I recall a play (perhaps a film?) from the 1950s in which, after an exhortation about why it was necessary to fight against tyranny and aggression and so on one of the protagonists said something like “Well, that’s very good, now I know what you’re against. Now, tell me, please: what are you for?”
That line (however it was actually written) resonated with me, barely a teenager, I guess, and does so today.
The media is full of dire warnings about what President Donald Trump is against: CTV News quotes him on renegotiating NAFTA; the CBC News ‘Sunday Scrum‘ begins by emphasizing “America First:” The Economist says that “Besides the small matter of whether Mr Trump means to launch a trade war, a pressing foreign-policy question concerns Russia. Mr Trump, Mr Bannon and Mr Flynn want a better relationship with Mr Putin. “But what will they give up for it?” asks Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO. Mr Trump has signalled that he might drop some of the sanctions Mr Obama placed on Russia after its intervention in Ukraine. Perhaps he would also consider scrapping American troop deployments to Poland and the Baltic states. Either step would be viewed by NATO’s European members as evidence that Mr Trump’s apparent disdain for the alliance is for real;” and in the Financial Times historian Simon Sharma says that “In all likelihood the president will not be sweating the small stuff, emerging from the sand trap every so often to snarl and bludgeon frightened executives with taking away their toys unless they repair immediately to Duluth and open a widget factory. The actual heavy lifting will be delegated to his cabinet which largely conforms to what the Greeks called a “kakistocracy”: government of the least-qualified.“
I think we can all understand what President Trump is against, even if, like me, you think his analysis is somewhere between silly and downright crazy. He wants to “restore” America to a global position which, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he, being an undereducated American man, believes existed 75 years ago. He’s wrong ~ stupidly wrong, in my opinion ~ but the danger is that he is also surrounded by many senior officials who seem to share his views. So, he’s against the world ‘created’ by Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, he’s against a world that not even Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama could really mess up; he’s against liberal internationalism and free trade. In other words he is the sort of conservative ~ still alive in great numbers ~ that John Stuart Mill described as stupid. My guess is that, as John Ibbitson said in the CBC New piece (linked above) his main targets will be Mexico and China and Canada will be caught in some of the crossfire.
What to do?
First: we must keep another famous Englishman’s admonition at the top of our minds and define and focus on our own vital interests. They are ~ I repeat ~ peace and prosperity based on free(er) trade with all comers, a sound currency, and a principled foreign policy backed up by a strong military. Right now the world has need of another Churchill, another Eisenhower, another St Laurent and another Thatcher …
… instead, we have to cope with a Trump and another Trudeau!
Second: we must work with other leaders …
… including some who do not share all (or even many) of our values to preserve the broadly and generally liberal world order.
Third: we need to enunciate a grand strategy for the 21st century that will protect and promote Canada’s vital interests … that is, likely, going to mean we need a new national leader.
When did we stop being “for” something and, instead, like Donald Trump, just get by with being “against” whoever is in power now? 2003, I think … before the beginning of the 21st century there were still large areas of agreement in national policies in America, in Australia, in Britain, in Canada, in Denmark and so on … even when parties disagreed it was, as often as not, over what they were “for.” Consider, for example, the “Project for the New American Century,” (PNAC) which featured such names as Elliot Arbrams, Jeb Bush, Dick Chaney, Francis Fukuyama, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz amongst others who felt that America, especially under President Bill Clinton had gone astray and had lost both its moral clarity and military power …
… but, even though it was founded as a reaction to a specific policy thrust it still proposed something, it was “for” something. It confined itself, largely, to advocating for change. It harkened back, in a way, to the notion, put forward by Republican US Senator Arthur Vandenberg about 1947 that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Senator Vandenberg, a noted isolationist, actively supported the (Democratic) Truman doctrine in international fora because he believed that compromise was necessary one “the people had spoken” and elected on party, or the other, to set policy and because, despite his own views, he recognized that Truman’s policies were well within the “moderate” middle ground of American opinion. That all changed on September 11th, 2001. America was, for the first time since 1941, a victim of a sneak attack. America rallied ’round its president and its government … briefly. But then the Democrats decided that President George W Bush (and his “team” that featured many individuals from the PNAC was to be a target of partisan political attack and that politics extended well beyond the water’s edge. They decided that defeating Bush was more important than a united America.
This was not a new attitude: British politics had become highly polarized in the 1950s, Canadian politics took on a similar nature around 1970, but, as in so many things, what really mattered was what happened in America and, in 2003, the Iraq War marked a shift away from politics being about being “for” something, for anything at all, and became a mater of being against everything that the other side proposed … just because the other side proposed it.
President Trump is, in my opinion, the result of Americans not being for anything, anymore. He ran and won by being against everyone and everything.
The grand strategy that I believe both Canada and America need must be for something: for democracy, for freedom, for liberalism, for peace and for prosperity. If we are for the right things then what we are against ~ totalitarianism, collectivism, aggression and protectionism ~ will be obvious. We must now wait and see if President Trump is, or even can be for anything.