As a country we normally don’t care much about foreign affairs. We’ve had five Democratic debates with almost no questions about it. International issues always come out low on the lists of what people care about.
However, the time has come to care. It’s nothing new to identify the rise of fascism in this country as a problem. But for some of the worst consequences you need to look outside the borders.
Fascism is many things but it is above all a world view. The mother country is God-certified superior, under assault, and fully-equipped to teach everyone else a lesson. That feels great; life is good when you’re on top of the world, and you don’t have to care. But it is by definition blinding in its assessment of reality.
Our current foreign policy is predicated on the idea that we’re running things and can dictate to the rest of the world. We don’t need allies or international institutions, because we can simply tell everyone else what to do. Allies are people you shake down because they need you, and adversaries are just waiting to get defeated by irresistible national power.
That world view might have had some reality at the end of World War II (when we were sensible enough not to pursue it), but it has little to do with reality today. The longer we resist reality, the worse for us.
First of all our military power is strictly bounded. Nuclear weapons are such that for now no major power can be defeated. We can’t even do anything about North Korea. So we shouldn’t believe that counting bombs says anything meaningful.
Our economic power is also limited. Our declared economic war on China has thus far been anything but “easy”. There is no sign that China is ready to capitulate, and their resulting push for national self-sufficiency has many negatives for us—in particular reduced access to the markets we think we’re opening. That’s in addition to an overall slow-down of international growth and much of the recent intellectual property theft. The blindness of the belief in our power is such that we systematically ignore consequences. It is truly dangerous to believe—as a principle—that we don’t have to care.
Why do we have allies? If you believe what’s coming out of Washington, the answer is that we have allies because, out of the goodness of our hearts, we choose to defend our friends. Since this is pure beneficence, they had better pay up and to hell with them if they don’t.
In fact (of course) we have allies to increase our strength. NATO came into existence, so that a next world war with Russia would be fought in Europe and not here. That role may have diminished, but it’s not gone, and Europe allies are also assets in dealing with middle-eastern terrorism and with the economic strength of China. South Korea and Japan are similarly counterweights to the rising power of China. Again, they are the ones on the front lines. Shaking them down increases China’s dominance in the East.
Why do we have international institutions? Those were created by the US as a means of increasing stability (to the benefit of our economy) and of exercising power. The UN is imperfect institution, but its role as an international forum is essential. The WTO is the best means that exists to push for labor and environmental standards in international trade. Make no mistake that world trade has been good for the US economy. If it hasn’t done as much for the population as a whole, that’s because—as in many other areas—rich donors have controlled our own objectives. That’s our problem to fix. International institutions are the way we, together with our allies, can exert decisive power without conflict.
Fascism is a major impediment to the exercise of US power. Relations with China are a case in point. Nothing says this is easy, but we certainly should be playing with a full deck. As it is, we’ve already strengthened the hands of hard-liners, and it will be work to walk that back. That’s still worth the effort, because conflict is a good option only in fascist fantasy. A defined “victory” is highly unlikely, and at the very least we’re talking about: a new cold war, lower economic growth, no access to the Chinese market, an uncontrolled and expensive arms race, no leverage on Chinese behavior, a real chance of war. Rational national interest says forget the fascist dreams, strengthen our hand, and work on a real future.
There are other aspects to this as well. Fascism has many other destructive tendencies, we’re promoting them worldwide, and they come back to bite us. Racial intolerance is built-in to the world view. We’re excusing it domestically and normalizing it elsewhere. Modi’s anti-Muslim policies would probably have happened anyway, but our influence has damped down international outrage. Similarly we may decry China’s treatment of Uighurs, but the impact of our outrage is weakened by our own actions.
Even more important, our fascist disdain for international cooperation has seriously hobbled the worldwide effort to combat climate change. The US-led unanimity of the Paris Agreement was the basis for the world to make progress. Once we broke that and encouraged others to follow, it has been more than difficult to assemble the global good-will necessary to make progress.
After World War II it was easy to believe fascism was something special with roots in German or Italian culture. We now know better. It is a tendency than needs to be fought everywhere. It is a mindset that takes over from rationality and hurts most severely those who fall prey to the disease.
We’ve had more than enough of it already. For our own sake we’d better learn to fight back.