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China may test whether liberal internationalism survives

'I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.'
-Harry S Truman

That policy, promulgated to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, ushered in an era of "peacetime" overseas foreign policy engagement that has lasted 70 years.

It was not, it should be noted, intended to be a military policy. On the contrary, President Truman was careful to point out that "our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes."

The implied military self-restraint didn't last. Beginning with the Korean War, the U.S. has found itself involved in hostilities abroad for nearly 50 of the past 70 years, at mounting cost in lives and treasure.

That cost, and the sense among many Americans that our overseas engagements have failed to deliver anything recognizable as enduring security and prosperity, are among the dissatisfactions on which Mr. Trump played successfully during his election campaign.

It is that increasingly controversial policy of international activism that President Trump now promises - or threatens, if you prefer - to abandon.

The indicators that have received the most attention - and prompted the most angst from the foreign policy "establishment" - are a flurry of Trump executive orders, one mandating accelerated construction of the promised border wall with Mexico, another canceling U.S. sponsorship of the controversial Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, along with proposed orders that would curtail admission of refugees from several Muslim countries and reduce our U.N. contributions.

At the same time, a draft memorandum on "Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces" gives the Pentagon one year to produce a new National Defense Strategy incorporating new nuclear posture and missile defense reviews and a plan to achieve significant readiness improvements before 2022.

All of this is consistent with Mr. Trump's promises during his election campaign, hence presumably gratifying to those who voted for him. As he himself declared in his inaugural address, it's his intention that "Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families."

That promise reflects Mr. Trump's view that - in the words of Council on Foreign Relations president Richard N. Haass, "the status quo that has essentially grown up over the last 70 years costs the U.S. more than it benefits it." Haass and many if not most other establishment foreign policy commentators believe that view to be fundamentally flawed.

Well, maybe. The argument of those favoring continued U.S. overseas activism, including military engagement, is that the U.S. benefits indirectly from what liberal internationalists call a "rules-based order," even if we bear the preponderant cost of sustaining it. 

There are at least two problems with that argument. The first is that not all agree on the rules. Since World War II, our experiments in imposing liberal democracy and the rule of law as we define it on resistant traditional societies haven't exactly flourished.

The second is our own habit of violating the rules whenever they've gotten in the way of other policy preferences, a habit that competitors like Russia and China haven't hesitated to cite in defense of their own unilateral behavior. That applies in particular to well-intended but uninvited and often unwelcome intervention in other nations' internal affairs. 

Where all this will take us is very unclear. On Monday, queried about China's island-building activity in the South China Sea, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer asserted that the U.S. would "defend international territories." The following day, Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded that "China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea," adding tartly, "The United States is not a party to the South China Sea issue."

The U.S. has never accepted China's claim, a claim rejected as well by the International Court of Justice. The latter, however, has no enforcement powers. The U.S. does, provided that we're prepared to risk a war to do the enforcing. The question is how far we're willing to go to sustain a principle that primarily benefits China's neighbors, some of which - the Philippines, for example - seem unwilling to sustain it themselves.

That, in the end, is today's cardinal foreign policy question, which Mr. Trump, for better or worse, has forced onto the national agenda. For 70 years, the U.S has invested lives and treasure in defense of principles claimed to be fundamental to American values, though at best indirectly linked to U.S. security, at an arguably diminishing rate of return on investment. The question now is whether that posture remains sustainable - financially, militarily, and above all, politically.

China, not the wall, may prove the crucial test.

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