Never before in American history has the prospective foreign policy of a new Administration been cloaked in so much uncertainty. This is because four distinct sources of uncertainty have joined together to make a proverbial perfect storm: Donald Trump’s profound lack of government experience; his present-oriented, narcissistic personality; the likelihood that still-unidentified and untested cadres of appointees will have outsized influence in the foreign policy/national security field; and the fact that the Enlightenment predicates of both Western states and the Westphalian state system are eroding both from within and without.1
Amid this storm, there are nevertheless only three possible generic outcomes for strategy: (1) same world, meaning a basic continuation of the present liberal internationalist American grand strategy and role in the world; (2) lonely world, defined as a neo-isolationist, “fortress America” attended by military unilateralism when deemed necessary, and maximum feasible economic autarky; and (3) cold world, a selectively activist pre-liberal balance-of-power realpolitik strategy.
These three possibilities are conceptually distinct but not without some overlap. The current strategy is mainly defined by the globe-spanning U.S. hub-and-spoke alliance structure, but its underlying purpose is older and more basic than its means of implementation: preventing a hegemon from rising in either peninsular Europe or East Asia. The alliance structure is a means to that end, enabling the suppression of security competition in those and adjacent areas, a task often referred to more nobly as providing global common security goods. In addition, the strategy’s tone is that of liberal or institutional internationalism, formed from both ideological (democracy promotion) and economic (free trade) elements. The essence of the softer dimensions of U.S. strategy is the assumption—or insistence, depending on circumstances—that positive sum arrangements are not only desirable but possible over time.
Within this grand strategy, elements of retrenchment—or adjustment—that may resemble isolationism can occur without wrecking the strategy as a whole. (Indeed several such adjustments have already occurred under the Obama Administration.) Notably, non-trivial adjustments are at present most likely in the management of trade and economic issues.
Similarly, an isolationist dispensation, should it arise, may abide elements of balance-of-power realpolitik that operate as second-order strategic considerations.
Nevertheless, given the unmatched influence of the United States in shaping the international environment, any of these three possibilities (same world, lonely world, cold world), to the extent that it comes to clearly characterize U.S. policy, would generate a distinctive global security architecture. Every polity in the world would be affected. It is therefore a useful heuristic exercise to think through, at least briefly, what these three architectures might look like.
If the Trump Administration’s policies show basic continuity with the past half-century or so, it will mean that the Trump campaign’s revolutionary anti-status quo campaign rhetoric was either shallow, insincere, unsustainable, or some combination of all three. But continuity in this case does not mean that nothing will change. Even if certain high-profile multilateral trade deals in the making are now in fact dead, we need not conclude that the entire liberal global trading order—the WTO, IMF, and World Bank included—has to die with them. If we assume that a Trump Administration will demand more offset payments from allies, we need not conclude that this means the end of the alliance structure itself. If we assume that U.S. relations with Russia are again “re-set,” we need not conclude that U.S. policy will give Russia a free hand in Ukraine, the Baltic States, and beyond. We should resist waxing hysterical over early signals; adjustments to existing policy—along both functional and geographical lines—wouldn’t necessarily entail the revolutionary overthrow of the legacy strategy framework as a whole. Let’s focus first on Europe, followed by the Middle East, and then Asia.
Europe: If, for example, we take the new President at his pre-inauguration word, NATO will continue to exist but have a lower profile. Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine are likely to erode for several reasons. But that in turn does not mean that the Russian government is likely to cross clear red lines by invading or subverting other states to its west. Of course, miscalculations cannot be ruled out. A crisis over the security of a Baltic state would catalyze a moment of truth for the alliance: It would either invoke Article V and resist, possibly risking a nuclear exchange, or fail to do so and, for all practical purposes, cease to exist as a serious factor in European and global geopolitics. This, however, is not wildly off the path established in the Obama era.
However, what is different from the Obama era already, and is likely to become more so in the next four years, is the rightward drift of European domestic politics. If Marine Le Pen becomes the French President next year—not likely but not all that far-fetched—then the European liberal postwar project will be dead in the water and subject to reversal. In a way, that kind of Europe would be more to Donald Trump’s liking. It would constitute, as odd as it may sound, a “nationalist internationale.” The feel of Transatlantic relations might even improve under such conditions, but it would not bring with it the kind of institutional security policy cooperation that has been the norm since 1949. It would be a peculiar combination, subject to much misreading. It could be accident-prone.
The de facto demotion of NATO in U.S. eyes, amid a continuing nationalist and even illiberal lurch in European politics, would place enormous strain on Germany. If the U.S. government continues its recessional from Europe under a Trump Administration, as seems likely in light of his pre-inaugural interview with Bild, then the postwar U.S. role of convener and mediator of discordant European state interests is likely to pass awkwardly, but pass all the same, from Washington to Berlin. Germany will become the center of decisional gravity as the largest and wealthiest European state, particularly at a time when the United Kingdom is experiencing a multilevel crisis of identity and political coherence of its own. To some extent, as evidenced by the euro and immigration crises, Europe’s decisional gravity already has passed to Berlin.
This role reflects not only American retrenchment and British weakness, of course, but also the stunning reversal of French foreign policy fortunes. Gaullist foreign policy strategy was predicated on France’s ability to use the division of Germany in Europe and the division of the world into superpower blocs to gain influence for France—hence the famous if indiscreet metaphor of France as rider and Germany as horse, and hence the role of the French nuclear force de frappe. The end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany tossed French pretensions into Trotsky’s infamous dustbin of history.
With Germany too big and a Soviet-free world too American for French strategy to work, the French elected to focus instead on building a stronger European Union. France, cocooned within the EU and its currency union, could more effectively counterbalance the United States while still managing a more powerful Germany. The key to ultimate success in this new French strategy was the United Kingdom. France needed to work in concert with Britain to balance Germany, and that meant ultimately bringing Britain closer to the EU and inside the currency union. Now, with the unexpected Brexit vote this past June, the entire revised French strategy has come a cropper. The currency union is slowly disintegrating, and the prospect of the breakup of the United Kingdom—with Scotland, perhaps even Wales and Northern Ireland, going their own way out of the UK—has to be rated as high over the next four years. Around a century ago the phrase “little Englander” was aimed at people who disparaged the ambitious role of empire and great power. Today it has an altogether new meaning: those who are resigned to the dissolution of Great Britain itself in the form it has taken since the 1707 Act of Union.
What decisions will face Germany, in effect cut loose by the United States and without an Anglo-French counterbalance in Europe? Given that Russia is to some extent still resurgent despite its weaknesses, and given that no single power controls the territory between Germany and Russia as the Hapsburg Empire did for centuries before 1918, only two basic outcomes are possible: Germany could become more of a security provider in East/Central Europe, which would put it at odds with Russia; or it could agree to another Rapallo—a condominium with Russia at the expense of the countries in between.
No one can know now what Germany will decide if it ends up facing this sort of dilemma, for that depends on a skein of contingent decisions not yet made. But should Germany face such a choice, it would spell the end of a same world architecture, since that world’s origins inhere in the core settlement of World War II in Europe. That said, it still merits brief discussion here since such a decision could well turn out to be the bridge from same world to either lonely world or cold world.
If Germany decides to be a security provider, it will need to overcome enormous cultural and political obstacles—and it will need to build a nuclear weapons arsenal. Germany’s historical baggage is heavy, its post-bellicist moral/intellectual investiture pervasive, and its capacity to think strategically infantilized by years of immersion within the U.S.-led Atlantic alliance. Moreover and most important by far, contemporary German democracy is tethered strongly to all three of these factors and could be put at risk if Germany moves in this direction. Most Germans today are very allergic to anything that even hints of such motion, which is why the still tiny alt-right minority that wishes to move that way seems so frightening.
So it seems more likely that a second Rapallo may be in the offing. There are already many “Russia-understanders” (Russlandversteheren) in Germany today, and it looks to be a growing club because Russia’s version of nationalism is likely to increasingly appeal to Germans who fear that massive immigration will dismantle what they call Germany’s dominant culture (Leitkultur). So we may eventually witness the virtual return of the 19th-century Dreikaiserbund, which was based as much on social and political conservatism as on strategic concerns, except that without Austria-Hungary it would be a mere Zweikaiserbund.
Middle East: If we take the new President at his word but posit the basic continuation of the traditional U.S. postwar grand strategy, there will be a strong emphasis on extirpating, to the extent possible, the tentacles of Sunni Islamist terrorism. This could lead to a significant (possibly brief, possibly not) increase in U.S. military engagement in the Arab world—including the introduction of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and possibly elsewhere. There would be no commitment to long-term nation-building or any other political palliative; these would be punitive efforts designed to disrupt and destroy forces considered to be enemies. Of course, as with all such decisions meant to be narrow in impact, their side effects and consequences would be unpredictable. Such an approach may prove effective in eliminating ISIS territorial holdings—an effort far advanced in any case—but it may prove counterproductive in the overall effort to fight terrorism.
That is because the presence of large U.S. forces in any Arab country, especially if protracted, can be counted on to generate massive resentment based on constructed memories of Western/Christian colonial subjugation. Such a presence would be a boon to religious extremists, who would as always mobilize religious symbols to fight the heathen occupier (just as occurred in Iraq after March 2003), and that mobilization could well expand in current circumstances into movements able to topple several weak regimes, including Jordan, Egypt (again), and even Saudi Arabia. It will certainly not aid the fight against terrorism if key regional partners of the United States are destroyed by a crossfire of political misjudgments emanating from Washington.
Such a policy, even short of the use of extensive U.S. military force, would mean a cold-blooded tightening of relations with all regional powers who share or seem to share the anti-terrorism priority: Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Morocco, and possibly Turkey. There will be no emphasis on democracy promotion; funding for NED civil society programs will drop—again, a trajectory not very different from the basic priorities of the Obama Administration. Trump and his Jewish supporters like Israel as a right-wing nationalist polity, so there would be no appreciable pressure on Israel with regard to peace process issues or settlement expansion. But Israel’s utility in fighting Sunni Islamists is limited. And other neuralgic issues—such as how to finesse support for the Kurds with maintaining useful relations with Turkey—will not surcease. It will be headache-prone business as usual, but without the liberal rhetorical and program frills attending it.
The real Middle Eastern question mark concerns Saudi Arabia. If a business-minded Donald Trump sees Saudi Arabia through the prism of oil and the international economy, nothing much will change. But if instead Trump sees Saudi Arabia through the terrorism prism, believing that the Saudis were complicit in 9/11—and that, besides, U.S. energy self-sufficiency means it need not care a whit for the positive-sum health of the global economic commons—then relations could plummet, especially if Trump has a change of heart about the Iran deal and comes to see Iran as an objective ally in the fight against ISIS. That could be, just as he seems to see the Russian-supported Alawi regime in Syria in the same light. The Saudis, in security desperation, might then engage in dangerous forms of self-help, such as activating their tacit understanding with Pakistan over nuclear weapons.
It is possible, too, that Trump could turn anti-Saudi and anti-Iranian simultaneously, giving no thought to the balancing dynamics inherent in such conclusions. It has become an article of faith among conservative Republicans that the Iran deal must be abrogated, either sooner by the U.S. government walking out of the arrangement or later, by raising pressures that might impel the Iranian regime to walk out of the deal. The deal could also come undone even if neither side wants it to for any number of reasons owing to the frictional convergence of U.S. and Iranian behaviors.
If that happens, and if the Iranians resume their efforts unconstrained to breach the nuclear threshold, the countdown to war begins—not like the Iraq War, complete with literal occupation and nation-building efforts, but a punitive war designed to set back by several years the Iranian effort to climb to a breakthrough point. Nevertheless, U.S. desires to limit such a war might go unrequited.2 If the Iran deal goes down in one way or another, the likelihood of a major military action against Iran during the next four years has to be ranked above 75 percent, since the rebuilding of a broad-based international sanctions regime of sufficient bite to deter Iran seems highly unlikely. Even two years of unconstrained Iranian effort would be enough to take Iran past the point of no return during the Trump tenure, and Trump, hardly less than Obama, would not countenance an Iranian nuclear capability emerging under his watch. If he were to hesitate, Israel would likely act alone if it thought time had whittled away all its other options, and that decision would likely drag the United States into war anyway. The unpredictable fallout from such a war, no matter how it starts, would be vast.
Remember, too, that the Middle East was added as a critical region within U.S. postwar strategic thinking only for instrumental purposes: so its energy resources could feed the economic recovery of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia and, later, so it could block Soviet forays toward the Indian Ocean. With Europe and Japan having long ago economically recovered and more, and with no Red Army bearing down on the Persian Gulf from Afghanistan, the Middle East as a whole and the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship could be downgraded strategically—aside from the terrorism portfolio—without calling into question U.S. grand strategy itself. Iran could be bombed, too, without calling the basic strategy into question. Again, the choice concerning Iran aside, that is not a bad description of what Barack Obama seems to have wanted to do, pronouncing the United States “overinvested” in the region.
As to Southwest/South Asia, a Trump Administration will probably see Pakistan not as an ally but as basically an unfriendly and dangerous country—notwithstanding the President’s surreal pre-inauguration phone call with Nawaz Sharif. The wooing of India would continue—all for the better if that constitutes a means of constraining, if not containing, China.
What a Trump Administration will do with an inherited war in Afghanistan is impossible to predict. With General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, it is probable that Trump would defer to him. What would that mean?
Mattis is not a man to run from a fight, but he’s also not fool enough to throw good money and men after what has already been spent unless he can see an endgame worth the investment. No doubt there will be another policy review. It will probably take months, just as the review at the start of the Obama Administration did. It will probably result in incremental policy adjustments dressed up to seem like something more, and these adjustments will probably not achieve anything remotely like victory. The more the Trump Administration learns about Pakistani investment in Afghanistan over time, the less fond of them it is likely to become.
Asia: The body language of the campaign was as anti-Chinese as it was pro-Russian. Trump seems to see China as the cheat and liar on trade that has hurt the Trumpenproletariat the most.3 It does not follow, however, that he will promote steel-reinforced freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Again, Secretary Mattis will probably be a key factor in the rendering of such decisions.
Trump has made clear that he wants to augment the military, and that certainly includes the U.S. Navy. But he seems to see this in terms of Keynesian jobs creation more than geopolitics. He made clear during the campaign that he wants a stronger military that he would use less often. Some critics accused him of illogic, but “If you want peace, prepare for war” is an adage that goes back to George Washington and to others long before him; it isn’t bad advice. It does not follow, however, that a stronger U.S. military means stronger U.S. alliances in Asia. It could just mean more room for highly selective and inconsistent U.S. unilateralism in Asia.
Nor does it follow that a Trump Administration has a clue what to do about North Korea, or the Philippines or Malaysia or Thailand or anywhere, really. The animating prism of the President’s thinking about Asia is economics, not geopolitics. Thus he likely sees Japan more as competitor than ally. Following his zero-sum proclivities, he seems to want to loosen, though not necessarily sever, U.S. treaty alliances in the Pacific. But it depends on the case. He may well take a look at the present leader of the Philippines and conclude that if this anti-U.S. rabble rouser wants to break ties with the United States, let him. Trump is not a systematic thinker and seems ill at ease with genuine conceptual thinking, so everything comes down to cases, emotions, and personalities at the moment he tries to focus on the issue to hand.
He probably sees Japan as a free-riding ally, though that case is hard to make in facts and figures. Someone may have explained to him at some point the risks of being tied to the defense of Japan without explaining the benefits. And as part of his “nationalist international” he probably likes what he sees in Shinzo Abe, just as he likes what he sees in Putin and Erdoğan. But again, to the extent it is left to him alone, it will all come down to cases, emotions, and personalities. So if the Japanese government gets testy over something having to do with U.S. bases on, say, Okinawa, Trump might hoist the entire bilateral relationship on that dispute and, without giving it a second thought, tell Japan: “You’re fired.” Japan could force a choice in Asia not all that different from the one Germany may face in Europe: become a security provider or make deals with larger, but not necessarily kindred, powers on mainland Eurasia.
So even in a world in which no explicit decision is made to junk the U.S. alliance structure in favor of isolationism or realpolitik power balancing, but with a lot of body language hinting that way, the stability of specific arrangements cannot be guaranteed. Foreign partners of the United States are liable to find themselves walking on quail eggs. Again, many foreign partners of the United States during the Obama Administration became adept at egg walking, but not because they thought the President was unpredictable or determined to bring the era of Pax Americana deliberately to a close. He was quite predictable, clearly engaged in what he felt was a long overdue ratcheting down of what ought to be considered U.S. vital interests. We will see what, if any, difference the distinction makes.
On the other hand, just because the U.S. bureaucracy maintains the appearance and feel of business as usual during the first four to six months of the new Administration, as is likely in most domains for process reasons, should not be taken as a license to assume that the strategy which informs it is safe from major disturbance. This President was elected to create discontinuity, particularly in domestic policy, but in America’s global role as well. He may very well understand that and work to achieve it along with scores of “prune book” Schedule C political appointees with similar motives.
In a neo-isolationist posture, we must posit that the current U.S. alliance structures in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East would cease to exist in due course, first probably de facto and in time explicitly. The alliance structures would probably be “replaced” with high-sounding understandings about cooperation, but, absent the treaty obligations to act, everyone on the planet will figure out what it really means.
An isolationist or neo-isolationist Trumpian America does not mean total passivity. As with earlier episodes of what is commonly but misleadingly called isolationism, America will be active economically in the world. It will continue, most likely, to exercise hegemony in the New World, as it imagines its interests dictate. It would continue to hunt nefarious non-state actors engaged in terror and subversion, and would incline to create temporarily partnerships for that purpose as necessary. But the United States would abandon for practical purposes its commitment to international organizations: the United Nations, WTO, World Bank, IMF, and so forth. It would maintain participation only in low-political-profile functional organizations like the International Bank of Settlements and the SWIFT system.
U.S. policy under this dispensation to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would be perhaps the critical issue. The bedrock of U.S. non-proliferation policy has been the security competitions suppression tenet of its grand strategy. A main reason for the extension of U.S. deterrence both to formal allies and indirectly to others (Sweden is a good example) has been to constrain both the motives and abilities for states to proliferate. If U.S. policy abandons concern and responsibility for the global security commons, there is no obvious rationale for the emphasis on counter-proliferation in the U.S. policies of recent decades. If the United States has fewer or no allies to protect, then here too the rationale for caring a great deal about proliferation is undermined. One can even imagine a Trump Administration in effect embracing Kenneth Waltz’s famous argument that the more nuclear-armed states the better, since the weapons themselves can be counted on to concentrate the rational mind.
It follows that in a neo-isolationist framework, the U.S. government will radically ratchet down the list of contingencies deemed to be vital interests of the United States, far more so than occurred during the Obama Administration. Other powers will know this, and revisionist powers large and small will feel freer to act on their revisionist instincts. The security dilemma will spread and intertwine; global military spending will rise; proliferation will likely proceed; and the prospect of small and not-so-small wars will increase. Regional alignments will take the place of a system with the United States as the hub in a hub-and-spokes arrangement. These alignments will not be based on liberal or any other kind of principles, and so are likely to be fairly fluid. Betrayals will happen.
It probably follows, too, that in such an environment autocratic or authoritarian government will gain pride of place over democratic and pluralist government. Nationalism, whether relatively liberal or illiberal, strengthens the state, and state weakness is a fear that many elites throughout the world will wish to resist. Strong states, however, usually mean weak or subordinate civil societies, so that the famous “third wave” of democracy will further flatten and ebb. Democracies are in any case widely thought to be too complex and slow as decision-making systems in geopolitics, so while the United States may be withdrawn in neo-isolation from Eurasian geopolitics, that withdrawal will force others into a balance-of-power realpolitik world spliced into separate interacting regions, in which democratic governance carries with it no perceived clear advantage.
Trends like these would confront Japan and Germany, probably more than any other nations in the world, with gut-wrenching dilemmas. The contemporary identities of both could be shaken to their roots, and the implications for their domestic political cultures could be fully radical in the precise meaning of that word.
The idea of a balance-of-power realpolitik-oriented America strikes most historically tutored Americans (and others) as an oxymoron. America the “exceptional” is, as G.K. Chesterton famously said, “a nation with the soul of a church.” Not since before the Mexican War has the United States had to maneuver on a geopolitical chessboard with equals or near equals, and never in its own conceptions did America act in the ways that the mercantilist empires of the Old World acted. America was different, better, revolutionary, enlightened, a “city on a hill.”
But all this took place when the grip of Enlightenment attitudes was strong, when American optimism and self-regard were high, and when the augmentation of American power and the idea of progress seemed to walk hand in hand through the threshold of an onrushing history. Those days seem gone, so now, for the first time in American history, it may actually be possible to imagine something that used to be, forty years ago, the elusive apple of Henry Kissinger’s eye. The price of an America supposedly made “great” again may be paid in the coin of an America that is no longer, and may never again hold out hope of being, exceptional.
If U.S. foreign and national security policy starts to resemble 19th-century European or Asian balance-of-power-driven state systems, the implications would be enormous. We would be back to a spheres-of-influence world in which the greatest powers dominate their geographical and cultural peripheries, and all the other great powers let them do so as long as their own spheres are not put at risk.
Such a world would be congenial to Iran, but not to the Arabs; to Russia, but not to Ukraine or Poland. Such a world would be congenial to China so long as it stayed within its great power lanes, but not to Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, or possibly Japan.
As before, there would be shatter zones of competition in such a world. One could imagine tests of will and of war between, say, Iran and India over the spoils of a collapsed Pakistan. One could imagine a new iteration of the Ottoman-Safavid wars of earlier centuries as Iranian and Turkish pretensions collide. One could imagine ferocious tests of will between regional hegemons and smaller (but not small) powers that refuse to become tributary states.
In such a world, the United States could be an “offshore balancer” with respect to Eurasia, as many academics would call it and as some have advocated for years. Some who favor this kind of U.S. strategy acknowledge that conflict and medium-sized wars might happen with greater frequency, but they also usually argue that, with the United States detached from them by dint of foregone alliances, it would no longer risk being chain-ganged into major wars in which its own vital interests are not at stake. Even better, the argument often goes, without pesky messianic ideologies messing up the gears, the dangers of hegemonic war would be low in such a set-up. Moreover, the great powers might once again occasionally be in a position to impose settlements on annoying local and regional problems that defy homegrown solutions—think the Congress of Berlin and other such conclaves of old.
As was the case following the Napoleonic Wars up at least until the unification of Germany, a great power system would likely be a conservative concert system. Domestic and normative change would be frowned upon lest it release the demons of idealism. Nationalism would be tolerated and celebrated so long as versions of it below the great power threshold did not grow too ambitious. Small and relatively defenseless cultures would be in trouble, again, as would hope for the spread of liberal or democratic norms. The idea that liberal ideas and institutions can thrive without the support, example, and prestige of powers standing up for and behind them is, after all, a fantasy. Economic relations between states would again be matters of dictation in the guise of negotiation. The likelihood of broad transnational cooperation to deal with common problems concerning the environment or defense against pandemics would likely go wanting, to what end we can only nervously speculate.
The basic outline of a balance-of-power realpolitik world, brought into being by a U.S. choice of commission or default, is not hard to sketch out. Most of the diplomatic history we have from before 1914 points the way. Of course, the state of 21st-century technology changes things—possibly a great deal. Also, the fact that a new social conservatism would not align with the powerful religious influences that existed, say, in the Catholic Hapsburg domains, or in Anglican Britain, poses some novel questions. All that said, the basics are discernible.
Again, the three generic worlds that a Trump Administration might lead us into are not in every sense mutually exclusive. Elements of any one can populate the other two. More interesting, perhaps, one world might elide into another over time, and that world elide further into a third.
Indeed, while the level of uncertainty is much too high to be sure of anything, such a sliding along may well characterize the future. If a Trump or Trump-like Administration endures for eight years, or perhaps beyond, that would be enough time for U.S. foreign and national security policy to slide from same world into lonely world with some residual characteristics of its predecessor, and from there to cold world, with atavistic characteristics of the previous two dispensations still dimly discernible. In other words, we could move from a liberal internationalist, forward-deployed, anti-hegemonist U.S. grand strategy to a neo-isolationist grand strategy and then, pushed by exigencies one can anticipate without much strain, move into a balance-of-power realpolitik strategy of not last but only resort under then obtaining circumstances. That is the most likely course that events will take.
Would this be a good thing, or not? To this point, no moral or normative judgments have been brought to bear on the pure analytics unfolded here. But allow me now a judgmental aside.
The world’s liberal elites, at least in the West, have been guilty in recent years of deranging the liberal project with utopian aspirations that have proved a bridge too far for most national communities. It is not a sin, and a person is not a deplorable, for wanting to live with people who can maintain reciprocal expectations of the other’s behavior as individuals and as families because they share a culture generations in the making. It is not a sin to believe, whether against or with evidence is not the point, in the existence of non-relative moral right and wrong, and even in God. Societies characterized by such beliefs often display high levels of social trust, and high levels of social trust conduce, all else equal, to cooperation, generosity, prosperity, and other generally acknowledged benefits. It is therefore not a sin to care about one’s neighbors and countrymen more than one cares about some imagined homogenized universal man. Moreover, all of this is compatible with respect for the dignity of difference and with compassion toward refugees.
The wise thing to do, were it possible, is to restore a pre-identity politics, pre-utopian liberal nationalism. That is the cultural plinth that can best sustain a non-zero sum conception of an active, internationalist U.S. foreign and national security policy, which on balance has been good for America and good for the world. A restored American liberal nationalism, from which a liberal internationalism can be patiently built with likeminded others—as it has been built, brick by painstaking brick over the years since 1945—is far preferable to reaching for an unattainable globalist utopia (or dystopia), and it is far preferable to a regression back into zero-sum, illiberal ways of thinking and acting.
Is it possible? It has to be, or I fear we are lost.
1This assertion is explained at length in a series of four essays: Adam Garfinkle, “Framing the Issues,” The American Interest Online, August 5, 2016; Garfinkle, “Liberalism and Modernity,” The American Interest Online, August 10, 2016; Garfinkle, “The State of the State,” The American Interest Online, August 12, 2016; and Garfinkle, “Anti-Modernity, Within and Without,” The American Interest Online, August 16, 2016.
2The best scenario anticipation of a U.S.-Iranian war is Jeffrey White, “What Would War with Iran Look Like?” The American Interest (July/August 2011).
3For a definition and discussion of the Trumpenproletariat, see Garfinkle, “On the Trumpenproletariat,” The American Interest Online, March 14, 2016.