Trump 'has shoved the truth of imperial overstretch in our faces'
The author is a longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is also an essayist, critic and editor.
His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013)
The Russians have long understood that words are actions. A linguist and literary critic prominent in the last century added to the thought by insisting that context is more important than text. The meaning of what one says, in other words, is relational: It can be understood only by way of when, how, to whom and even where one says it.
There is no escaping the thought of words as actions as it applies to foreign policy. Washington has its “moderate opposition” in Syria, and the designation is an essential tool of U.S. strategy, even as these moderates include a consequential, maybe decisive, number of radical Islamist factions. It is almost frightening to carry this thought anywhere near Russia and the Ukraine crisis, where all that Russian “aggression” right out of the clear blue, no reason at all for it, now has Defense Secretary Carter sending NATO weaponry and rotating troops a matter of miles from the Russian border.
Words as actions fly thick as mosquitoes in spring these days. Some of those I have in mind came from President Obama during his remarkable but problematic trip to Havana last week. Others came from Castro — Fidel, I mean — in reply to Obama’s.
Then there are Donald Trump’s words in those lengthy interviews on foreign policy he just gave the New York Times and the Washington Post. The transcripts are here and here. The Don — better than “the Donald,” somehow — seems to have wowed the policy cliques and the media clerks: They have since had many words of their own.
We have heard the words these past 10 days but now must look at them as actions, I urge. We need to see what is being done by way of what these people are saying, where, to whom and so on. Syria, Ukraine, all the Putin-bashing: It is easy to see the intended point (even if a surprising number of us are taken in). The media’s purposeful perversion of the truth is perfectly plain. But these other cases also deserve our attention; the points being made are subtler but not less important.
We live in a modern-day imperial power in the last throes of its aggressions. This is my read of our moment in a single sentence. The expansion phase is over, as the Russians, Chinese and others are in the process of telling us. The aggressions are not, surely, but it grows more difficult to aggress, and when we do it is defensive in character now, if this is not too much a paradox. It is all about denying where we are in history, and this is mostly what we hear and see when we consider our words as actions.
Since Donald Trump gave those two foreign policy interviews to the Times and the Washington Post, it has rained hard rain on him ever since. “Shocking ignorance.” “Dangerous folly.” “Ranting and schmoozing his way to the White House.” These, in all their complexity and analytic nuance, are typical of the commentary this week. Truly, this guy belched in chapel.
This column is by no means an endorsement of the Trump candidacy, and if I could put that point in blinking neon, I would. But some interesting things are said in the interviews and what are, effectively, replies in the media. Again, what are the words and what is being done by way of them?
Trump and those interviewing him ranged widely. They touched on how to treat the Saudis, Ukraine, competition with Beijing in the South China Sea, burden sharing, renegotiating faulty trade agreements, the accord governing Iran’s nuclear activities: The list is long. Trump’s positions on most of these questions riled one or another or all commentators.
The Times report had a usefully succinct thumbnail summation of the Trump line on foreign policy. “In Mr. Trump’s view, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining,” the two Times reporters who spoke with him wrote. “He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of negotiation…”
Interesting. I will come back to this shortly.
Two questions seem to have stirred the nests more than any others. The most important of these concerns NATO. The Don being the Don, he put it this way to the Times reporters: “No. 1, it’s obsolete … and No. 1, we pay far too much.” Here is how Trump defended his position to Jonathan Karl on ABC’s “This Week,” the Sunday news program, a few hours after the Times interview was published:
NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today…. We have other threats. We have the threat of terrorism, and NATO doesn’t discuss terrorism, NATO’s not meant for terrorism. NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism. And we pay… a totally disproportionate share of NATO. We’re spending the biggest, the lion share’s paid for by us, disproportionate to other countries….
So I look at that. I look at the fact that it was a long time ago. You know, there’s nothing wrong with saying that a concept was good but now it’s obsolete or now it’s outmoded. Now, it can be trimmed up and it can be—it can be reconfigured and you can call it NATO, but it’s got to be changed.
The second question had to do with relations across the Pacific. Trump asserted that he would renegotiate the American security treaty with Japan, which dates to 1952. And he would withdraw American troops from Japan and South Korea unless these two nations contribute more to their cost, while possibly allowing both to weaponize their longstanding civilian nuclear power programs.
“I mean, that’s not a fair deal,” Trump said of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, a pact with a long and contentious history behind it. Asked if he was serious about removing U.S. troops from Washington’s longstanding Asian allies, Trump replied,
The answer is not happily but the answer is yes. We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this. We just can’t do it anymore. Now there was a time when we could have done it. When we started doing it. But we can’t do it anymore. And I have a feeling that they’d up the ante very much. I think they would, and if they wouldn’t I would really have to say yes….
We had a warning several weeks ago that the national security and foreign policy cliques were inflamed by the Don’s positions. “Trump’s vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle,” 120 “experts”— quotation marks required in a lot of cases — wrote in a much-noted open letter. Read it here.
Context and text: I read this week’s uproar over Trump’s two interviews with this as background. It is about one thing, and we can treat both of the above policy questions together because they are about the same thing, too.
Trump has many, many indefensible, impractical positions, but this is not my point right now. Trump’s problem is the action in his words: He has put the projection of American power, with the military as the primary instrument of policy, on the table. He has shoved the truth of imperial overstretch in our faces. What you hear back is an effort in unison to stuff a cork in this bottle before any more wine spills. “Not a topic” is the common theme.
“Now we know that Donald Trump would rip up the post-1945 world order,” Roger Cohen wrote on the Times opinion page at midweek. This is the problem, you see. I cannot think of a better idea, to be honest, although it is not at all clear this is Trump’s intention. Observe the resistance of power to any hint of change: This is my point. And note as you do that it does not matter what any American figure thinks, says, does or insists upon: History is shredding the postwar order as we speak and at considerable speed.
NATO as obsolete? It is the mildest way to describe this trouble-making anachronism ever in search of whatever raison d’être it can conjure. Many people take this as prima facie obvious. We cannot afford the empire? Consider your town’s budget, your state’s budget, the local school or the condition of the nearest expressway and decide for yourself. The security pact with Japan is emphatically unfair, but for reasons other than Trump thinks: It is a victor’s intrusion 70 years after the fact.
We should all be thinking about a new world order and about how we might contribute constructively to it, but — words are actions — this conversation is banned.
I was musing the other day about how Trump stacks up next to Hillary Clinton on the foreign side. By way of a mirror image, some interesting contrasts became clear.
Trump is not an exceptionalist: We have fallen far, and no providential hand will “make us great again.” That is up to us alone. He is not an ideologue: This dimension of the American policy discourse does not appear to interest him. He is into making deals: Talking comes first. And he speaks plainly to us and all others, never in code: He knows no other way.
Think about these four things, separating out what you think of Trump as a political figure. The consciousness of exceptionalism, American ideology, the primacy of the military in American foreign policy, the incessant deceptions of the policy cliques (of which Clinton is a prominent member): These are all essential to maintaining “the postwar order,” such as it is.
Trump is not my guy by a long way, but it is interesting to listen to what he says, and then to watch what happens because of what he says.