As I watched President Trump's first State of the Union address at the end of January, I found myself strangely depressed by what I perceived to be the darkness of its tone and point of view. That impression, which I later learned was shared by many, gave rise in my own case to an insight into the President's mindset that I've since come to regard as a reliable warrant for radical political change. I recognized that the President's views--made extreme by an overlay of repressive nativism and nationalism--are deeply rooted in the loveless duality of "us against them." They reflect the historically-based American traits of individualism, egoism, shunning of community, distrust of others, and a penchant to punish those who are different. Those traits may once have been useful in building the American nation. Today, however, they stand directly opposite to the humane qualities of empathy, compassion and community needed to create a better world.
I saw another manifestation of the "Trumpean" mindset a little more than a week later in Vice-President Pence's appearance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyongyang. While most of the world reveled in the possibility signaled there of a peaceful resolution of tensions between the two Koreas, Pence and his wife, in an epiphantic scene, sat steadfast in sullen silence as others rose to cheer North and South Korean athletes who paraded by in joyful unity.
Just a few days earlier, Pence had announced in lugubrious tones that the U.S. would "soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever. And we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile program once and for all." As announced, this action seems intended to complete the strangling of the North Korean economy, perhaps at the cost of civilian hunger and death. It leaves no hint of any willingness, or even statesmanlike capacity, to understand the North Korean missile program from the adversary's point of view and, on that basis, to negotiate a settlement of the attendant issues that meets both sides' vital interests. The American position is elegantly simple: we're stronger than you are, so we can dictate terms and you have to accept them.
I hope to build a case in this paper for the notion that America can in fact pursue a foreign policy that is based on something better than military might and domination. The argument will be based on the following two broad assumptions:
- The U.S. should begin to shift its foreign policy away from waging war or providing military aid to benefit the regional ambitions of countries whose principal virtue is that they serve America's geopolitical interests. Instead, its foreign policy should be aimed primarily at helping all undeveloped countries gain access to life essentials such as clean water, food, health care, and education. Such a shift would draw goodwill from nations around the world, and also free billions of dollars from the U.S. defense budget. Those monies could in turn be used to give all Americans access to the education, health care, infrastructure, and job opportunities they need to enjoy a standard of living that reflects the world's most productive economy.
- In view of the misery war continues to inflict upon millions of innocent people, and the growing danger that a continued spread of nuclear weapons can lead to the extinction of life on earth, starts should be made as soon as possible by all major nations toward nuclear disarmament, conventional arms reduction, and, in the case of the U.S., gradual closure of military bases around the world. These efforts would constitute steps toward the ultimate goal of a legally binding and enforceable international agreement to permanently end all war. Such an historic undertaking would also be broadly transformational. In terms of international relations, it could drive, and make irreversible, a transition in the behavior of the world's most powerful nations from the narrow pursuit of economic expansion and global security, to more systematic efforts to help meet the basic needs of all of the world's people. A similar transition to concern for the Other could be expected in interactions between civic institutions--particularly police departments--and the communities they serve; in corporate involvement with the environment and surrounding community; and in people-to-people relations. The latter would be marked by a shift from the transactional attitude so prevalent in today's American society to a primary regard for the other person's wellbeing.
Our Vision Must Not Be Limited by the "System" of Which We're a Part
As shown by the President's election, many Americans undoubtedly still exhibit--even if unconsciously--traits like Individualism and Distrust of the Other, with which I've associated both the President and Vice-President. Reflecting their individualism, Americans who have achieved unusual wealth often suggest that their country is "great" for the freedom it has afforded them to gain their success not through the favoritism of people in high places, but from objective judgments of the free market that reflect the value of their own study, skills, hard work, entrepreneurship, talents, or investment. Many other Americans amply display Distrust of the Other in their penchant for suspicion--even demonization--of foreign nations and leaders, and uncritical support for everything American.
As individuals, many of the upper class of bankers, corporate managers, military planners, members of Congress, technical experts, and others who give direction to the nation-state also exhibit the traits I've associated with President Trump. In their function as leaders, however, they are relentlessly pressured by the interlocked corporate/financial/military//technology/ government system in which they operate to oversee its expansion around the world. In that capacity, these captains of the American Ship of State often leave losers in their wake, since the system that drives them is essentially on auto-pilot and heedless of its impact. The pursuit of profitable new markets overseas can, for example, result both in the export of good American jobs and the exploitation of low-wage workers abroad. Even greater problems can ensue from a perceived need to militarily secure the new markets. That enterprise not only risks conflict with regional competitors or insurgent groups in small countries, but also co-opts government discretionary funds that could otherwise be used for programs designed to help meet the real needs of people.
On its face, it would seem that only leaders blinded by the personal power derived from such a system could fail to challenge its potential for harm and the risk of blow-back that could possibly lead to a nuclear exchange. Instead, they remain part of a ruling establishment that preaches commitment to a new world order, while, for example, the people of Yemen wonder how such a vision can possibly be squared with American arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have brought them nothing but carnage and widespread famine. For their part, Palestinians must wonder how America's one-sided partnership with Israel exhibits any sense of fairness or justice toward their own struggle for an independent state on land to which they surely have equal claim. And, Iranians must wonder what they have done to deserve the calumny America regularly visits upon them for actions in the Middle East that, at worst, only replicate at a regional level the influence the U.S. seeks throughout the world.
Today, the most dangerous and foolish consequence of America's foreign policy is its conflict with North Korea. Any fair-minded American, even one with fulsome devotion to the flag, must consider our president both unseemly and irrational for risking nuclear war with that country by hurling school-yard insults at its leader, gratuitously disparaging the nation he leads, threatening to totally destroy his homeland, and balking at any initiatives that might offer a basis for resolving the conflict peacefully. As has been widely reported, one such initiative already rejected by the U.S. is in fact endorsed by Kim Jong-un and appears to show great promise. It is the joint Chinese/Russian proposal that, in exchange for a cut-back of U.S./South Korea military exercises, North Korea would halt further testing in its nuclear missile program.
It seems to me that, to anyone capable of insight and a smidgeon of empathy, it must be obvious that Kim Jong-un is no more likely to start a war with South Korea, or launch a first-strike nuclear-tipped missile at Japan, Guam, Hawaii or even the American mainland, than he is to flee his own country and sink the Kim dynasty of which he is heir. He obviously fears a U.S. attack to "decapitate" his regime, and, with nuclear arms now at his disposal, has boasted of his willingness to use them against the United States. In making that boast, Kim is no doubt motivated in part by a delusory new sense of empowerment. But, given the history of U.S. actions against his country and many others, it is likely that his missiles and threats to use them are intended primarily as a deterrent to possible U.S. aggression. In that case, there seems a real chance that Kim would respond constructively to a U.S. diplomatic proposal which guarantees by enforceable provisions that America will never initiate war against his country. In exchange, he might well agree to both a halt in North Korea's testing of nuclear weapons and, over an extended period, a complete liquidation of its nuclear arsenal.