Two sets of remarks, a day apart, by two men more accustomed to being behind the scenes.
Stephen Bannon, appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference, made the case for “economic nationalism” and called President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.” The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the defeat of the Soviet Union finally have some company.
As the ideologist in Trump’s inner circle, Bannon is a practitioner of Newt Gingrich’s mystic arts. Take some partially valid insight at the crossroads of pop economics, pop history and pop psychology; declare it an inexorable world-historic force; and, by implication, take credit for being the only one who sees the inner workings of reality.
For Bannon, it has something to do with “the fourth turning,” or maybe it is the fifth progression, or the third cataclysm. At any rate, it apparently involves cycles of discontent and disruption. Lots of disruption. Across the West, as Bannon sees it, the victims of globalization – the victims of immigration, free trade and internationalism in general – are rising against their cosmopolitan oppressors. Institutions will crash and rise in new forms. And this restless world spirit takes human form in … Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
Like many philosophies that can be derived entirely from an airport bookstore, this one has an element of truth. The beneficiaries of the liberal international order have not paid sufficient attention to the human costs of rapid economic change. (Just as the critics of internationalism have not paid sufficient attention to the nearly 1 billion people who have left extreme poverty during the last two decades.)
But there is a problem with the response of economic nationalism and ethno-nationalism. It is morally degraded and dangerous to the country.
Which brings us to the second set of remarks, at a State Department retirement party, complete with cake. This speech was from one of the most distinguished diplomats our nation has recently produced, Ambassador Dan Fried. Fried was on diplomatic duty for 40 years, focusing mainly on Europe. He was ambassador to Poland and pulled into the White House as a special adviser on Central and Eastern Europe to both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Most populists would probably view Fried as the pinstriped enemy. I came to know him in the Bush administration as a freedom fighter, deeply and personally offended by oppression. He had been an enemy – not an opponent, but an enemy – of the Soviet Union, and remains a committed friend to 100 million liberated Europeans.
Fried used his retirement remarks to describe “America’s Grand Strategy.” For decades, the U.S. has stood for “an open, rules-based world, with a united West at its core.” Despite occasional failures and blunders, “the world America made after 1945 and 1989 has enjoyed the longest period of general peace in the West since Roman times.”
What would happen if America were to leave the global order and pursue its own ethno-national greatness? This is the proposal that the populists have placed on the table, in which blowing up the TPP is a sign of things to come.
“By abandoning our American Grand Strategy,” argued Fried, “we would diminish to being just another zero-sum great power.” This would result in a system entirely based on “spheres of influence,” which are “admired by those who don’t have to suffer the consequences.” And accepting spheres of influence would “mean our acquiescence when great powers, starting with China and Russia, dominated their neighbors through force and fear.”
“Some so-called realists,” said Fried, “might accept such a world as making the best of a harsh world, but it is not realistic to expect that it would be peaceful or stable. Rather the reverse: A sphere-of-influence system would lead to cycles of rebellion and repression, and, if the past 1,000 years is any guide, lead to war between the great powers, because no power would be satisfied with its sphere. They never are.”
This is a foreign policy cycle more substantial than the “fourth turning.” The disrupters of international order – the liberal democratic order built and defended by FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan – are thoughtless, careless and reckless. And they must be resisted.
The founding fathers of the ethno-state are also in violation of the country’s defining values. The United States was summoned into existence by the clear bell of unifying aspirations, not by the primal scream of blood and soil. And this great ideal of universal freedom and dignity is not disrupted; it disrupts.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.