Ignorance on Parade

There is no denying that today, we face a new global landscape–one that was unthinkable before the ascendancy of Trump to the presidency. It is perhaps, though, one we should have seen coming.

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn argued that the world order is not and should not be defined in terms of a “global community,” but rather, the world stage is an “arena” defined by competition.

It is an alarming shift of world view. To be sure, this smacks of Steve Bannon, who famously celebrated “darkness” and “power” in describing the governing style he hoped for under Trump. Many are calling this op-ed the clearest articulation yet of what Trump et al. mean by “America First.”

Yet, herein lies the great problem with “America First” (besides its connection to Nazi sympathizers):

America already was first.

The United States of America was indisputably the leader of the global community, not just the fiercest competitor in some arena as McMaster and Cohn insist. Our nation was the leader of, not just the free world, but the entire world.

As global orders go, it could have been better. Many critiques could and should be leveled at the quality of that leadership. Yet American hegemony in the post-Cold War era has marked a time of relative peace and uneven prosperity–and it was a community and order led by America.

No more.

Donald J. Trump, the accidental president, has pulled the rug out from under decades American leadership. This shift in world view is more than just rhetoric, as his disastrous appearance before NATO and his shameful withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement demonstrate. His enablers, like McMaster and Cohn, along with far-right cheerleaders in Congress believe and declare that Trump is serving American interests.

The fact that their understanding of those interests is short-sighted and skewed is irrelevant in discussing the larger, critical issue.

The simple fact is that leaders do not consider only their own interests. That is simply not what leaders do.

As the leader of the global community, it was America’s responsibility to look beyond its own limited interests and to put conditions like global prosperity and global peace above narrower concerns like the health of individual industries or particular (and often peculiar) sub-national interests.

That is the price of leadership. It is one that past American administrations have understood.

The Iraq invasion, for example, was undertaken in the name of leadership. America would lead, we were told, a “coalition of the willing” to remove Saddam Hussein from power in the interests of global stability and the eradication of rogue states bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

The idea that this invasion was solely in our narrow national interests was a charge that the administration vehemently denied. We were told, repeatedly, that we were not invading for the oil or for the potential windfalls for related industries should Iraq be transformed into a friendly state (those were just fringe benefits). We were eliminating a source of dangerous weapons and, when that turned out not to be the case, we turned our national attention to “liberating” the Iraqi people.

The extent to which this was a completely misguided application of our leadership capital is not really important for this discussion. What is important is that President George W. Bush and his neocon allies still acknowledged and, ostensibly, believed in the truth of American leadership.

President Obama took great pains in his early years repairing that stature, assuring allies and partners worldwide that America would not fly off the handle again with a ill-advised war and that we would be more tempered and more cautious in our role as leader. But his rhetoric and policies again presumed the simple fact of American global leadership.

But no more.

Today America has receded from that role under a president increasingly unlikely to finish out his term. His ill-begotten presidency, won under a previously unthinkable electoral scenario that saw him lose the popular vote by a greater margin than any other president not selected by the House of Representatives, is plagued by ongoing scandals even as his health and soundness of mind are in demonstrable and rapid decline. But even if we rid ourselves of this president, the damage is done.

The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is the surest sign of Trump’s disastrous impact on America’s role as a, nee the, global leader. The editors of the National Review applaud Trump’s decision, citing low-end projections of climate change’s impact on the GDP of 2%, and echoing Trump’s claims about the coal industry and how the agreement allows developing nations to keep burning coal while phasing it out in America.

These spurious claims aside for the moment, the National Review does point out something fairly important about the Paris Agreement, a critique that no proponents with an understanding of constitutional powers can lightly dismiss: Obama never had the authority to join it in the first place.

President Obama, in one of his many acts of legal gymnastics to try to address policy with an unabashedly hostile and obstructionist Congress, joined the Paris Agreement without sending the treaty to Congress for ratification. Given that several high-profile senators, like Texas’s Ted Cruz, applauded Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, Obama rightly feared that the treaty would not be ratified.

Yet Obama knew what these senators and Trump have ignored or forgotten: The United States of America cannot be the leader of the world if it rejects a treaty signed by every other major nation–every nation on Earth, in fact, save Nicaragua and Syria.

American leadership required that we join the Paris Agreement. It demands that we remain committed to it.

The details of the treaty are almost irrelevant in that regard, but it is worth noting the extent to which its detractors are wrong. In focusing almost solely on the coal industry, both Trump and the National Review editors take a myopic view of the treaty and the larger issue of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if they want to maintain a healthy American coal industry, then they should embrace the fact that the accord would have continued to allow for American coal to be exported. It is not, after all, environmental regulation that is killing the domestic coal industry, but good-ole fashioned free market competition. With natural gas and even renewables becoming more price competitive, coal is on the way out no matter what.

Even when the coal industry is gone, though, the atmosphere will still be in jeopardy. That is the importance of the Paris Agreement. It represents an international acknowledgement that climate change is a pressing issue for the global community.

An arena of competitors is never going to effectively deal with a global problem like climate change. It is a problem of the commons, and dealing with problems in the commons requires cooperative–not competitive thinking.

It is the failure to grasp that truth of leadership and community that is the greatest hallmark of the Trump administration’s ignorance–which is sadly its defining trait.

Trump claimed that the treaty was not fair to America because it allowed different standards for developing nations. Yet, even if we ignore America’s role as global leader, we must consider our role as a global polluter. We have only recently been passed as the world’s greatest contributor to global warming, despite China having more than six times our population. (The National Review editors disingenuously cite America’s share of the global pollution market in terms of GDP instead of per capita.)

But none of that matters to the ignorant.

And make no mistake, Trump’s election and presidency mark the triumph of ignorance in America. His refusal to embrace climate change as a sound scientific understanding of our physical world in the 21st century is the most glaring example of this uncomfortable truth, but it is far from the only one.

What greater sign of ignorance in power do we need than the president’s absurd relationship to truth itself? Again and again, he has spouted off false-hoods and out-right lies. Yet he is uncowed, and blithely unconcerned with any pretense of honesty.

And while some past followers have publicly admitted regret over his antics as president, many remain committed. Again, their ignorance is glaringly obvious as studies confirm that the values that motivated many Trump voters are decidedly Unamerican.

This shift toward ignorance has been brewing since the Tea Party stormed Congress and dragged the entire Republican establishment away from both the center and from reason. The Tea Party was always built on ignorance. Initially, it was only ignorance of economics and tax policy. But the right-ward nose dive of the Republican party has attracted all manner of ignorances into their coalition of the befuddled, from climate change deniers to conversion therapy believers to alt-right racists and lock-her-up Benghazi fanatics. All now empowered voices in our political landscape.

This slide into an abyss of us vs. them nativism and isolationism is exactly why Obama never sent the treaty to the Senate. Though we can fault him for such a maneuver coming from a constitutional law scholar, at least he tried to preserve American leadership.

But, sadly, that is no more.

All we can hope is that the next administration can right this fool’s course and reintegrate the United States into the global community it built for the security of, not just its own citizens, but for the world as a whole. Sadly, though, it seems unlikely that America will be able to retake its role as global leader any time soon.

The American century is over.

Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: