Is America to Be First,Second — or What?A wise foreign policy over the next four years would build on Trump’s strategic gains for the U.S. and the West.
By VICTOR DAVIS HANSONDecember 1, 2020 
During this strange “transition,” it has been common now to assert that “multilateralism” is back — and with a vengeance. Joe Biden’s envisioned team allegedly will jettison the unilateralist idea of “America alone” and supposed soft neo-isolationism.
Instead, the U.S. will resume its historic but neglected role as the leader of the enlightened world. It will supposedly recultivate allies estranged by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo. It will now fix broken international organizations. It will eagerly reassume burdens that were neglected or repudiated during the Neanderthal Trump administration.
The result, supposedly, will be a safer, more secure world. The administration will be staffed again by returning international experts from the Obama years. Their excellence is vouched for by their past government, corporate, military, and academic service and their branded education.
I think all that is a fair summation of the lengthy published critiques, the preliminary giddy statements from designated Biden-administration officials, and the foreign-policy daily op-ed commentariat.
But how accurate are these rosy assessments and stock diagnoses?
A Strange Sort of IsolationismNo power is, or could be, withdrawing from its responsibilities when it still deploys abroad, more or less, between 190,000 and 200,000 military personnel. They are active in nearly 800 bases and installations, spread throughout 70 countries.
Alleged Trump isolationists or paleoconservative nationalists do not increase U.S. contributions to NATO. They do not oversee a vast surge of $100 billion over the past four years in the NATO budget. They do not convince ever more NATO members to meet or nearly meet their promised 2 percent of GDP investments in defense. They do not spike the U.S. defense budget by $150 billion. Depending on the arithmetic one uses, by the end of 2020, it will have reached between $750 billion and nearly $1 trillion per annum.
There are currently somewhere around 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan. Nearly 30,000 are deployed in South Korea. Given current Chinese and North Korean military capabilities along their air, land, and sea borders, most analysts assume that American expeditionary forces are not numerous enough to stop a massive assault. In 1950s Korean War fashion, they are prepped to survive — with extraordinary casualties — long enough to blunt an initial invasion until reinforcements arrive. Or they are a deterrent tripwire that prompts an overwhelming air and missile response that would likely include nuclear warheads.
Again, such deterrent forces abroad in Asia are not the numbers or the commitments of an isolationist or selfish power. Southeast Asians, Australians, and Taiwanese believe that in extremis the nationalist Trump administration is more likely to come to their aid than the prior “multilateralist” administration.
The point, then, is that the Trump administration did not reduce U.S. material commitments to either its own security forces, its allies’ security, or the security of the international community — in terms of either manpower or money.
Indeed, the Trump base has constantly faulted the administration for not showing more skepticism of the foreign-policy status quo, both policy and personnel. They wanted more attention given to the systemic Beltway and administrative-state pathologies that have led to flawed U.S. policies. They deeply suspected revolving-door diplomats whose appointments depend on fealty to convention, as well as administrative-state bureaucrats who actively sought to obstruct the administration that they had pledged to advance. And they expressed discomfort with retired high military and DOD officials who leave government to serve on defense-contractor boards and in foreign financial consortia.
Russia, Iran, the Middle East, China, and EuropeBut are these simply ossified statistics that otherwise belie actual performance? Hardly.
Take, for example, several recent crises. The Trump administration has been far more confrontational against Vladimir Putin’s Russia than was the prior Obama administration. The latter’s naïve “reset” was an overt failure that green-lighted Russian aggression in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine and saw Russia’s return to the Middle East for the first time in nearly a half century. In addition, the dangerous reset triggered a radical domestic reaction to the Frankenstein Putin monster it had helped create, and so the gyrating stance of the Left toward Russia swung in the opposite direction: We have now been mired for three years in the 1950s paranoid pit of “a Russian under every bed.” The obsessions centered around the false “Russian collusion” fable that Robert Mueller and his dream team failed to prove, after wasting $30 million and 22 months.
Yet since January 2017, the Trump administration has pulled out of an asymmetrical, 30-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that Vladimir Putin often violated. It beefed up American sanctions against Russia. The U.S. stepped up gas and oil production and exports, to Russia’s chagrin.
America vastly increased its own military investments. It lobbied for greater NATO defense budgets. The Trump administration has demonstrated a willingness to confront and kill Russian mercenaries in Syria. In contrast to the Obama Defense and State departments, it sold sophisticated anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. All those measures involved risks. But they certainly have weakened Moscow both economically and strategically. Historians will likely reassess U.S.–Russian relations between 2017 and 2020 largely through the paradox of a historic, post-war anti-Russia policy — in part driven by Democrats’ false accusations of collusion that followed their dangerous prior appeasement in the “reset” years.
New steep sanctions, the collapse of oil prices, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all but collapsed the Iranian economy. Direct and stealthy Iranian subsidies to the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and Hamas have plunged. Lebanon, the center of Iranian expeditionary terrorism, has all but collapsed.
The mullahs’ theocracy has never been shakier. It is disliked more than ever by its own people, especially after its inept response to the pandemic and its paranoid destruction of a Ukrainian civilian airliner — and conspiratorial denials of such a crime.
The U.S. eliminated Iran’s arch-terrorist architect, General Soleimani. Tehran so far seems to have found no commensurate replacement. 
The withdrawal from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran deal”) dried up subsidies to Iranian terrorist surrogates and exposed Iranian nuclear cheating, which is now overt. The exit from the Iran deal helped to draw moderate Arabs states into a historical détente with Israel against Iran as a common enemy. The Pompeo initiatives ended the dopey notion of Ben Rhodes and other Obama officials that empowering a Persian-Shiite crescent would counterbalance Israel and the Gulf sheikdoms.
In the Mideast, the U.S. has never been more engaged — but in a manner radically antithetical to previous stymied efforts that had focused obsessively on the Palestinians while empowering Iran. Arab states are cautiously lining up to realign with Israel. They assume that for the first time in memory, an American administration is determined not to allow Iranian nuclear weapons. Washington has rejected the faux diplomacy that merely slows Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons to allow acculturation to that supposed inevitability.
Everyone knew that, more than 70 years after the creation of Israel, the Palestinians were no more current-day refuges than were the 1 million Jews ethnically cleansed from the Arab Middle East, the Volga Germans in Russia, or over 12 million Germans who fled East Prussia and Eastern Europe after WWII. Now the Palestinians can choose to prosper economically with vast Arab, U.S., and international aid, as part of a Middle East détente. Or they can suicidally revert to terror in alignment with Iran. But the choice is theirs alone now.
The Trump administration destroyed three myths of U.S.–China relations and thereby belled the Beijing cat that everyone knew had to be so collared, though they were terrified of doing so.
One, China is no more than India destined to become the world’s hegemon because it has a 1.4 billion population. Two, the richer and more appeased China becomes, the more dangerously and anti-democratically it acts. And three, patent and trademark infringement, currency manipulation, vast trade imbalances, technology appropriation, and product dumping are not the cost of making China an eventual world citizen; these are now exposed as naïveté to be exploited, not magnanimity that Beijing will reciprocate.
Until COVID, the Trump administration was working with the world to contain China. It was warning of Chinese Silk Road imperialism and using tariffs to slow down China’s export-driven and mercantilist economy. That strategy could work again in a post-COVID 2021.
Certainly, China’s responsibility for COVID-19 — to the extent it can ever be fully probed — is deeply resented globally. Almost all its neighbors, with U.S. encouragement, have increased their defense budgets. In that regard, the governments of Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have never been more pro-American — and never more relieved that the U.S. is finally waking up to the intimidation that they face daily from their appeased and aggressive Chinese neighbor.
China emerges from the coronavirus epidemic with a number of Western countries vowing to decouple as much as possible from the Chinese mercantile system. Beijing not only infected the world but sent it into depression, with catastrophic results for the international clients of its own belt-and-road project. Many countries will not be able to pay for their new Chinese-built infrastructure — and will likely not believe that they should after suffering near depression.
Of course, Europeans do not, and will not ever, like Trump — at least publicly. But the European Union is de facto now mostly run by Germany. Germany’s population was markedly anti-American prior to Trump. According to polls, more than 50 percent of Germans now oppose the America that once cleansed it of Nazism, rebuilt it in democratic fashion, and saved it from Soviet Communism.
So the problem with Europe is not American cowboys, but Germans resorting to form in bullying eastern Europeans on immigration, southern Europeans on debt repayment, and the United Kingdom on Brexit. It has all but encouraged NATO allies to follow its own obstructionist example of ignoring promises to spend what it pledged on defense.
Berlin cuts a huge gas deal with the Russia, though 19-year-old Americans are stationed in Europe ostensibly to defend Germans from Russia. Germany pursues a suicidal Green Party–led climate-change policy that is a gift to the strategic agendas of Beijing. Trump questioned those realities not by giving snide and snarky interviews to pet journalists, but by openly calling out Angela Merkel to do her part to address what divides us.
Transnational What?Much of America’s ability to question the global status quo rests on its remarkable economic performance between 2017 and January 2020. America experienced near record U.S. peacetime unemployment, strong GDP growth, low inflation, a stronger currency, a robust stock market, historic surges in middle-class wages, and stunning gas and oil production. Some of that sapped the income of various hostile powers and gave America strategic independence in the Middle East.
The administration’s formal “National Security Strategy” assessment in 2017 at last addressed the reality that millions in the vast interior of America, left out of globalist affluence, had lost confidence in U.S. foreign policy. They were resigned to the likelihood that our elite diplomats would never reflect their own concerns rather than those of a host of prosperous allies, opportunistic neutrals, and emboldened enemies.
Nor has the U.S. simply snubbed blameless international organizations. The World Health Organization has over the years done the world a great deal of good. But its elite echelon became corrupt and felt more obliged to lie on behalf of its moderate contributor, Communist China, than to be truthful to its major democratic benefactor, America.
Reconcile what the WHO initially said about travel bans and COVID-19’s origins and transmissibility with what it knew to be true at the time. The verdict is that thousands of innocents died, believing the WHO’s Chinese propaganda, disguised as one-world ecumenicalism.
The U.S. met far more of the Paris Climate Accord benchmarks after leaving the deal than its sanctimonious signees did by remaining in it. The World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund were all based on the premise that the United States of 2017 and the world in general were calcified along 1945 lines, requiring an endlessly wealthy America to undertake burdens for the broke and endangered. The watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency more or less calibrated its monitoring of Iranian proliferation to sync with current American and European appeasement.
Seventy years after all these agreements began emerging, the United States is nearly $27 trillion in debt and can no longer subsidize others who are either rich or at least not poor. As for the United Nations, the U.S. still doubles the contributions of the Chinese, nearly triples those of the Japanese, and almost quadruples the German contributions, though all these nations currently run huge trades surpluses with America. All these transnational organizations, to be justified and useful, need radical reform.
Policy by PlatitudeIn reacting to the above, the Trump administration tried to adopt an overt “America First” approach in contrast to Obama’s more implicit “lead from behind” agenda. The rhetoric offended thousands of American elites deeply invested in the calcified post-war wheelhouses of diplomacy, defense, finance, academia, and government. Yet in the last quarter-century, that self-congratulatory status quo had not translated two decades of tactical success in Afghanistan into strategic resolution; somehow managed to unite nuclear Russia and China; allowed radical Islam to nearly overwhelm the Middle East; accepted as fate the Chinese hegemony in trade, finance, and (soon) politics; talked of managing decline; saw Turkey undermine the NATO alliance; empowered Iran; and made NATO both ever more provocative to its enemies and ever weaker.
Just as being praised is different from being respected, so too are conventional pieties not the same as achieving results. “Multilateral” and “unilateral” are often neutral terms. They can simply describe numbers rather than reflect either wisdom or morality.
There have been singularly moral unilateralists, such as the United Kingdom that fought on alone in 1940, despite its failed efforts to enlist allies. And then there are evil multilateralists such as Hitler, who invaded the Soviet Union with a pan-European army, the implicit support of Japan, and the help of neutral Finland and Spain.
Critics of World War I argue, occasionally persuasively, that alliances, not the individual will of sovereign nations, dragged Europe into a suicidal genocidal war.
Israel has fought alone against the efforts of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It now welcomes belated Arab moderates as helpers, but its life story has been going alone against a host of enemy multilateral alliances.
The U.S. had plenty of allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some in Syria and Libya — but such plenitude ensured neither strategic success nor Americans’ support. The key is not platitudinous rationalization, but whether the means and ends of a war are correctly calibrated in terms of costs to benefits — whether defined in moral, financial, or political terms — for Americans first and the region involved second.
It took the Trump-administration bombing to dismantle the new ISIS caliphate. Iran went from knowing what the U.S. would never do to being terrified of what it might do at any given moment. North Korea is no longer promising to send nuclear-tipped missiles to the West Coast. Such unilateral U.S. action often provoked the disapproval of allies.
Nihilist CriticismTrump’s rhetoric, designed to overturn seven decades of dangerous complacency, was no doubt polarizing. But then again, far more off-putting were the behaviors and comportment of his critics, many of whom were tasked by their very positions to carry out, not subvert, the reformation of American foreign policy. Yet a recent State Department official boasted to giddy media shills that he had deliberately undermined the orders of the commander in chief, deceiving him about the number of troops deployed in Syria, in order to subvert planned reductions of U.S. troops there.
Retired military personnel have used metaphors and imagery involving references to Auschwitz, Mussolini, and worse to voice their opposition to the Trump administration’s foreign policy — untoward language that such good men will come to rue. Two retired officers, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, published a veritable blueprint for how to use military force to counter the “private army” of the current administration — lunatic and dangerous talk of military interference, but talk that had already been raised and published by Rosa Brooks in a prestigious foreign-policy journal in the first days of the Trump administration. If the military may have believed Trump to be a dangerous Captain Queeg figure in need of their own expert obstruction or even removal, they also forgot the moral of The Caine Mutiny: that support for even an unpopular commander can lead him to achieve better results than can narcissistic and self-righteous obstruction of him.
The opposition to the Trump administration’s policy was carried out by the likes of “Anonymous” — who bragged of working inside the administration to countermand legal directives by systematically and illegally leaking classified information — and by a biased media that reached a new record of 80–90 percent negative coverage of the current administration and its policies.
Joe Biden’s team, if it were to be wise and without arrogance, would build on the present policies, which have created far more strategic advantages for the West in general and the U.S. in particular than had the more praised but often empty multilateral efforts of the Obama administration. Of course, many slighted but culpable international organizations, now-emboldened enemies, and a few relieved opportunistic allies welcome the current Biden scapegoating of “American First.” They would all prefer either “American Last” or “America Second” — or “American not at all” when the U.S, conducts it foreign policy.
It is a characteristic of diplomacy — and human nature — that it is impossible to appreciate benefits accruing from someone who is disliked, while conceding that a prior canonized president did so much damage to his friends, so little harm to his enemies, and so much of nothing for the international community.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. banditparkgmailcom says:


    On Tue, Dec 1, 2020, 7:59 PM ABYSSUS ABYSSUM INVOCAT / DEEP CALLS TO DEEP wrote:

    > abyssum posted: ” Is America to Be First,Second — or What?A wise foreign > policy over the next four years would build on Trump’s strategic gains for > the U.S. and the West.By VICTOR DAVIS HANSONDecember 1, 2020 During this > strange “transition,” it ha” >

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