Is this really where the light of liberal democracy grows dim?

In a comment earlier I wrote about how concerned I am about the course of my country — and of the world. More so than I’ve ever been in my more than six decades on this planet.

It’s not just Trump — he’s just a glaring, ugly sign of it. Take a step back, and reflect: Who came in second in the GOP primaries? The only guy who gave Trump any kind of a run for his money as the worst candidate ever — Ted Cruz. All the better-suited candidates were stuck in single digits. And the Democrats have nothing to brag about — they put forward the second-most (second to Trump) despised candidate in the history of such things being measured. And she had trouble putting away a cranky old socialist to get that far.

How can I blame Trump when the real problem is that millions of people voted for him? I actually almost feel sorry for this bizarre figure, because he truly had zero reason to expect that he’d actually end up in this position.

I mean seriously: If you don’t even go deeper than his hair, you can tell at a glance that the country’s really, really in trouble. This is what will lead us?krauthammer

And the rest of the world, too. As Charles Krauthammer wrote today, “After a mere 25 years, the triumph of the West is over.” The promise of 1991, with the Soviet Union finally collapsing and the U.S. leading a broad coalition against Saddam in Kuwait — the New World Order in which Civilization, led by the City on a Hill, would enforce its values against aggressors — is behind us.

The United States is pulling back, and the bad guys just can’t wait to flow into the vacuum. In fact, they haven’t been waiting — in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or the South China Sea. Or even in our own backyard.

He sums it up this way, blaming BOTH Obama and Trump:

Donald Trump wants to continue the pullback, though for entirely different reasons. Obama ordered retreat because he’s always felt the U.S. was not good enough for the world, too flawed to have earned the moral right to be the world hegemon. Trump would follow suit, disdaining allies and avoiding conflict, because the world is not good enough for us — undeserving, ungrateful, parasitic foreigners living safely under our protection and off our sacrifices. Time to look after our own American interests.

I think he’s trying a little too hard at false equivalence there, but at the same time, while Obama’s a smart guy who knows how to say the right things (unlike, you know, the other guy), there has been a noticeable tinge of “Oh, this country isn’t all that special” in his stance toward the world. A tinge that some of you agree with, and with which I couldn’t disagree more. But if you’re right, if the United States isn’t all that special — if it can’t be relied upon as the chief champion of liberal democracy — then the world doesn’t stand much of a chance. Because there’s always somebody wanting to be the hegemon, and the leading candidates running to take our place are pretty much a nightmare.

ISIS is a wannabe and never-was on that score. Russia wants to be a contender again, instead of bum, Charlie. But my money has long been on the oppressive authoritarians of the world’s largest country, China.

One of the first editorials I wrote for The State — maybe the first — when I joined the editorial board in 1994 was about the disturbing signs I saw of the Chinese buying friends and influencing people right here in our hemisphere, the long-forgotten Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding. I was worried that nobody else in this country seemed to see it, thanks to the fact that few of my fellow Americans ever took a moment to think about what happens to the south of us. (Side note: We wrote a lot about international affairs when I joined the editorial board; when I became editor, we would focus far more closely on South Carolina, which needed the scrutiny.)

Well, more people have noticed it since then. But not enough people. And not enough of the ones who have noticed care. President Obama, to his credit, started his “pivot” to focus on the Pacific Rim. That was the smart thing to do for this country’s long-term interests, and those of liberal democracy in general. China needs to be countered, with both soft power and, when necessary, hard.

Probably the most chilling paragraph in Krauthammer’s column is this one:

As for China, the other great challenger to the post-Cold War order, the administration’s “pivot” has turned into an abject failure. The Philippines openly defected to the Chinese side. Malaysia then followed. And the rest of our Asian allies are beginning to hedge their bets. When the president of China addressed the Pacific Rim countries in Peru last month, he suggested that China was prepared to pick up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now abandoned by both political parties in the United States….

TPP was smart policy, encouraging our allies in the region to join with us in confidence, tying themselves more closely with U.S. interests in the face of the Chinese challenge. And this year, neither party was willing to stand up for it — even though one of the nominees (the one who lost, of course) knew better. If she’d been elected, at least we’d have had the chance of her breaking that bad campaign promise.

We painstakingly fashioned that strategic instrument, then dropped it like a hot potato when the populists began howling. And China is preparing to pick it up. And maybe you don’t, but I feel the Earth’s center of gravity shifting in the wrong direction.

Oh, but hey, Carrier’s not moving a plant to Mexico — at least, not completely. So everything’s OK, right? We’ve entered the era of short-term, inwardly focused international goals. Or something…

12 thoughts on “Is this really where the light of liberal democracy grows dim?

  1. bud

    I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with any foreign policy comments from Krauthammer. This won’t be the one. But it seems like he is a pro-choice guy. I’ll have to double check that.

    Obama is about 3/4 right on his foreign policy initiatives. The glaring problem is his drone strikes. It’s starting to look like his approach in ISIS in Iraq is working, albeit very slowly. People should be applauding his attempts to keep American soldiers out of harms way in wars that don’t benefit the USA.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Expansionist Russia and a muscular China is a large, long-term problem, because both countries are seeking to establish a world order with their country as the hegemon, or putting it another way, with them treating other countries as lesser entities – not equals.

    What has happened in Crimea and Ukraine is war. I know that no one wants to call it that, but that’s what it is. We’ve got almost zero dialogue with Putin, which isn’t helping.

    The Chinese are watching us with Russia. They’re watching NATO and the US lose influence in response to Russia and what Russia has done with Crimea and Ukraine. They’ve seen the West do essentially nothing in response to Russia’s aggressive conduct.

    So…China is expanding their influence, because they see that there’s little will for us to act as a check against them. The small little island countries neighboring China are feeling the pressure diplomatically, and the’re seeing that the prevailing wind is coming from Beijing and Moscow – not Washington.

    Your reference of the Philippines openly defecting to China is a perfect example of that. The Philippines used to be our ally, and their people literally fought side-by-side with us against the Japanese. It is chilling to see them cast us aside, and if they truly repudiate the US, their loss will substantially degrade our ability to project power in that part of the world.

    What the Chinese are doing in the South China Sea and elsewhere is chipping away at the peace and stability in that region. Again, I’m not sure how much dialogue there is between Washington and Beijing, but I know it’s not substantial.

    In dialogue, I’m talking dialogue comparable to Nixon, Carter, Reagan. Today, it seems like there isn’t the same level of dialogue.

    The world is certainly becoming a more dangerous place, and Washington is not really doing much domestic governing, not to mention strategic thinking in the larger world.

    1. Phillip

      “Moral right” and “world hegemon” are impossible to contain within the same sentence or thought. Particularly if a country SEEKS to be “the world hegemon,” it forfeits the moral right to be such. That goes for China and Russia, but also for the United States. So what Krauthammer cannot understand (because he’s coming at it from a different moral framework) is that it’s not that Obama thinks the US is “too flawed” to be the world hegemon; it’s that for ANY country to seek that position is in itself the fatal flaw. The fact that the most powerful country in the world (still) is a liberal democracy means by its very definition that it is the obligation of that nation to end any concept of global hegemony by any ONE nation, including itself, and to build up at every opportunity multilateralism, a multi-polar world, international cooperation, shared military and economic and environmental obligations. A world where each nation’s sovereign right is respected, and if human catastrophes (e.g., genocide) are taking place within a country’s borders, then that must be responded to by international coalition. Much progress has taken place since 1945 on that front: it’s not time to give up on that idea.

      The United States has been by such a huge margin the dominant and most powerful country in the world, militarily and economically, for such a long time (unquestionably for the past 25 years and in truth, more like 50-60 years), that for other nations like China to become slightly more powerful recently (primarily economically) and to perhaps flex their muscles a little bit near their own shores, and for us to be just ever so slightly less dominant, is a shock to our system, and we have to therefore make sure we are properly understanding our own perspective-biases. For instance, Bryan confidently assures us that China wants to establish a world order with its country as the hegemon, yet blithely tosses in a comment worrying about “our ability to project power in that part of the world,” as if we have any inherent right to project military power in “that” part of the world any more than China has a right to project military power in “our” part of the world. We just make assumption after assumption, without seeing the irony, because we are so conditioned to see the world as a zero-sum game, where there are clear-cut good guys vs. bad guys, and anytime America doesn’t “do something” about a problem in the world, that means we’re “showing weakness.”

      And, come to think of it, I’m not aware that Chinese troops are stationed in Bermuda or that Mexico has agreed to let the Chinese station a fleet off Cancun. In fact, I recall this summer the news that China finally is building its first military outpost, a port in Djibouti. Compare this to the global force the US maintains.

      To me, what Brad calls Obama’s “oh this country isn’t all THAT special” is really just Obama viewing (again, to use Bryan’s words) other countries as equals and not lesser entities who merely exist to serve the economic and military interests of the United States. THAT is what a powerful liberal democracy does. Otherwise, the only difference between us and Russia and China is the color of our flags, and it becomes only a question of rooting for “your” team.

      Anyway, as we’re beginning to see, the threat to liberal democracy comes from within. As I’ve always said, when our great American experiment ends, it will be entirely by choice of the American people, or a majority thereof anyway. Perhaps it’s started.

      1. Phillip

        above, when I referenced China’s “first military outpost” I was of course meaning to say “first overseas military outpost.”

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        “Particularly if a country SEEKS to be “the world hegemon,” it forfeits the moral right to be such. That goes for China and Russia, but also for the United States.”

        The United States didn’t seek it. Oh, sure, folks such as Teddy Roosevelt wanted it, but when it actually happened, it just HAPPENED. Yes, leaders from Truman on (or perhaps we should say FDR) accepted and embraced the role — thank God. Because the alternative was Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, or (as we used to so quaintly say) Red China. Or the pathetic wannabe, the new caliphate.

        Phillip and I will have this argument forever, but the greatest blessing possible for the world is for its dominant force (and there WILL be a dominant force or dominant forces) to be the world’s largest and strongest liberal democracy.

        The concern that we most have at this point in our history is whether this nation will continue to be a liberal democracy, much less the dominant one, in light of what just happened on Nov. 8.

        There is a serious fallacy on the Left since Vietnam — the idea that a smaller, less presumptuous, humbler United States is a good thing for the world. I remember when my wife and I were in college in the 70s, she had a WAY left-wing professor who voted for George Wallace in 1972, and here was his reasoning: Like Trump, Wallace was a populist extremist who would have pulled the U.S. back from its commitments abroad, and to this guy, whose reason was apparently undone by Vietnam, that was unquestionably the most important thing that needed to happen. As to Wallace’s racism and other disastrous domestic ideas — this guy assumed that Congress (which he seemed to believe would perpetually be in the hands of liberal Democrats, or at least liberal democrats with a small “d”) would prevent him from doing anything he wanted to do here at home….

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      “The small little island countries…” I like it when you use such Maturin-style language. Although I think with him, it’s usually “little, small.”

      I think that redundancy is supposed to be an Irish style of expression. I think in the later books you haven’t gotten to, when he speaks to his servant Padeen (who is only fluent in Irish), he uses it more, when he’s presumably speaking to Padeen in Irish but O’Brian is translating it directly to English…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        You are to be commended, sir, at making such a strong, nay, bold statement. I am certain you are not to be trifled with, by any means. I used that expression (of small little) as it is how I would naturally speak.

        It’s probably my Scottish heritage on my father’s side. Caskey used to be MacCaskie way back in the day in Clan MacLeod of Lewis. My mother’s side is Scotch-Irish.

        My tartan:

  3. bud

    Trump just called the president of Taiwan? 37 years of diplomatic relations gone in minutes. I’ve never felt safer in my 60 years on this earth than I have over the last 8 years. Now I’m more fearful, even more than the W years.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Referring to Trump and Nigel Farage, the author of the NYT mag piece writes,

      But their success is dismaying precisely because it goes against a particular idea of Anglo-American exceptionalism. Not the traditional self-­image of certain American and British jingoists who like to think of the United States as the City on the Hill or Britain as the sceptered isle splendidly aloof from the wicked Continent, but another kind of Anglo­American exception: the one shaped by World War II. The defeat of Germany and Japan resulted in a grand alliance, led by the United States, in the West and Asia. Pax Americana, along with a unified Europe, would keep the
      democratic world safe. If Trump and Farage get their way, much of that dream will
      be in tatters.

      In the years when most of Europe was overrun by the Nazis or fascist
      dictatorships, the Anglo-­American allies were the last hope of freedom, democracy
      and internationalism. I grew up in the world they shaped. My native country, the
      Netherlands, was freed in 1945, six years before I was born, by British and North
      American troops (with the help of some very brave Poles). Those of us with no direct
      memories of this had still seen movies like “The Longest Day,” about the Normandy
      landings. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Kenneth More and his bulldog were our
      liberating heroes….

      1. Bryan Caskey

        In most everything, the key is to strike the right balance. It’s good for countries to be be related through trade, monetary policy, values, and common ideals. It’s also good for countries to retain their bit of sense of individuality. Perhaps the EU didn’t achieve this balance in the right way. Perhaps the American pull-back from the world over the last eight years in “leading from behind” could have the same picture on that NYT Mag piece of America being cut out of the map.

        Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not seeing a internal, earth-shattering movement to make America or Britain meaningless on the world stage. I think you can look at Trump’s selection of Mattis as SECDEF as an example to the contrary.

        Mattis is a big believer in NATO, the UN, the IMF, and having lots of allies because he knows that throughout history, the countries with the most allies generally prevail in military conflicts. He also understands that its because of these institutions we took some of our most hated enemies (the Germans and the Japanese) in a bitter war and turned them into some of our closest allies and biggest trading partners.

        I guess my point is: Let’s not freak out just yet.

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