I resumed this column after more than a year’s hiatus to process what Donald Trump’s victory meant. Absent confidence that I understood what it revealed about our national condition, I didn’t think anyone should look to me for political guidance. I finally thought my way to a conclusion that still strikes me as incisive if not comprehensive, namely that the U.S. is an empire in decline, and most of us are unhappy about that.
Most obvious was white working-class resentment toward a global economic system that no longer served them. This resentment was justified, and had the Democratic presidential candidate been able to direct it toward its proper cause, Trump wouldn’t have been able to misdirect so much of it. But Clinton beat Sanders, who was spot on about Wall Street and the need for a Scandinavian-type democratic socialism, which comfortably coexists with a regulated capitalism. Clinton was deeply connected to the forces of what Sanders called “Casino Capitalism” and a champion of U.S. imperialism, so she showed little sympathy with the resentment and dismissed much of it as mere racism.
A less obvious unhappiness with our declining empire manifests itself in the cries of pain Trump has elicited from our foreign policy establishment. We heard the loudest cries when Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced his resignation on Dec. 20. His letter expressed his longstanding objection to Trump’s alienating behavior toward our allies and, relatedly, a lack of resolve to fight Russia and China for world dominance. “I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.”
As a source of information for this column, I subscribed to Foreign Affairs, the house journal of our foreign policy establishment. Trump’s behavior in the international sphere — I don’t think it can be called a policy — has alarmed all its contributors, with good reason. But I’ve been struck by their shared belief that he is singlehandedly undoing a peaceful, just and democratic world order that a U.S.-led Western alliance had shaped after World War II. As they write about that order, they never mention the Vietnam War, which is astonishing. Were they to address that long and appalling chapter in our history, they would have to speak about its origins in our support of European nations’ efforts to retain their colonies, and when that proved impossible, our use of the most immoral methods to undermine any regime, democratically chosen or not, that wouldn’t cooperate with a neo-colonial order serving the economic interests of the First World at the expense of its own people.
Donald Trump has no capacity to conceive, much less lead us toward a world order dedicated to right sharing of the world’s resources and accommodating, rather than resisting, non-Western powers’ influence over global affairs. Nonetheless, the understandings expressed by Mattis’ letter are about as forward-looking as Trump’s pledge to reopen the coal mines of West Virginia. And if, post-Trump, we insist on imposing Western hegemony, we will hasten global disaster even more surely than if we keep burning fossil fuels.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.