David Rothkoff, host of my favorite podcast, Deep State Radio, but in real life an accomplished professor of international relations, coined the phrase recently, we are “Present at the Destruction”. This comment was a riff after the 1969 Dean Acheson’s book about his years at the State Department was published, detailing the prewar and post war environments.
Acheson was “Present at the Creation” of a post war world where institutions and norms were formed to head off the kind of crisis that lead to the two world wars the century had witnessed only it’s first half. What Rothkoff referred to on Deep State is that our national election of 2016 advanced to official policy the revisionist idea we have no business overseas and it is high time to take our baseball mitts and go home, and let the world go to hell if it so chooses. In effect Mr. Trump successfully campaigned on an America First platform, a term not heard in these parts since the 1930’s and ended abruptly with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following that war we led the world in creating the system Acheson refers to being “Created”. It seems we no longer like all the commitments that the Creation means to the United States. Some of our wounds, like the Iraq war, are self inflicted but all and all we are just tired of being the worlds policeman. Not recognized anywhere in this calculus is the remarkable prosperity this world order has yielded for the American people. Think of all those great cars, cameras, and cell phones.
The trouble is the real arc of history is that bad guys grow like weeds, most of them do not have enlightened concepts like liberal democracy as their “go to” system of governance. Instead most of the time the governments that rise are authoritarian, which tend to be troublemakers.
What the past 70 years have taught us is unless there is this shining city on the hill called America who is willing to join, host and fund something as forward thinking as the UN we are going to see the the world retrench to something like the historical norm; regional hegemonic powers who periodically stumble upon grandiose idealizations and start wars. The presence of the United States either diplomatically or with forward based troops and ships tends to curb these ambitions and prevent this sort of crisis.
The United States is already “Great Again”. The country remains the biggest guy on the block, but due to it’s historical leadership nonetheless agrees it only has one vote in the international order. How enlightened is that? Yet it appears the effort afoot right now is walk away from this role, and essentially invite the chaos that lead to the world wars. The point is made well by Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute inn his most recent book the Jungle Grows Back.
My fear is we decide again to go all isolationist only to find that like Pearl Harbor and like 9/11, trouble will come looking for us. And this time we will find ourselves fighting again over territory we liberated once before and currently have a presence, unless we foolishly abandon it.
I cannot get over the idea that what we invite by not remaining primarily engaged in the worlds problems is another time where we are again dragged into the conflict, likely due to an attack on American soil, again, and we will send this generation of young men and women, again, to liberate the same space we have a presence in already.