Joe Biden spoke at the Munich Security conference last month and assured the audience,–mainly Europeans, I think–not to worry: America will be back.
The question is, though, will our allies in Europe and Asia be there waiting for us?
Twice now in the past 20 years, America has shown its willingness to go it alone if our “friends” won’t go with us. We started a war in Iraq without the support of Germany, France and many other of our historic allies.
We backed out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and again out of the Paris Agreement, after playing a key role in putting together both. So the apparent lesson for other countries wanting to do business with the United States is don’t count on Republican administrations to honor agreements made by Democratic administrations.
I don’t need to go into the Iran nuclear treaty. Why would any country want to negotiate any kind of controversial agreement with us if a succeeding administration can blithely bail out of it?
Obviously we need to keep our word. But, perhaps more important, we need to fashion a consensus around policies that will ensure their continuity. Otherwise, we invite what we see happening. One administration reverses the policies of the previous. Harry Truman understood that when he fashioned the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe. He went to great lengths to bring Republicans on board to have bipartisan support. Medicare was controversial, but it had popular support and Democrats controlled Congress for a generation after Medicare’s passage, insuring its survival.
One of the problems with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was that it was passed with no significant (in fact almost no) Republican support. Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the presidency gave the Republicans the opening they needed to subvert the plan.
So the brittle state of our politics is one problem, especially when a substantial part of the population, and their elected representatives, find excuses to deny or overlook facts that literally threaten our survival. We can’t accomplish much of importance in the public realm if one party’s yes is the other party’s no. This development isn’t recent. It goes at least as far back as the Clinton administration when the then Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, made it a matter of party discipline that Republican senators could not support any Clinton legislation. The tax bill Congress passed in the early days of the Clinton administration had exactly zero Republican voters. Dole, it turned out, had presidential ambitions of his own (surprise!).
The current administration’s comic book view of the world makes the situation only worse. “America First” as a guiding principle recalls the pre-World War Two movement of the same name of course. But the slogan also states the obvious. Any American administration is going to pursue a policy that puts American interests first. The question we have to ask is how broadly do we define our interests? Do we go for immediate gain without regard to future consequences, as the current president appears to define our interests? Should we have turned our back on Europe after the Second World War and not extended aid and loans to our allies so that they could rebuild their economies and build stable societies based on democratic principles that would be worthy allies for generations?
Or do we play a long game, pursuing a vision of our interests that may involve short-term sacrifices and costs for long-term gain?
The current president likes to present America in the post-war period as the world’s patsy, doling out billions of dollars, splurging on foreign products, generously or foolishly negotiating trade agreements that have drained our resources and cost us millions of jobs.
The apparent alternative to this (false) version of America is a greedy, stingy, self-indulgent America that has no interest in sacrifice in the short or long run and cares only for its own immediate well-being. Does that sound like anyone we’ve come to know?
The damage is being done, and restoration may not be possible.
How do we change our direction? I’m coming to that.