Elephants in the Room
‘Globalism’ Is the Victory of Western Ideals
If liberalism can succeed in the non-Western world, it is safe in the hands of immigrants to the United States. But it does not help if the president of the United States makes them feel unwelcome in their adopted homeland.
President Donald Trump does not like “globalism.” Last April in the first major foreign policy address of his campaign, he said, “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” He Tweeted in June that Americans face a “choice between Americanism and [Hillary Clinton’s] corrupt globalism.” Breitbart, a mouthpiece for Trumpism, ran a piece last month touting “Trump’s nationalist vision” against the “Gospel of Globalism.” And Robert Merry, a contributing editor at the National Interest, agreed, characterizing the 2016 election as a contest between nationalism and globalism.
I am not the first person to ask skeptically: Just what is globalism? Trump and his supporters seem to equate it, depending on who they most need to criticize at the moment, with free trade, international institutions, lax border enforcement, immigrants and immigration, cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism, cooperative security, disrespect for national traditions and culture, or an annual meeting at Davos.
“Globalism,” then, is a combination of make-believe, conspiracy theory, and American exceptionalism. The far right has long held to a fervid conspiracy theory that the left is orchestrating a deliberate campaign to sabotage America’s white majority through unrestricted immigration, and thereby ensure a permanent leftist rainbow coalition. Trump’s railing against globalism is designed, in part, to resonate with this paranoia.
But much of the rest of what passes for “globalism” is actually the extraordinary spread of Western ideals of political and economic freedom. For example, another word for “free trade” is “capitalism,” one of the West’s great contributions to the world. If this is globalism, let us make the most of it. It is extraordinarily odd that the president of the United States would turn his back on Western economic ideas in the name of protecting and promoting American national identity.
Another facet of good globalism — or, to use a more accurate term, liberalism — is the convergence of national identity due to the spread of democracy and political liberty. As Henry Nau argued in his excellent book, At Home Abroad, democratic countries tend over time to view the world in similar terms. They tend to perceive similar threats and opportunities, which helps undergird the democratic peace.
Crucially — and contrary to Trump’s claim — states can adapt democracy without shedding national distinctiveness or betraying their historical and cultural heritage. The genius of liberalism is its adaptability to different cultural contexts. That is precisely why it has become the most successful political ideology in the history of humanity, and why it has triumphed everywhere from India to Japan.
Again, it is odd that the United States would attack the spread of political liberalism abroad under the flag of American nationalism when the it was the United States itself that was most responsible for the global spread and success of liberal ideals.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “self-evident” truths about human equality and the accountability of government to the “consent of the governed,” such ideas were ludicrous. Not a single other nation in the world believed in or accepted Enlightenment liberalism as the foundation of government. That is why we rightly call the United States an exceptional nation: It was uniquely founded on the idea of ordered liberty within a mixed federal republic.
The post-Cold War era has seen the high tide of liberalism in all recorded human history. Over the very long run, the macro-narrative of history for last past quarter millennium has been the conversion of much of the world to American (and British) ways of thinking about politics and economics. It is nothing short of astonishing that much of the world now agrees with the United States about the “self-evident” truths that it so lonesomely proclaimed at it’s birth. The spread of liberalism is not “globalism.” It is the victory of American exceptionalism.
For the United States to reject or divest from the liberal international order would be to forsake its own greatest achievement — a tragi-comic betrayal of a century of American blood, sweat, toil, and tears. To do so in the name of putting “America First” or redeeming American nationhood is nothing short of farce.
Of course the U.S. government should put America first — that is precisely why the United States should sustain the liberal order. Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan didn’t win the World Wars and create a global edifice of ordered liberty among American allies because they thought it put America second. They did it because they understood that liberal order is the outer perimeter of American security.
Nor does a commitment to championing liberalism require forsaking America’s own traditions and history, in large part because championing liberalism is American history. If anything, Americans would be less true to their history, less fully American, if we gave up our role as the champion and beacon of ordered liberty. That includes the country’s role in welcoming the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breath free” who come to American shores looking for a better life. The spread and success of liberalism throughout much of the world proves the lie in the conspiracy theories about immigration. If liberalism can succeed in the non-Western world, it is safe in the hands of immigrants to the United States. But it does not help if the president of the United States makes them feel unwelcome in their adopted homeland.
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