Following on from the other day, Dr Carter Malkasian writes, in Foreign Affairs, that in 2015 and 2016 the war in Afghanistan went from bad to worse for the US-supported Afghan government. That rejuvenated Taliban went from victory to victory, from strength to strength. Then, “When President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the war raged on. He initially approved an increase of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to roughly 14,000. Trump disliked the war, however, and, looking for an exit, started negotiations with the Taliban in 2018.” Those negotiations, now, in 2020 appear to have borne some fruit.
What President Trump wants to do seems, to me, to be consistent with his overall grand strategy which is profoundly isolationist. As Dr Thomas Wright has explained in Foreign Affairs, President Trump “has clear, consistent, visceral foreign policy instincts that date back three decades. He has long rejected the United States’ security alliances as unfair to the taxpayer and accused allies of conning Washington into defending them for free. He has long seen trade deficits as a threat to U.S. interests and has rejected virtually all trade deals that the United States has negotiated since World War II. And he has a history of expressing admiration for strongmen around the world: in 1990, for example, he lamented in an interview that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had not cracked down on demonstrators as Beijing had in Tiananmen Square one year before … [and] … During his presidential campaign, Trump not only refused to disavow these instincts but doubled down on them. He drew a moral equivalence between the Kremlin under Russian President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. government; criticized NATO; praised Saddam Hussein’s toughness on terrorists and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ascent to power; and opposed free trade. His position on foreign policy had an immediate and enduring effect: it prompted dozens of Republican foreign policy experts to condemn him publicly … [but he didn’t care, and] … By the fall of 2017, the second phase of the Trump administration’s foreign policy – that of unilateral action—had begun. In this period, which continues to the present day, Trump has tried to bypass the formal deliberative interagency process in his decision-making and has made his preferences clear. In December 2017, over the objections of his team, he announced he was moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In May of last year, he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. He imposed tariffs on friends and rivals alike. He renewed his criticism of NATO at the 2018 Brussels summit and pushed hard to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Perhaps most famously, he decided to meet with Kim in Singapore without consulting his national security cabinet and also made the unilateral decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and proceeded to defy his advisers by embracing the Russian leader at the summit’s press conference … [then] … To facilitate this shift, Trump needed a new team that would empower him, not stand in his way. This was the story of 2018. It began with the removal of Tillerson, McMaster, and Cohn in a three-week period in March and April. Their respective replacements—Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Larry Kudlow—all had one thing in common: personal loyalty to Trump. The trend continued with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s departure and concluded with Mattis’ resignation on December 21 following Trump’s announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.“
Dr Wright also says, in an a more recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled The Folly of Retrenchment, that, “Amid the shifting political winds, a growing chorus of voices in the policy community, from the left and the right, is calling for a strategy of global retrenchment, whereby the United States would withdraw its forces from around the world and reduce its security commitments. Leading scholars and policy experts, such as Barry Posen and Ian Bremmer, have called on the United States to significantly reduce its role in Europe and Asia, including withdrawing from NATO. In 2019, a new think tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, set up shop, with funding from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and the liberal philanthropist George Soros. Its mission, in its own words, is to advocate “a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint” … [and] … Global retrenchment is fast emerging as the most coherent and ready-made alternative to the United States’ postwar strategy. Many want to withdraw into Fortress America. Others (acting at the behest of Xi Jinping?) seem to want to push it there.
But, he says, pursuing that course “would be a grave mistake. By dissolving U.S. alliances and ending the forward presence of U.S. forces, this strategy would destabilize the regional security orders in Europe and Asia. It would also increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, empower right-wing nationalists in Europe, and aggravate the threat of major-power conflict.“
Thomas Wright says that “This is not to say that U.S. strategy should never change. The United States has regularly increased and decreased its presence around the world as threats have risen and ebbed. Even though Washington followed a strategy of containment throughout the Cold War, that took various forms, which meant the difference between war and peace in Vietnam, between an arms race and arms control, and between détente and an all-out attempt to defeat the Soviets. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States changed course again, expanding its alliances to include many countries that had previously been part of the Warsaw Pact … [and] … the United States will now have to do less in some areas and more in others as it shifts its focus from counterterrorism and reform in the Middle East … [and in Afghanistan and in South West Asia, including Iran] … toward great-power competition with China and Russia. But advocates of global retrenchment are not so much proposing changes within a strategy as they are calling for the wholesale replacement of one that has been in place since World War II. What the United States needs now is a careful pruning of its overseas commitments—not the indiscriminate abandonment of a strategy that has served it well for decades.” But “indiscriminate abandonment” of both strategy and allies seems to me to be exactly what President Trump is doing.
Dr Wright explains that “Support for retrenchment stems from the view that the United States has overextended itself in countries that have little bearing on its national interest. According to this perspective, which is closely associated with the realist school of international relations, the United States is fundamentally secure thanks to its geography, nuclear arsenal, and military advantage. Yet the country has nonetheless chosen to pursue a strategy of “liberal hegemony,” using force in an unwise attempt to perpetuate a liberal international order (one that, as evidenced by U.S. support for authoritarian regimes, is not so liberal, after all). Washington, the argument goes, has distracted itself with costly overseas commitments and interventions that breed resentment and encourage free-riding abroad … [while] … Critics of the status quo argue that the United States must take two steps to change its ways. The first is retrenchment itself: the action of withdrawing from many of the United States’ existing commitments, such as the ongoing military interventions in the Middle East and one-sided alliances in Europe and Asia. The second is restraint: the strategy of defining U.S. interests narrowly, refusing to launch wars unless vital interests are directly threatened and Congress authorizes such action, compelling other nations to take care of their own security, and relying more on diplomatic, economic, and political tools … [and] … In practice, this approach means ending U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, withdrawing U.S. forces from the Middle East, relying on an over-the-horizon force that can uphold U.S. national interests, and no longer taking on responsibility for the security of other states. As for alliances, Posen has argued that the United States should abandon the mutual-defense provision of NATO, replace the organization “with a new, more limited security cooperation agreement,” and reduce U.S. commitments to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. On the question of China, realists have split in recent years. Some, such as the scholar John Mearsheimer, contend that even as the United States retrenches elsewhere, in Asia, it must contain the threat of China, whereas others, such as Posen, argue that nations in the region are perfectly capable of doing the job themselves.“
Millions, I dare say ten of millions, likely even more than 100 million Americans favour the realist school. They agree that “the United States has overextended itself in countries that have little bearing on its national interest ... [and they think, with some good reason, that] … the United States is fundamentally secure thanks to its geography, nuclear arsenal, and military advantage.” One of the reasons they voted, in the tens of millions, for Donald J Trump in 2016 and will do so again in 2020 is that he shares their views. When those Americans read about another American casualty in the Middle East or Afghanistan or another American ship harassed by Iranian gunboats they ask themselves: “Why are we there? Why are young Americans being killed? We don’t need Arab oil, do we? Why do we have to be involved?” The now, traditional liberal-internationalist/globalist talking heads tell them that America needs to preserve the world order. Millions and millions of Americans, including President Trump, disagree.
Many, likely most Americans understand that the world is a dangerous place. Millions of Americans agree that e.g. Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia are all adversaries and dangerous adversaries, at that. Millions of Americans would not be averse to wiping North Korea, just for example, off the face of the earth. But they do not believe that it is America’s sole responsibility to do, for the world, what the world doesn’t seem willing or able to help to do for itself. Most of the world, it seems to many Americans, especially rich countries like Canada and Germany and Japan, want to hide behind America’s military shield … and then criticize the USA for having such a powerful shield. Those tens of millions of Americans, including President Trump, are more and more inclined to take their shield and go home. That shield, by the way, includes an effective continental ballistic missile defence system which, as our own generals have told us, does not cover Canada.
Americans started to be disenchanted back in the 1960s when they felt that they were doing their best to beat back the advance of communism in Vietnam while many of their allies, including Canada, criticised them for being leaders. The same sort of thing happened in Europe. The USA provided most of NATO’s military muscle, but young Europeans massed in the streets shouting “Yankee go home!” The same happened in Afghanistan; Americans saw themselves as leading a crusade, for the whole world, against terrorism … but they were ‘thanked’ with protests.
And, so, they are going home.
Someone else can look after Afghanistan, and the neighbouring ‘stans,’ too, and someone else can confront North Korea and Pakistan. America, for now, is retrenching. Many analysts think that’s a bad idea and they suggest that when not if, America returns to embracing a liberal-internationalist agenda it will require more effort and sacrifice to reestablish its dominant position … if that can be done at all.
It seems to me that the trend towards retrenchment, the desire to withdraw back into FortressAmerica, is far bigger than Donald rump’s presidency. While I believe that the past 75 years during which the liberal-internationalist world order prevailed was something of a golden age, I also understand that, for many millions of Americans, it appeared to be an age in which most of the world took advantage of American generosity, courage, wealth and even naivety. That, not anything Donald Trump said, is why so many Americans believe that he is right and that Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, père et fils, were wrong.
Canada has to find a way in this new world order. We are, as I have explained before, caught in a dilemma which some wag, several years ago, described as TINA². The notion of TINA squared is that we are:
- Trapped In North America by geography and culture; and, if that wasn’t bad enough for some members of the often virulently ant-American Laurentian Elites
- There Is No Alternative ~ a phrase, just to rub salt in the wounds, made famous by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
If America is going to withdraw into Fortress America, as I believe is likely under President Trump and under his likely successors who, I think, will also be Trumpians, then we need to adapt:
- First, we need to be inside the fortress, with them, not outside, begging for protection. That means we must make the new NAFTA work for both Canada and the USA and we must, also, strengthen our continental defence relationships ~ we must join the US in a continental ballistic missile defence system which will come under NORAD;
- Second, we must also strengthen our ties with other friends and allies in order to offset, as far as we can, the huge imbalance of power between Canada and the USA. CANZUK would be a good place to start; and
- Third, we must undersatnd that the Global War on Terror is, finally, over. President Trump is going to give the jihadists what Osama bin Ladn wanted in the fist place: the geographical Sunni-Arab ummah will be free of American (and almost cerainly Canadian) intelopers. We will stop pontificating about bringing peace or deocracy or whatever to the peoples of Syria and Iraq. We wil leave them to their own fates, supported, I guess, by the Russians.
President Trump wants to leave the Middle East in near totality, I think. he wants to cut it off. He wants to keep Middle Eastern people out of American and Americans out of the Middle East. If China, Germany, India and Japan need Middle Eastern oil then they can patrol the sea lanes and so on. He wants to stay in East Asia, but he wants Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to bear a greater and greater share of the costs. He is indifferent to Europe. My guess is that when he thinks of Canada at all he sees us as being little more than an America protectorate. I think he likes Canada but still dislikes both Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland. He doesn’t care about international institutions that matter to Canada. He doesn’t care about climate change, even though the US does better than Canada at reducing green-house gasses. Canada must adapt to all of these changing circumstances.
I am convinced that the Liberal Party if Canada, as currently constituted, cannot make those arrangements. To me, anyway, two things are obvious:
- Canada needs back-to-back-to-back Conservative majority governments; and
- During a dozen years of Conservative government, the Liberal Party of Canada needs to reinvent itself. To do that it needs to look back past Justin Trudeau, past Paul Martin, past Jean Chrétien, past John Turner and past Pierre Trudeau to a time when the Liberal Party stood for a united Canada that played a leading role in the world.
It’s time to, finally, shake the dust of Afghanistan off our boots and turn our attentions to dealing with America.