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How Not to Fix the Liberal World Order

Donald Trump’s in-house foreign policy intellectual doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, stands with K. T. McFarland, and Michael Anton during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Flynn said the administration is putting Iran "on notice" after it tested a ballistic missile. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, stands with K. T. McFarland, and Michael Anton during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Flynn said the administration is putting Iran "on notice" after it tested a ballistic missile. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

We are all still trying to figure out what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be, which is why Michael Anton’s “America and the Liberal International Order,” in the inaugural issue of American Affairs, merits some degree of attention. Anton doesn’t have a lot of original or insightful things to say in this piece (about which more below), but since he is now deputy assistant for strategic communications at the National Security Council, one might read his essay in the hope of decoding the administration’s underlying beliefs and anticipating its future course.

One thing is clear: Anton has mastered the template for conservative jeremiads about U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy. First, employ an authoritative but conversational style that suggests these issues are really pretty simple and only a fool or a knave would fail to understand them. Second, keep the analysis at 40,000 feet, avoid nitty-gritty policy details, and employ appealing alliterative concepts, such as Anton’s trinity of “prestige, prosperity, and peace.” Third, leaven the essay with selective historical examples and put in some well-chosen references to classical Greeks, Romans or other long-dead political philosophers to give the piece a shiny intellectual veneer. Lastly, treat your targets with a degree of contempt and suggest they are unpatriotic, incompetent, naive, intellectually lazy, or all of the above.

Anton’s main goal is to defend the president who subsequently appointed him and his main target is the coalition of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives who questioned Trump’s fitness for office during the 2016 campaign and have continued to criticize him since November. He sees them as part of an inbred foreign policy “priesthood” or “guild” that is defending a liberal international order it can no longer define, explain, or justify. Our entire approach to foreign policy needs to be rethought, in short, and Donald J. Trump is the man to do it.

You might think I’d greet this article with loud cheers, given my own misgivings about America’s foreign-policy establishment and my belief that U.S. grand strategy needs to be revised. That is not the case, alas, because with one important exception, Anton’s fusillade misses its target. Even worse, there’s little evidence he (or Trump) has any idea how to improve the situation.

To begin with, Anton maintains that opposition to Trump is based largely on an unthinking commitment to a U.S.-led “liberal international order.” He concedes that a “few critics” were worried about Trump’s “temperament” but maintains most of the naysayers were motivated by objections to Trump’s policy preferences. I don’t know how he knows what’s inside the critics’ heads, however, and the available evidence suggests that concerns about Trump’s character and temperament were far from trivial. Former GOP national security officials published two “open letters” denouncing Trump during the 2016 campaign: one of them spent three paragraphs detailing Trump’s personal deficiencies as a candidate and the other concluded by calling him “utterly unfitted for the office.” Sounds to me like character and temperament loomed rather large in his opponents’ assessments.

And not without cause, since Trump’s behavior since Election Day confirms that their concerns were justified. We now have a president who reneged on his pledge to release his tax returns, remains unconcerned by his own multiple conflicts of interest, has uttered dozens of easily refutable falsehoods, appointed a number of top officials who have inexplicable difficulties telling the truth under oath, insulted the leaders of close U.S. allies in routine “get-acquainted” phone calls, and presided over an unhinged press conference that will provide YouTube fare for years. One could agree with all of Trump’s policy initiatives and still find his erratic conduct disturbing.

Second, Anton’s attacks on defenders of the liberal international order are uninformed and misleading. He portrays Trump’s critics as clinging to outmoded ideas and institutions in a reflexive and unthinking way, and claims they never define what the liberal order is and “can no longer articulate the original rationale for the policies [they] advocate.” But he hasn’t done his homework: there are in fact a raft of serious books and articles laying out the case for a U.S.-led international order, some of them appearing in prominent policy journals like Foreign Affairs. There are also mounds of think tank reports and official policy documents (like the official “National Security Strategy” reports issued by Clinton, Bush, and Obama) laying out the case for a liberal order in some detail.

To be clear: I happen to think there are lots of problems with these defenses of U.S.-led “liberal hegemony,” both in its scholarly versions and in its more official manifestations. Anton’s article would make a useful contribution if it explained why these views were mistaken and if he had offered some concrete alternatives. But claiming that opposition to Trump is just a reflexive and unthinking defense of an outmoded status quo is both simplistic and unhelpful, because it doesn’t tell us where liberal hegemony went wrong or identify what should be done differently.

Indeed, with one important exception, Anton’s critique of the current liberal order is unconvincing, most notably in his discussion of international trade. Not surprisingly, he echoes Trump’s false but endlessly repeated claim that China (and others) are “stealing American jobs.” This argument was a key part of Trump’s pledge to “make America great again,” but Anton devotes only a single, data-free paragraph to this vital issue. He pokes fun at “phone-book thick” trade agreements, but he never identifies how the existing trading order is flawed or explains how it should be reformed. And as numerous mainstream economists have confirmed, the claim that China or other “bad trade deals” have stolen U.S. jobs is a myth.

Like the president he now serves, Anton doesn’t understand how the global trading order actually works. Trade agreements are long and complicated today because they are no longer primarily concerned with reducing tariffs (which are already quite low). Instead, contemporary trade agreements are mostly about harmonizing labor, regulatory, environmental, and copyright standards across many different societies, precisely for the purpose of creating fairer competition between states. Agreements of this kind are very much in America’s interest, because otherwise U.S. workers would have to compete with foreign industries where labor and environmental standards are much lower than they are in the United States.

Fourth, because Anton wants to portray Trump’s predecessors (and especially Obama) as weak, naive, and irresolute, he ends up relying on one of the hard right’s favorite myths: the idea that other states are prone to bandwagon with strong or threatening powers. The only “evidence” he offers for this dubious assertion is the distinguished foreign-policy expert Osama bin Laden’s claim that “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

This statement might be true at the race track, but how people might respond to different horses tells you precious little about international politics. If states were strongly inclined to jump on the bandwagon, as Anton apparently believes, then Napoleon and Hitler’s initial victories would have attracted more and more states to their side and guaranteed their ultimate triumph. (Needless to say, the opposite is what actually occurred.) Similarly, if bandwagoning were common, the Islamic State’s initial victories would have rallied millions to their banner and led local powers to kowtow before them. Instead, the Islamic State managed to attract only a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslim population (many of whom were marginalized misfits and therefore susceptible to its message), and its emergence quickly provoked the formation of a balancing coalition that is now in the process of defeating them.

Anton’s embrace of the bandwagon myth is especially peculiar because it is at odds with Trump’s stated desire to get U.S. allies to contribute more to their own defense. If you really believe that states will bandwagon, then logically you must also believe that reducing the U.S. role in Europe or Asia would lead our present allies to realign with China or Russia (or whomever they think is the “strong horse”). By contrast, those who believe states tend to balance against threats maintain the United States could reduce its commitments in some areas and let local powers uphold the balance on their own.

In short, Anton’s essay is not a serious guide to how the present liberal order might be updated. This failure is unfortunate, because the case for rethinking America’s global role is manifest and Anton does make one extremely important point. In particular, both he and Trump are correct to question the wisdom of trying to spread democracy into distant areas, and especially in places that are not vital interests and where the preconditions for effective liberal democracy are lacking. Had he confined his critique to this particular feature of recent U.S. foreign policy — a feature that liberal interventionists and neoconservatives have both embraced and defended in the past — he would be on much firmer ground.

Finally, Anton’s essay is long on criticisms of the present order but surprisingly short on practical advice for how to alter it. He believes the current liberal order is outmoded and needs to be reformed, but he neither elaborates an underlying logic to guide this reform, nor offers concrete policy steps that the United States should now undertake. Should NAFTA be revised and if so, how? Should the United States stay in NATO? Should it deploy more military forces in Asia, reduce them, or leave them about the same? Does chasing terrorists around the greater Middle East still make sense, given that we’ve been doing it for more than fifteen years and there seem to be more of them today than there were on 9/11? Does a big military buildup make sense if you’re trying to get others to shoulder more of the burden? And so forth. Anton never answers these (and other) critical issues, leaving us in the dark about what he is really proposing. In that sense, of course, he fits in very well with the rest of Team Trump.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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