It has been said that President Donald Trump’s opponents took him literally but not seriously, while his supporters did the opposite. When it comes to Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon — the administration’s ideological life force — it is wise to do both.
Last week, speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon reiterated the administration’s determination to break with seven decades of bipartisan, American-led internationalism and the values upon which it was founded. His relentless focus on economic nationalism, sovereignty, and identity is being translated into practical policies that would pull up the drawbridge on free trade, immigration, globalization, alliances and multilateral institutions, and the spread of liberal values. The open, connected, rules-based world that America did so much to shape — and in which the peace, progress, and security of other nations directly benefits our own — is being jettisoned in favor of a Hobbesian, zero-sum vision of ruthless competition in which America’s mission is to protect “our” cultural identity as a white, Christian nation.
Bannon paints America’s traditional openness as weakness. He exploits the sense of chaos, confusion, and vulnerability felt by some Americans in the face of technological change, the unbridled flow of information, the erosion of borders, and the unequal distribution of progress. He taps effectively into concerns that refugees pose a threat to our physical security and immigrants to our identity, that free trade and innovation kill jobs, and that America’s global engagement is more of a burden than a benefit, embroiling us in the problems of others.
The liberal international order that America built is far from perfect. Those of us who defend it must also work to amend it, so that it more effectively addresses the legitimate concerns of those left behind. But tearing down a system that, for all its missteps, helped produce decades of peace among the great powers, spread democracy, and share unparalleled progress is not the way to put Americans first.
In time, Bannon’s ideology will confront reality. As the Council of Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass puts it, the world is not self-organizing. Nearly every major challenge we face — from epidemics to climate change, violent extremism to cyber hacking — is beyond the capacity of any one nation, even a superpower, to address alone. Our workers and companies need American global economic leadership to level playing fields for our products and set high standards for the protection of labor, the environment, and intellectual property. Our soldiers and diplomats depend on our unrivaled network of alliances to deter costly conflicts and make us more effective when we have to fight. Our citizens benefit from American engagement in international institutions that help keep the peace, prevent the proliferation of weapons, defend human rights, and develop norms of conduct in new realms — from cyber space to outer space. Our communities and businesses draw energy and vitality by the inclusion of new Americans through a secure and welcoming immigration system. And our children will find opportunity in America’s continued global leadership in innovation, science, and technology.
The day after Bannon spoke, America’s longest-serving diplomat shared a totally different vision of where America has been — and where it must go — at his retirement ceremony at the State Department.
Dan Fried spent 40 years in the Foreign Service, rising to become an ambassador, an assistant secretary of state, and a key player in the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe and its integration with the West. Fried told a rapt audience that what has made America exceptional since our emergence as a world power at the end of the 19th century — at a time of closed European empires — is that we favored an open world, ordered by rules, in which the democratic values of our Republic and our business interests could simultaneously succeed.
“Our positive-sum world view, exceptional among the great powers, allowed room for others to prosper alongside the United States,” he said. “In fact, the genius of the American system is that our success depended on the security and prosperity of other nations. We would lead in concert with the other great democracies. This foreign policy exceptionalism was the heart of our grand strategy through two World Wars, the Cold War, the post-1989 era — and it was crowned with success.”
Fried acknowledged “the mistakes, blunders, flaws, and shortcomings” of the world America made but argued eloquently that our track record is “a great achievement and a foundation for more.”
In the end, he reminded us that America’s successful grand strategy “did not come from nowhere: it followed from our deeper conception of ourselves and our American identity. Who are we Americans? What is our nation? We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox.… Our nation is based on an idea — that all are created equal — that, when embraced, makes us Americans.”
For those of us who share Fried’s understanding of what has made and will continue to make America great, it is time to recapture the flag.
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