Everyman’s Strategic Survey: America In Retreat

There are two very similar articles in two influential journals that are closely related:

  • In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens writes in an article headlined “Donald Trump has sounded America’s global retreat,” that “The guiding assumptions of modern American foreign policy were set out in a document written in 1950 for president Harry Truman. NSC-68 as it was called (the paper was prepared at the National Security Council) was Washington’s answer to Soviet communism. At its core was a belief that US national interests were best pursued through international leadership. This is the foundation stone to which Donald Trump has taken a sledgehammer,” and, he says, after analyzing what president Trump might and might not do in the forthcoming NATO meetings and in his one-on-one summit with Vladimir Putin, “On Mr Trump’s present course — and even his unashamedly America-first national security adviser John Bolton is showing signs of alarm at the president’s behaviour — the concept of a western order will be drained of substance and meaning. US allies, in Asia as well as Europe, will have to find other ways to safeguard their security. Some may look to China; others may think about a nuclear deterrent; Europe may understand it has to be able to defend itself … [and, he concludes] … The big winners of course are Mr Putin and Mr Xi. Their shared strategic goal has long been to put an end to the American-led order sketched out by Truman. China has bristled at the US presence in Asia; Russia wants a return in Europe to 19th-century power balancing. They could never have imagined that a US president would deliver to them such a prize;” and
  • In The Economist there is an article headlined “The Western alliance is in trouble,” in which the authors say that “America did as much as any country to create post-war Europe. In the late 1940s and the 1950s it was midwife to the treaty that became the European Union and to NATO, the military alliance that won the cold war. The United States acted partly out of charity, but chiefly out of self-interest. Having been dragged into two world wars, it wanted to banish Franco-German rivalry and build a rampart against the Soviet threat. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the alliance anchored democracy in the newly liberated states of eastern Europe … [but, today] … America and Europe are separated by a growing rift. The mood before the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11th and 12th is poisonous. As President Donald Trump accuses the Europeans of bad faith and of failing to pull their weight, they accuse him of crass vandalism. A second summit, between Vladimir Putin and Mr Trump in Helsinki on July 16th, could produce the once-unthinkable spectacle of an American president treating his Russian opponent better than he has just treated his allies.

Even,” the authors in The Economist suggest, “if the two summits pass off without controversy—as they might, given how Mr Trump delights in confounding his critics—the differing priorities, divergent beliefs and clashing political cultures will remain. The Western alliance is in trouble, and that should worry Europe, America and the world ….[and] … Every alliance has its tensions, but the Western one is strained on a bewildering number of fronts (see article). Mr Trump, and his generals, are exasperated by the feeble efforts of many NATO members to honour their promise to raise defence spending towards 2% of GDP by 2024. The American right tends to condemn European support for the Iranian nuclear deal (which Mr Trump quit), and what it sees as a bias against Israel. And policymakers from both parties think that, as the world’s attention shifts to Asia, whining, sanctimonious Europeans deserve less of their time … [but] … As if that were not enough, Mr Trump fatuously accuses the EU of being “set up to take advantage of the United States” and chastises it for unfair trade. Meanwhile, Europe is divided. Italy has a new populist coalition that is pro-Putin. So, increasingly, is Turkey, a member of NATO (but not the EU) which is hostile to the liberal democratic values that bind the alliance. Worse could be in store. A Labour government in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn, who has a long history of opposing the use of arms by the West, would treat America with deep suspicion; he could even try to leave NATO.

The prescription offered by The Economist includes being practical “That means paying up. Mr Trump is right to complain about countries like Germany and Italy, which spent just 1.22% and 1.13% of GDP on defence in 2017. Indeed, he could go further. Too little of defence spending is useful—over a third of Belgium’s is eaten up by pensions. More should go on R&D and equipment … [and] … For America’s allies [which, of course, includes Canada], being practical also means keeping up. Collaboration in areas like cyber-security will make the alliance more valuable to America. More urgently NATO must continue to sharpen its response to the tactics of misinformation and infiltration that Russia used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Politics waxes and wanes. Lost military understanding is hard to rebuild. Exercises that cement NATO’s remarkably close working military relations are more vital than ever.

Mr Stephens, in the FT, says that “The more persuasive explanation of the US president’s behaviour is that he simply does not accept the assumptions made by the authors of NSC-68 about global leadership, alliances and international institutions. Instead his instincts say that, as the world’s most powerful nation, the US is better off setting its own, bilateral, terms with allies and adversaries alike. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, got it right when he remarked the other day that “He [Trump] has a method and is serious in his mission against an international rules-based order . . . He is on a mission against what we stand for.”” He does not offer any recommendations for protecting and strengthening “what we stand for” but I suspect he would agree, broadly, as I do, with The Economist.

Donald Trump is not, in my view, acting alone. He is doing what scores of millions of Americans asked him to do … they believe that they are doing more than their fair share in almost every field … they are bearing an unfair share of the burden of protecting Europe and East Asia from Russian or Chinese encroachment and of countering Islamist terrorism in the world. They are tired of doing most of the heavy lifting.; they are tired of everyone else hitching a ‘free ride’ on their wagon. There is some merit in that feeling … some, but not near as much as President Trump likes to claim.

There was a moment, back in the 1990s, when America was, briefly, the world only global superpower … but it didn’t last. America’s power, hard and soft, is still vast: America is the military equal of any coalition one can imagine; America’s economy remains vigorous and its society is hugely innovative and creative. There are not huge line ups of people trying to sneak into Albania or Brazil or China or Djibouti … that’s unique to America and Britain and Canada and a few other countries that are closely allied to the US led West … and it has been American leadership, since 1941, that has made us all the envy of the world.

US-VOTE-REPUBLICAN-TRUMPNow President Trump, acting on behalf of, as I said, many millions of Americans wants to back away … he wants (they want) to retreat back into ‘Fortress America‘ and pull up the drawbridge and then deal, one-on-one, with every other country, equally ~ no “special relationship,” no “most favoured nation,”  no more “good neighbour” policy. Just ‘America First’ in every single case. It is a rational policy … if you are sure that America has all the power and resources it needs to “go it alone.” I’m not sure it does. But I’m guessing that President Trump either thinks I’m wrong or simply doesn’t care because he believes that he can bully his way to whatever solution he wants.

Do the American people really want to retreat from a position of global respect and leadership?

No … I think not. But I do think that they are tired of being told what to do by “lesser” people and by being constrained in how they may respond to e.g. acts of terrorism. They The-Great-and-Powerful-Wizard-of-Ozdon’t want Canadian, Danes and Norwegians wagging their fingers at them when the actions they take ~ righteous actins, they believe ~ have unintended consequences. They want to be, like the Wizard of Oz, the great and powerful … and they want the whole world to respect and even fear them. They don’t need to be liked … the Trump Party just wants to win, in the way that it defines winning which is that when America wins the other side must lose ~ “win-wins” are not allowed ~ and to be seen to win, every single time, and to be feared. What they don’t understand is that for almost 70 years, from 1944 until the early 21st century America was THE winner, in almost everything. It achieved and, more often than used, productively, for America, the greatest socio-cultural, economic and hard, military power the world has ever seen. Then they began to fritter it away, sometimes politically, sometimes economically, sometimes militarily … and the whole world, especially the Arabs, the Chinese, some Europeans and the Russians noticed and they all decided to take advantage in whatever way they could.

In some respects what’s happening in America today is what happened in Britain in 1945 and in Canada in 1968 ~ people get tired of paying the price of doing their full and fair share of protecting and defending the security and vital interests of the West; they decide that someone else can do it; in 1947 Britain was, in fact, broke: Dean Acheson and others were literally shocked that Britain would not, because it could not continue to aid Greece. America had to become deeply engaged, to protect its own vital interests. It didn’t afghanistanorbustjpg-7b24c5d7dbb71cd3begin modern counter-insurgency in Greece to aid Greece or Britain; it did so because America’s interests were threatened. Canada was different; in 1968 Canada was rich and literally glowing with pride in its first century but the people wanted butter, not guns … that battle endures today and, as Stephen Harper learned in 2006 to 2012, Canadians still want butter, not guns … in this they are not unlike Australians or Belgians or Chileans or Danes … or millions of Americans for that matter.

But America is divided … yes, millions of Americans are tired of constant “wars of choice” and want to cut the Pentagon and raise social spending but tens, hundreds of millions more Americans want America to remain the world’s preeminent military power ~ unchallenged at sea or in the air, anywhere on the globe. President Trump does not, I think, want to weaken America in any way but his actions are, in my opinion, having that effect. As Philip Stephens said, the “big winners” in Trump’s ongoing wars with America’s friends and allies are Vladimir {Putin’ Russia and Xi Jinping’s China. One imagines that Mr Xi must have echoes of a Sound of Music song in his mind every morning when he reads another of President Trump’s tweets ~ “I must have done something good,” he must whisper to himself as he contemplates his good fortune in having Donald J Trump as his opposite number. Whether it is alliances like NATO, climate, change, the environment, feminism, free trade and the WTO or migration, President Trump is seriously out of step with the world … or the world is out of step with him.

For Canada it is best to look at ourselves and agree that we are out of step with America, not the other way around. Some of President Trump’s complaints ~ our ridiculous dairy supply management system and out laughable commitment to our own security and defence ~ are very valid and a responsible Canadian government would be acting soon to correct both files. Our political commitment to the environment, feminism, and First Nations are laudable but seriously out of step with the band to which America is marching in 2018.

Canada needs to do two big things:

  • First, get back “in step” with America ~ we share too much to be too different in too many policy areas for too long; and
  • Second, form, renew and strengthen alliances with responsible countries that are of a like mind, especially Australia, Britain, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, Singapore and South Africa to expand our trade and to offer the West , and the world, new leadership options.

By Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.


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