonies to British enterprises. Not only American overseas trade, but expansion west of the Alleghenies, manufacturing and agriculture were affected. The Americans were expected to grow hemp — not to smoke dope but to make rope for British ships. Logging for British shipbuilding and the collection of pine sap and tar to caulk British ships were duties imposed on America from afar. Tobacco growing for acquired addictions in the Old World was encouraged — if the prices were low enough — but other sorts of agriculture were not particularly favored. American independence became a necessity for the American economy. The back-and-forth of measures, counter-measures, events, hues and cries is the stuff of American history taught to kids, but the bottom line was business.
That being the case, what did Americans want? What could Americans afford? There was general agreement that participation in Europe’s wars, and even greater consensus about taking sides in the conflicts of other continents, were bad ideas.
However, non-participation was not indifference. Another point of agreement was that for US trading interests, it was better if no single power dominated the world, particularly the seas and the Eurasian land mass. If Britannia ruled the waves to the point of monopoly, that would be bad for business. But then, so would French rule from the English Channel to the Russian settlements on the Pacific. Washington’s cabinet was divided about which of these things was the greater threat to America.
France was America’s great ally in the Revolutionary War, and Jefferson had served as US ambassador there. Washington had led British soldiers in the French and Indian Wars and around him there were those who looked upon the French Revolution with great horror.
All of that said, neither the Federalists nor the Anti-Federalists were partisans of formal commitments to either France or Britain. Disputes and alliances came later, in light of specific disputes or perceived shared interests.
The two calamitous world wars of the 20th century were by and large the result of France and Germany being unable to get along. Thus the European Union and its predecessor, the European Common Market, to replace violence with cooperation. At the end of World War II the British, French and Dutch empires collapsed and what remained were Stalin’s Soviet Union and the United States as superpowers. Thus the Cold War and its institutions like the CIA and NATO.
The CIA showed its weakness by failing to predict the Iranian Revolution, the anti-American consequences of the Sunni jihad it promoted against the Soviets in Afghanistan or, most egregiously, the collapse and disintegration of the USSR. After that collapse, Germany reunited and that shifted balances within Europe, NATO was an organization looking for new missions and China arose as a superpower or something like it.
Now China rapidly approaches economic hegemony over the Eurasian land mass and in many other parts of the world, and is beginning to assert itself as a regional and world naval power. How much of a technological and military march the Chinese have stolen on the Americans, it would be better for the United States and the rest of the planet not to find out. China is the principal US geopolitical rival these days. Going to war with the Chinese would be an immoral and self-destructive thing for America do to. Going into a trade war with China is going to be increasingly painful in the USA and will negatively affect world shipping and the Panamanian economy as well.
How to manage the rivalry with China? Create alternatives. Prop up other competitors. Most of all, fix the US economy.
Do we hear many of those Democrats who brought us the Hillary Clinton debacle talking about restoring what was? Do we hear neoconservative voices urging a Cold War II against Russia? Such ideas can’t be ignored, but they should be strongly resisted.
Vladimir Putin is a gangster, raised to power on the shoulders of gangsters. He’s a gangster within a tradition that includes Josef Stalin, whom Americans might recall from history as a vital US ally in World War II even as he was a major rival.
Trump is an old hand at deals with gangsters, including Russian gangsters who are also in Putin’s orbit. That’s the primordial problem with Trump. If rivalry with China suggests a geopolitical deal with Russia, America needs a leader who is not beholden to either of those powers. But Trump is personally indebted to shady Russian interests, owes his election in part to Russian interference in US politics and because of his peculiar underworld ties is subject to Putin’s blackmail. He can’t deal with the Russians at arm’s length, which is what America needs to do.
There can’t be any going back, even were it desirable. This is 2018, not 1958. New thinking, new arrangements, new institutions are called for. But first America has this internal business to take care of, as the rest of the world looks on with mixtures of horror, disgust and dismay.
So now it’s a crime to call out Panama’s president?
What will they do to Marcelino Ruíz Aquino? Poison him again? Or do they figure that a $300 fine is a heavy enough blow to silence any pensioner?
It’s hard to imagine that not enough patriotic and independent Panamanians will step forward to pay his fine. See #MarcelinoSomosTodos about that.
It’s also hard to imagine that the Panameñista Party will not lose a lot of votes next year precisely because of this obnoxious reaction to an old man who spoke truth to power.
Bear in mind…
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