Saturday, July 14, 2018

the end of NATO or the end of NATO, wondering whether the crises Trump highlights are that the sun set on the Western European empires and that NATO was a shield against dealing with a sun that had set on the Western Europea imperial powers in the wake of two world wars

As Trump's presidency continues there's been a glut of articles on how his leadership or lack thereof has destroyed American credibility.  I suppose it's because of how jaded and cynical I am about the alleged virtue of the nation that still wants to think of itself as the leader of the free world that I am not sure Trump's mercurial activities don't highlight that America has been America for a while.

For those folks I know who did, happily, vote for him, they see Trump as the only candidate who was willing to say the post-World War II Pax Americana isn't really in the long-term interest or benefit of the United States.  Why have NATO if the Cold War is over?  Well, of course, people can argue that NATO is all the more essential now because ...

In the Cold War years, American and other NATO troops held the line in Europe, containing Soviet power. In the end, America won the Cold War. But it didn’t win by itself, through military power alone. It won because American and NATO military strength helped create the space for democratic dissidents in Eastern Europe—people like Donald Tusk and his associates—to gather a different kind of strength.
It was Polish dissidents and Polish workers like Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s leader, and others throughout the Baltics and Central Europe that brought down communist rule from within. They were inspired by the example of Western values and democracy. Many were also inspired by President Ronald Reagan, who spoke in the name of these values, which he believed should extend to all of Europe, not just Western Europe. Even more were inspired by the Polish Pope, John Paul II, who urged the people of Poland to “be not afraid.”

This history is important to remember at a time when the leader of the Western alliance seems determined to reduce it to a monetary transaction. During the Cold War, America had allies in unlikely places like Gdansk, Warsaw, Budapest, Vilnius, and Prague. These allies came through. The dissidents and workers didn’t contribute anything to military spending; at the time, their countries were in the Warsaw Pact, the other side, but their contribution to the common success was decisive, and equal to America’s own.

Donald Tusk went from being a dissident to being prime minister of Poland, and then to becoming president of the European Council—an institution of an undivided, democratic Europe. Poland went from being a poor, Soviet-occupied country to one that was relatively wealthy and free.
That good story—a miracle, actually—is replicated throughout Central Europe, and it is a testament to the success of what was then, and had been before, America’s grand strategy. America pursued, from President Woodrow Wilson through Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Reagan, a course reflecting the understanding that the advance of American interests was linked to the advance of American values.

America did not fight the Cold War for itself alone, but for the democratic world, the free world—and those who wished to join it. It did so not out of abstract charity, but because generations of Americans understood the linkage of interests and values. They also understood, through bad experience, that the failure of those values would lead to bad real-world outcomes, like the Second World War. The American grand strategy, developed the hard way through two world wars and executed after 1945, gave America and the rest of the West two generations of peace and unprecedented prosperity. First America helped Western Europe find peace, security, and prosperity. Then America and its partners helped extend that peace to almost all of Europe. And millions of people, Europeans and Americans, came out of this ahead.

But for anyone who has read even a smattering of Soviet era literature American imperialism was considered so axiomatic that you could just mention "imperialism" and the American/Western part could be implied.  If the advance of American values could be taken for granted as only being "good" values then what has the War on Terror over the last twenty years been about?  Do "they" only hate us for our democracy?  Is it a democracy?  Do Americans who write for online magazines or traditional magazines want a democracy?  The Stranger's Urban Archipelago made it seem that what some journalists want is not a democratic republic so much as a series of centralized city-states that guide the course of the United States so that fly-over red state farmers and hicks don't have any input in the global future a stratum of Americans believe the world should pursue. 

Cynical and jaded, though perhaps not enough by half. 

But the question of what purpose NATO serves in the post Cold War world isn't going to go away and for those who would advocate for a further left shift in the United States' domestic policy ending NATO altogether is one of the more salient topics that eventually needs to come up.  Unless, of course, we're also trying to balance a consideration of stuff like our trade deficit and spending history ... .

There's a consensus that Trump is bad news because he doesn't take the alliance with NATO seriously enough.

As Trump seems to see it, allies—with their free-trade deals and military alliances and unending expectations of preferential treatment—tie down the United States, Gulliver-like, and infringe on its sovereignty. They cynically take advantage of their superpower patron while cloaking their naked self-interest in the high-minded language of multilateralism and shared interests. They flourish by exploiting America’s largesse and sapping the United States of its strength. (Hence, perhaps, why Trump is blasting Germany for buying gas from Russia—and not from the energy-rich United States—while depending on the United States to defend it from Russia.) Trump’s gripes about the “$151 Billion trade deficit” with the European Union or the U.S. spending “at least 70 percent for NATO” are really just numerical ways of saying the United States is getting screwed by supposed friends who are laughing all the way to the bank.

“We make a mistake when we equate” Trump’s position with past American presidents’ frustrations with allies for not shouldering enough of the burden of their common work, Wright said at the time. Trump’s is “a much more imperial version of U.S. hegemony.”

Maybe the way to phrase this is a much more officially and unapologetically imperial version of U.S. hegemony but note that U.S. hegemony is taken as given.  What if a leader were to assume that American hegemony does not have to be a given?  What if we're moving back toward a multipolar power distribution in the world rather than a continuation of an arguably dubious Pax Americana that has stopped seeming fiscally sustainable and doesn't even disguise imperial interests?

For those who would like the United States to be more like select nations in Europe, more in the zone of Norway or Sweden, it can't be ignored that nations who benefited from the Marshall plan and could be thought of as protectorates under a nuclear Pax Americana could afford to make robust welfare states because they had border policies and regimes that were stable.  But some of those countries have legal theories that presuppose that "you" don't have any rights that are not granted to you by the state. 

Americans would not necessarily want a Scandanavian approach to rights because for all of the bromides about the negative impact of Puritan this and Protestant work ethic that natural rights is still hard to extract from Anglo-American legal thinking.  The idea that you have inalienable natural rights has not gone away.  If anything progressive thought in Anglo-American contexts seems like it has to presuppose the legitimacy of this concept in a way where trying to implement Norweigian or Swedish welfare states without consideration of their different approaches could be a recipe for failure.  Although Fredrik Deboer has pointed out that even those nations have been incrementally privatizing their medical services so that Americans who want the US to be like them are revealing their ignorance of slow policy changes from the last fifteen years.

If NATO members have to pay for their own defense we might discover that the great nations of Europe are not necessarily better than the US.  The US legacy of entitled imperialism didn't come from nowhere or the proverbial water and soil of America itself.  "We" got the legacy of that kind of triumphalism from somewhere.  Sometimes it seemed to me, when I was in my twenties, that Europe resented American imperialism because we could do it with "soft power" rather than overt military conquest but that, if we wanted to, we could do the overt conquest thing, too, since we'd done it. 

To the extent that the United States had effectively lined up a proxy leadership in Russia in the wake of the Cold War I'm not really sure why conspiracy theories about Russian attempts to hack the U.S. election are a basis for outrage.  It may just be a source of outrage for Democrats who are angry that its' even possible a foreign power did to us what we've done for generations to "them".  In this respect the last people who are in any position to legitimately complain about those sorts of gambits have surnames that are nestled near the start of the alphabet in both parties. 

One of the things that jumped out for me in Atlantic coverage was this:

A more likely outcome, to my mind, is that a more autonomous Europe will devote itself almost exclusively to Africa. A decade or so from now, I suspect it is the European powers that will find themselves mired in armed conflicts, peacekeeping missions, and state-building efforts in the world’s most volatile regions, and the United States that will, regrettably, be standing aloof. Europeans will spend more on defense not in response to hectoring from Trump or his successors. Rather, they will do so out of necessity. The European Intervention Initiative, conceived in the wake of France’s military operations in Mali, is a sign of things to come.
Between 2010 and 2050, the working-age population of sub-Saharan Africa will grow from half a billion to more than 1.3 billion. That booming young population could be channeled into productive work at home, or, failing that, could seek it elsewhere. If current patterns persist, the economists Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh anticipate that the number of African migrants residing outside the continent will almost triple over this period, growing from 4.6 million to 13.4 million, and that most will settle in an aging Europe. Civil wars, climate change, and other looming calamities could spur emigration well beyond these projections.
European powers cultivating relationships with populations in Africa?  Some folks I read from time to time online have pointed out that China has been working to cultivate relationships with nations in Africa.  If European powers keep cultivating connections in Africa then, well, the legacy of colonialism never goes away, does it?  European progressives may have had some fun fobbing off the long-term legacy of European imperialism on America because American power more or less could be thought of as having co-opted that legacy, to which Western Europe seemed to more or less ambivalently acquiesced, but the chickens can still come home to roost, so to speak.  If an increasingly unstable and unreliable United States shifts from an Atlanticist paradigm to a Pacificist paradigm then the future of Europe will have to be the future of Europe dealing with Africa and Asia and eastern Europe without the same earlier assurances the United States and its nuclear arsenal would be the same "umbrella" it was in the Cold War era.  ...
As for the United States, expect it to concern itself more with Chinese and Indian power than with managing the stresses and strains associated with Africa’s demographic expansion. While Europe projects power in Africa, the U.S. will endeavor to preserve its relevance in East and South Asia, the new center of gravity of the global economy. And as the security interests of the U.S. and Europe diverge in the coming decades, perhaps Europeans will remember the Trump presidency as the moment they began to forge a more independent future.
 India?  Like ...

It does seem as though there's been a shift from an Atlantic to a Pacific conception of where American interests should lay.  Which is why, to be plain about it, it doesn't seem that a figure as polarizing as Trump is necessarily wrong to ask what the point of NATO really is in terms of American interest.  It's also probably fair to ask what the point of NATO is in global terms. 
On Thursday, the president of the United States threw into crisis mode the military alliance America has led since the aftermath of World War II, reportedly threatening his fellow NATO leaders in an emergency meeting that if each country didn’t start spending at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by January, he would “do his own thing.”
“What good is NATO,” Donald Trump had asked the day before, while attending a meeting of the alliance in Brussels, if Germany is buying billions of dollars worth of gas and becoming more dependent on energy from Russia, the very country NATO is designed to deter? “The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade,” he tweeted. 
What most distinguishes Trump’s critiques from those of previous U.S. presidents—who at times complained about free-riding friends and acted unilaterally when partners were perceived as obstacles to pursuing U.S. interests—is that Trump’s grievances aren’t just about having to expend more resources than America’s allies, or about expending those resources on alliances that aren’t demonstrating their value. They’re also about what Trump apparently considers the supreme folly of investing in alliances that harm or even constitute direct threats to the United States.
As Trump seems to see it, allies—with their free-trade deals and military alliances and unending expectations of preferential treatment—tie down the United States, Gulliver-like, and infringe on its sovereignty. They cynically take advantage of their superpower patron while cloaking their naked self-interest in the high-minded language of multilateralism and shared interests. They flourish by exploiting America’s largesse and sapping the United States of its strength. (Hence, perhaps, why Trump is blasting Germany for buying gas from Russia—and not from the energy-rich United States—while depending on the United States to defend it from Russia.) Trump’s gripes about the “$151 Billion trade deficit” with the European Union or the U.S. spending “at least 70 percent for NATO” are really just numerical ways of saying the United States is getting screwed by supposed friends who are laughing all the way to the bank.
This is why the president reportedly likes to refer to longtime American partners such as Canada, France, and Germany as “so-called allies” and to claim that these allies “don’t care about us”—only themselves. It’s why, at a rally in Ohio this spring, he declared, “Our friends did more damage to us than our enemies. Because we didn’t deal with our enemies. We dealt with our friends and we dealt incompetently.” And it helps explain Trump’s fluid, transactional, and iconoclastic approach to foreign policy, which is predicated on the notion that the United States has to stop looking out for the world and start looking out for itself.

But as much as there are things to dislike about Trump, there's a sense in which his point-blank questioning of the relevance of NATO may make sense.  If NATO was, and I've read just enough stuff from Soviet authors over the decades that I'm being admittedly breezy here, simply a mask for American imperialism then if NATO is not doing America any favors it isn't a surprise if an American president would one day ask straight up why we're doing this thing?  If the world economy is shifting to Asia and even Africa over the next century then why waste time and money offering to defend a Europe who could have used American economic and military might as a way to defer a resolution to conflicts that were brewing over the centuries that culminated in World Wars I and II?  These were wars about which nations of Europe got to decide the fate of the rest of the world, to put it a bit too simply.  American imperialism was perhaps a safety valve that prevented Europe from having to more directly confront its own colonialist legacy.  Shifting attention to American colonialism and imperialism could defer the question of what the future of Europe could be in light of its imperialist legacy but not altogether remove it. 

Shortly before Trump left for Europe, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, who is one of the most incisive interpreters of Trump’s views of the world, reflected on this tendency of the president’s to view allies not merely as burdens or anachronisms but as direct threats. It’s instructive, he argued, in understanding why Trump might treat Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he will meet with next week in Finland, differently than he is treating European leaders this week in Belgium. And it speaks to just how dramatically Trump could transform U.S. foreign policy and international affairs more broadly.
“Since 1987, Trump’s worldview has been motivated much more by anger toward allies and partners than enemies,” Wright wrote on Twitter. “This is because he sees alliance security commitments and free trade as existential threats to U.S. interests. He has never really been bothered about geopolitical stability, etc. so when he looks at Russia/[the] Soviet Union, he sees a country that the U.S. has no security commitments to and no trade with. So no problem! By contrast, Japan, [South] Korea, Germany, etc. all tick the threat box. Add to the mix that ... he truly couldn’t care less about a Russian threat to Europe—other [people’s] business in his view. The net effect is he genuinely thinks allies and partners are a greater problem for U.S. interests than the Russians.”

Yet ... living here in Seattle and having become jaded by the two party system and its decades of histrionic polemics ... no doubt for the worse, it seems that Trump's critiques can be clearly understood if they are subordinated to a belief that Pax Americana is officially a waste of time and deploying "soft power" seems pointless when the Western allies have tacitly or even explicitly relied on the United States' military power to keep their economies running so they can keep their regimes stable.  That doesn't necessarily make the Trumpian position "right" (either in the ethical sense or even in the political spectrum sense, since the spectrum of political thinking is more diverse than that). 
At this point equations of Trump with Hitler from the blue-state press are so rote as to seem boring, even in cases where authors take pains to say that comparing Trump's American to Nazi Germany is inaccurate.

 It's a jaded opinion, I admit, but what if the sun set on the Western European powers in the wake of their two world wars and the crisis of NATO and Trump's skeptical attitude toward its viability and relevancy is a secondary issue, with the primary issue being that the great nations of Europe stopped being great a couple of generations ago and the crisis of American policy is that it highlights the extent to which European prosperity has been parasitically dependent on what Soviets used to call plain old American imperialism?  Not that the Russians are exactly "the good guys" at this point.  Wouldn't want anyone to get the idea I think there are actual good guys or bad guys I this world.  There are bad guys who think they are the good guys but that's ... basically the extent of it, at least at the level of global power-brokering. 

It may seem ghastly that Trump has nice stuff to say about Putin.  But as a thought experiment, if the powers that Trump bothers to recognize are places like Russia or the Koreas or China and India has expanded then what if the simple geographic shift is that we're shifting to a Pacific rather than an Atlantic defined world and the Trump administration has decided (using this concept perhaps a bit too generously as imputing policy planning goes) that it makes more sense to just admit Europe is "played out" and tell them they're going to be on their own as the United States cultivates a more Pacific-centric understanding of global trade and power dynamics?  It may be unappealing at all sorts of levels for Atlantic-centric and American East coast pundits steeped in East coast higher education but I've spent my whole life in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  Now California tech oligarchs seem like they're ultimately bad news and there's plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Zuckerbergs and Musks of the world. 

But ever ambivalent as I seem to be, I wonder if the egotism of these new rich may just tell us that after generations of steeping people in self-actualization narratives of a post-Campbellian Hero's Journey that we shouldn't be surprised these kinds of self-aggrandizing disruptive sorts emerged.

But then I think Joseph Campbell's monomyth is a potent distillation of American cultural idiocy of the sort we need to have less of in the world at large and the United States in particular.  But that's a topic probably best saved for some other time. 

I've mulling over that it could be what makes Trump exasperating and terrible for an East Coast/Atlanticist establishment is that his mercurial and brazen public statements mayh cumulatively suggest that the era of an Atlantic-centric power base guiding the world is crumbling and that the new Pacific-centric power base that will guide the world is probably not going to be any better, just different.  But it could be worse, a lot worse ,and in that sense it's hard to blame people committed to an Atlanticist conception of global history for feeling like it's horrifying that their world is coming to an end and being apocalyptic and apoplectic about it.  If the aim these days is to make America great again the concession implicit in such a slogan is that it stopped being great.  Yet if Trump's complaints about NATO have been they are leaching off of American resources without grasping the extent to which our soft power modes of colonialism were what made it possible for America to be "great" then it may be a bigger problem is wanting America to be "great" again when how and why it was "great" was pretty much exactly the problem of it from the start. 

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