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Against the New Isolationism

by D.J. McGuire

As good as the principle of democracy is, it can not defend itself. Like everything else in the battlefield of ideas, it needs people to champion it. For decades, the understanding that a more democratic world was more just, more prosperous, and more in America’s best interests was carried forth by those who called themselves neoconservatives.

It’s been a decade since their our time seemed past. In the interim, our alliances and our interests have been questioned from right (the Trump-led GOP) and from left (the newly emboldened left wing of the Democrats). Absent a re-engagement, this combined and bi-partisan isolationism will lead to an American retreat, a global disaster, and more costly American return to global prominence. We can and must prevent that.

The Bloody History of Ignoring the Tyrannies of Others

We can begin by reminding our fellow Americans why democracy is as necessary to export as it is to maintain. America learned the hard way – within a generation of her founding – that attempting to ignore the arguments between two major powers less democratic than us was impossible. Our attempts to steer clear of war with France in 1798 put us on an inevitable path to war with Britain (arguably the moredemocratic of the two) fourteen years later. In the midst of the Civil War, we recognized that Mexican democracy, for all its flaws, was a better neighbor than a would-be monarch backed by yet another tyrannical Napoleon.

Even those lessons paled in comparison to the importance of democracy in the 20th century. We shrugged our shoulders as democracy died in interwar Germany and Japan (the latter by literal assassination), convinced it wasn’t our concern. We found out the hard way just how wrong we were.

Even after World War II, the lesson was lost on occasion. We spent the middle period of the Cold War telling ourselves anti-Communism was more important than democracy – as if that were an actual choice. By the time the Reagan Administration made democracy promotion a priority – and not just in places with Soviet regimes such as Nicaragua, but even with “friendly” tyrants in the Philippines, South Korea, and Chile – the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s were there for all to see. Some are still with us, such as in Southeastern Asia.

It was in this period that neoconservatism first became a well-known term in the policy realm: a home for the Democratic Peace theory – i.e., democracies are far less likely to fight each other, and more likely to work together, than tyrants. When the Cold War was won, this became conventional wisdom, along with a dangerous overconfidence that democracies were not only better for the world (which they were), but so obviously better that they would be easy to build (which they were and are not).

The Fall of the Vision

This brings us to the mistake that felled the movement: Iraq – but not the mistake people think. These days, even the most well known and prominent neoconservatives and fellow travelers have called the liberation of Iraq an error. I won’t because it wasn’t.

Whatever one may say of Iraq’s stumbling democracy, I refuse to believe that Saddam Hussein was as better leader, or that the people would be better off under his tyranny. Given that so many of his regime’s middle ranks became the backbone of al Qaeda in Iraq (and its successor, Islamic State), it should give people pause to ask themselves if they would really prefer that crew still controlling and entire nation, with the apparatus of a reign of terror in place, and massive oil reserves at their disposal.

No, the mistake in Iraq was to assume it would be as easy to democratize as Eastern Europe had (supposedly) been (in fact, Eastern Europe had growing pains of its own – and as Hungary as shown, is still capable of backsliding). By the time President Bush the Younger recognized the task in front of him, the American people had lost patience.

Amidst the many differences between the two presidents who succeeded the younger Bush, one key common factor is this: they were both elected on promises to reduceAmerican obligations abroad. Indeed, it was a critical part of both their success.

Why We Must Return

The results are the danger we see around us: alliances fraying, American leadership replaced with mercantilist isolationism in the White House, while the opposition party is engulfed in arguments between the holdovers from the 1990s consensus and a new Blame-America-First isolationism on the left.

Neither have the foresight to recognize why the international order America helped build after World War II is so important. It’s up to those of us who dorecognize it to speak up, now.

We can start with simple questions. Who do the isolationists expect to replace us as the lead superpower? The Chinese Communist Party? Vladimir Putin? The confused, insular European Union? India? The first two would be a disaster for the planet, while the latter two are in no position to take up the mantle (and I say this as a friend to India).

What makes the isolationists so certain that unmolested tyrants will be more friendly to us than democracies? Again, has Putin simply allowed us to govern ourselves without intrusion? Has the Chinese Communist Party reined in its Korean satellite regime? Have Ortega and Maduro made their nations less likely to drive people to our borders, desperate for a peaceful and free life? Are the peoples of Africa truly better off with governments stealing from them to pay off Communist Chinese lenders?

Finally, and this one may be difficult for those who reversed themselves on Iraq, but the questions need asking. Who is superior to the democracies in the Middle East (the mature Israel and the developing Iraq and Lebanon)? An Iranian regime that is helping Bashar Assad butcher his own people? A Saudi monarchy that kills journalists with impunity?

The Contours of the Debate

To be clear, I’m not asking for a military-first policy – and none of my fellow neoconservatives (or whatever label they choose) should either. The problem is more fundamental. Arguments over the most efficient types of intervention against the tyrants of the world are necessary to find the optimal courses of action.

In this time, however, the very alliances and the very notion that democracy is superior to tyranny are under rhetorical assaultThat can not go unanswered – and, for what its worth, it will not go unanswered as long as I am posting here.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described progressive conservative – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015. He is also a contributor to Bearing Drift.

The World America Abandons (Before Coming Back to Rescue It)

by D.J. McGuire

For understandable reasons, most Americans assume that Donald Trump is a one-man wrecking crew, determined either to destroy or to reshape the current global order. In reality, however, the international order that has held in place in the Atlantic for over 70 years (and in the rest of the world for roughly 30) has been fraying for some time, and Trump is himself as much a symptom as a cause. The regions of the world are turning away from each other, and American frustration has now led to its acceleration under Trump. The result will be a world of regional powers – until one of them tries to assert global dominance, forcing the United States out of its coming stupor to lead the democratic world once more.

The Fall of the Global Order

The chief goals of the “western world” from 1945 through 1990 (and the entire world since 1990) have been greater political and economic freedom, via democracy and freer trade. Even those who were most threatened by these tenets paid lip service to them for roughly a quarter century.

Events of the last decade have challenged this. The Great Recession revealed the dark side of international economic connections. The rise of a revanchist Russia has greatly damaged the democratic world’s confidence in itself. The behavior of the European Union towards Greece and Italy shattered the notion of the EU as a force for democracy and progress. The “Global War on Terror” revealed the apparent limits of American patience with extended military engagements. Xi Jinping’s increasing grip on the Chinese mainland has combined with economic instability to create a dangerous vacuum in justification for his dictatorship. Finally, the dramatic increase in continental sources of American energy has begun shifting America’s view of its interests abroad (especially in the Middle East).

As a result, “It’s a small world after all” has become more a dark warning than a cheery sentiment – and the peoples of said world are acting accordingly. Had this just been the United States experiencing this, the rest of the world would have simply reoriented the system with a new hegemon, and there are eager candidates for the role. Yet none of them are in a position to stake the claim, and they all have regional matters to address.

The Coming Regional Order

As a result, when the present global order falls – likely on a glide path, but falls nonetheless – it will likely be replaced by an unstable mix of regional powers: China, Russia, the EU, and the less engaged United States. The first two will be looking to expand their power without to contain potential dissent within. The European Union will attempt to turn its continental reach into real power via internal reform and centralization. The US will be trying to find a balance between reducing its obligations to the rest of the world and protecting its interests, which time will show to be far more global than the electorate currently realizes.

In theory, the Chinese Communist Party need not concern itself with electorates. In practice, legitimacy can arguably be more tricky for tyrannies than for democracies – which in part is why tyrannies resort to wars, mass incarcerations, huge development projects, etc. For the CCP, greater power abroad combines with stoking resentment of outsiders at home to give it enough legitimacy to stay in power (for now). So long as the US was blocking its regional objectives, the CCP had become (accidentally and ironically) the most likely power to challenge the US on a global scale. A retreating America will open up regional opportunities for the regime – especially in Southeast Asia and Taiwan (whose gutsy, independent democracy won’t survive the new order). While some of this will bring alarm to other capitals, the CCP can use their North Korean puppet regime as leverage until its usefulness expires – at which point Beijing can simply make the problem go away by annexing it.

The Vladimir Putin regime, by contrast, has a slew of international allies and interests left over from the former Soviet Union, and Putin hasn’t been shy about using them (especially in Syria). However, his fixation has largely been with his “near abroad” (i.e., the former Soviet republics), and an America willing to withdraw from the global stage would give him the free hand there he has craved. Like the CCP, Putin has relied upon anti-foreign resentment and increasing power (and, in his case, actual territory) for his regime’s legitimacy. That will likely continue, to the detriment of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Baltic states.

For the European Union, the problem is legitimacy – or lack thereof. The transition from trading association to intertwined economy was quite a success, the next step (to full-blown nation-state) has not gone nearly as well. The EU’s challenge will be sorting out what it is, and how it governs itself, so it can be strong enough to reject encroachments from outside. It will arguably be the most inward -looking regional power for some time.

That leaves the United States, which is attempting to become the second global hegemon in history to relinquish the role. The failure of the first (Great Britain in the period between World Wars) had been enough to delay this reckoning through the 1990s and 2000s, but the American people put their foot down in 2016 (whether they were “professionally guided” – to use Sir Arnold’s term – by outside forces will be discussed later). As it will be a Republican Administration beginning the withdrawal, the US is likely to settle in as a regional, hemispheric power. This can be seen from Donald Trump himself, who is loathe to criticize tyrannies in Europe and Asia but eager to criticize them in Latin America. I am also assuming this retreat in part because of the still strong isolationist tendencies within the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Flashpoints

While this regionalist order may seem stable from day-to-day, there will be problems. The Middle East, slowly losing the attention of the rest of the world due to changes in energy markets, will continue to be of interest to the three eastern hemisphere powers (i.e., all but the US), leading to conflict. The same will likely be true of Africa (which already has heavy CCP and EU involvement).

However, the most likely sources of “problems” will be American allies unwilling to accept second-tier status and the end of global democratic aspirations. At present, political power in Great Britain rests with an explosive  coalition of insular and globalist voters united in anti-regionalism. Although it’s likely that the regionalist center will reassert itself, ti’s not guaranteed. Japan has a long history of hostility to China (there is no way that can be written without it being an understatement) and its leaders have used its recent conversion to democracy as a new reason for old geopolitics. Our NATO allies (especially in the Baltics) will be deeply worried about Russia expanding its regional hegemony. Finally, the Republic of India, while friendly with Russia, will hardly be willing to serve as Moscow’s vassal; they also have a long history of problems with the CCP.

Indeed, it will be the concept of self-determination in general that poses the greatest threat to this regionalist semi-dystopia, as nations around the world – many of whom freed themselves from colonialism less than a century ago – will be far less likely to accept what they will see (rightly) as imperialism under new names. So long as America is run by Republicans, the US will likely respond with cold indifference. The Democrats are another matter.

How it will end

At some point, Donald Trump will no longer be president. Indeed, a Democrat is all but certain to enter the White House either on 20 January 2029 or before then (I hope). However, given the aforementioned isolationism in the Democratic left (and the laws of political inertia), it is unlikely that a Democratic president will dramatically take aim at the new order (especially if said Democrat doesn’t get to 1600 PA Ave until 2025 or 2029). Said Democrat will, however, likely attempt to protect an old American ally or an African democracy from imperial encroachment. Moreover, time will show the American people that the stable international order currently under threat was a boon for international trade and American commerce.

That will likely lead to a global confrontation of some kind, forcing America out of its regionalist stupor as it relearns the lessons of the mid-20th century. How many casualties are involved in that confrontation, I cannot say.

How this can be reversed

There is no reason that this future is inevitable. Some might note the mere fact that I’m predicting it would make it less likely. More to the point, it can be avoided if the American people in general (and the Democratic Party in particular) recognize the damage to American interests that come with retreating from the world stage.

Ironically, that could come from the most divisive issue in current American politics: the Mueller investigation. The events that Mueller is probing (the Russian regime’s criminal interventions in America’s last presidential election) will be far more likely in this future as regional powers probe each other for weaknesses. If the Democratic Party is willing and able to make the logical connection between the events of 2016 and the rise of anti-American regional powers (and replace the president with one of their own in 2021), they can halt the erosion of American power before it can become permanent. Alliances and trade relationships could still be rebuilt in time; and Putin could be checked in Europe; and the CCP would realize that the US is not yet ready to give them free reign outside of the area under the regime’s control. Democrats have a further interest in challenging Russian revanchism, given Putin’s inspirational support to white supremacy in America.

However, if the Democrats are unwilling to do that, this future is more likely than any other.

D.J. McGuire – a self-described “progressive conservative” – has been part of the More Perfect Union Podcast since 2015

Defining Progressive Conservatism

by D.J. McGuire

I have often said that in the past three years, the political spectrum has thrown me around “like a Martian Congressional Republic Navy vessel dropping into combat maneuvers from a 3g burn with no crash couch.” For those who are not fans of The Expanse, let’s just say I’ve been shaken up – and shaken – since 2015. That said, I do think I can finally place a label (of sorts) on my current political leanings and philosophy: Progressive Conservative.

To most American voters, activists, and politicians, my phrase is an oxymoron, but it was the standard term for the Canadian center-right for decades (and still is used in about half their provinces). More to the point, I simply found it the best way to describe a set of views that simply don’t fall neatly into any political party (major or minor) at present. What I mean by that follows below.

Economic Policies: For the most part, I tend to be somewhere between “classical liberal” and “supply-sider” on economics, which explains much (but not all) of the “conservative” in the label. That said, I’m more willing to accept incremental progress on matters than small-l libertarians are (to say nothing of Capital-L Libertarians). Meanwhile, so many conservatives forgot most of supply-side theory in embracing the dog’s breakfast of last year’s tax cut that I’m afraid a qualifier to my conservatism has become a requirement. This holds even more true in international economics, where my support for freer-trade and for freer-trade areas – but not for customs unions – fails to appeal to any type of libertarians and many conservatives – most of whom conflate FTAs and customs unions. Quite a few conservatives are now reverting to pre-1930 protectionism as well, which I find odious.

Domestic Policies: For the most part, I used to be on “the right” in nearly every cultural issue out there. I will freely acknowledge I’ve shifted “leftward” over the years on more than a few of these: especially on what could be summed up as identity issues (race, gender, sexual identity, etc.) – including my growing concern about white supremacism. I’m also far more skeptical of regulating the poor than I used to be (including changing my mind on work requirements for anti-poverty programs, which I now consider to be a perverse incentive in the labor-devaluing era of automation). This is where the “progressive” part comes in.

Foreign Policy: I suppose this is now my greatest source of departure from… well, from damn near everyone. With each passing day, my fear from 2003 is being realized – I will be one of the last six people on Earth who still considers the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein to be the right thing to do. I am firmly in the camp that was (and in many places, still is) called “neoconservative” – and I have claimed that label for myself more than once; I just don’t think it helps explain my mixture on domestic issues these days. I am still a firm believer in the Democratic Peace theory – and as such, I consider helping the world’s democracies and opposing its tyrannies to be in America’s best interests. That includes the Assad tyranny in Syria, which was what led me to vote for Hillary Clinton – the first Democratic nominee for President for whom I have ever voted, and which puts me in another small minority of Americans – those who do not think the military defeat of ISIS/Daesh is enough to abandon the Syrian people to the bloodthirsty tyrant from Damascus.

With that mixture of views – neoconservative (mostly) abroad, economically conservative (mostly) but culturally progressive (mostly) at home – I just thought it best to take the “progressive” and “conservative” labels and, well, combine them. It seemed the simplest thing to do.

So there you have it.

D.J. McGuire can be heard on the More Perfect Union Podcast