Donald Trump is not the only nationalist in American politics, only the man of the moment most comfortable with nationalistic posturing. Senator Bernie Sanders may be a socialist crackpot from Brooklyn, but he also denounces the liberalization of immigration as “open borders,” which he insists is “a Koch brothers proposal” and “a right-wing proposal, which say, essentially, there is no United States.” Barack Obama parrots every national socialist from Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chávez with his talk of “a new nationalism,” while Hillary Rodham Clinton relies on the bluntly fascist term “economic patriotism,” “patriotism” here meaning – as it always means in the mouths of tyrants — doing what the government demands.
Trump’s nationalism is of a funny sort, though: It is a nationalism of retreat rather than one of advance, the opposite of the expansive and expansionist approach of nationalist pin-up boy Vladimir Putin. It is a nationalism that contemplates a reduced and restricted American role in world affairs, rather than an enlarged and entrenched one, with the United States abandoning military commitment abroad and disengaging from international trade and cooperation.
This is partly the result of pure ignorance. Trump complains that the United States spends a fortune defending other countries: “They aren’t paying us!” he thunders, and his admirers sway in the wind like a field of overripe corn. That complaint would make a great deal of sense if it were the case that the United States were simply doing Japan, Germany, and the Republic of Korea a favor by stationing troops there. But, of course, that is not the case, even if the fact eludes Trump and his partisans.
What Trump imagines is a simple system of tribute: The United States, being the superior military power, extorts payments from client nations under a system that would be entirely familiar to his pal Robert LiButti or any other mobster who has run a protection racket. What the United States actually is up to in its global military commitments is something else entirely.
The American military presence around the world is the result of a set of policies that are neither self-sacrificing, as Trump imagines, or deviously self-interested, which is the usual criticism made by the Left. Ersatz nationalists of the Trumpkin variety and left-wing anti-Americans both are blinded to the actual nature of that policy, because both are blinded to the actual nature of the United States, which is this: It is good. Not perfect, but not merely better than the alternatives offered up so far by history.
The comparative claim is easy to make: A world in which the Allied forces prevail, led by the military and economic might of the United States, is inarguably preferable to a world in which Adolf Hitler and his imitators prevail. A world in which the United States wins the Cold War is preferable to one in which there is only stalemate, or — incalculably worse — dominated by the Soviet Union. A world dominated by liberal government and international cooperation is preferable to one dominated by totalitarian Islam or backward South American national socialism on the Chávez model.
But the United States is not merely representative of something better than those approaches; it is representative of something good. It is, irrespective of the alternatives, in and of itself a force for liberty, decency, human dignity, and human flourishing, and it has been for centuries. American military engagements abroad mainly involve the comparative claim: Both the Germans and the Americans were better off with the Red Army kept out of Western Europe, and the Poles and the Czechs and the Americans all were better off when the Soviet Union was defeated. Even if the intended outcome of that confrontation was American hegemony, the liberal American hegemon is preferable to the gulag-building one.
But American engagement with the world is hardly limited to war-fighting and related preparations. The American example has changed — forever — what the people of this world believe to be possible for themselves, bringing into present reality peace and prosperity that even the most utopian thinkers of three centuries ago would not have permitted themselves to dream of. Having liberated ourselves from the superstition of zero-sum economic thinking, the United States grew rich while helping other nations grow rich, too. That, too, is neither entirely altruistic nor entirely self-interested: When the United States intervened to save India from famine 50 years ago, and when Norman Borlaug et al. helped India to make a century’s worth of agricultural advances in a relatively short period of time, nobody was thinking about American exports or business practices in 2016. But it is the case that a rich India is much better suited to buy the things that America exports — aircraft, industrial machinery, optical and medical instruments – than is a poor India. For all our present anxiety, a rich China will be much better for the United States – and the world – than a poor China.
It is not the case that every American military base abroad is vital, or that every one of them is worth the expense. But it certainly is not the case that our forces in Okinawa are there primarily as a subsidy to the Japanese or that our forces north of there are deployed as a subsidy to the Koreans. (One might learn a little something about this by asking the Japanese and Koreans how they feel about the favors we are doing them.) All government actions should be subject to the gentlemen with the green eyeshades, but before you do the accounting, you must understand what it is that you are buying. Our troops at Yongsan Garrison stand between the army of the Hermit Kingdom and the people of South Korea, it is true, but they do a great deal more than that. This is understood in Beijing and in Tokyo, though perhaps not so much in Palm Beach.
The United States is the world outlier when it comes to military spending, but even those of us who believe that we spend too much on the military have a duty to put that spending into context. In 1957, which most people remember as a pretty good time in U.S. history, our real military spending was three times what it is now (9.8 percent of GDP as opposed to 3.3 percent today). Our total level of taxation was almost the same in the Eisenhower years as it is today (only a little lower, at 17.2 percent of GDP vs. 17.7 percent today), and the gross size of the federal enterprise was not radically different than it is today. But those who believe that we can change the guns-and-butter math today to replicate something like the postwar period should consider the fact that in 1957 we spent about 23 percent of the federal budget on social-welfare programs broadly defined and most of the rest on the military. Today, we spend about 20 percent on the military and almost everything else on social welfare – i.e., we have just about reversed the military-domestic split of the postwar era, cutting military spending by two thirds and spending four times as much on welfare.
To blame foreigners is natural, and thus so is the desire of these so-called nationalists to retreat from the world.
Strangely enough, both the Trump-Putin national-socialist right and the Clinton-Sanders socialist-nationalist Left argue that we could return to something like those golden postwar years if only we would stop getting took on military spending.
They have not consulted the actual budget numbers, because this is, in the end, not about budget numbers. It is about resentment. It is easier for the United Autoworkers to blame sweaty Mexicans and rapacious corporations for the decline of Michigan’s assembly lines than it is to place the blame where it belongs, which is partly on themselves. There are a fair number of self-proclaimed rugged individualists who look with envy upon the cushy European welfare states and ask why it is that they themselves cannot be similarly coddled. They, too, will find someone to blame, and will find a way to tell a story in which they are the heroes or the victims or both. To blame foreigners is natural, and thus so is the desire of these so-called nationalists to retreat from the world.
Whether it is even possible for the United States to become a very large Switzerland is something that even Helvetiaphiles such as myself must doubt. Would it be desirable? The history of the 20th century – and, to some extent, the histories of the 19th century and the 21st century so far – suggests that it would not.
The world is a big, messy place, and the United States is the big, messy, indispensible country right in the middle of it. We cannot retreat from the affairs of the world any more than the sea can retreat from the seabed. Our leadership may be understood as a privilege or as a burden – it is both – but the fact is that when there is real trouble, nobody says: “Dear God, somebody call the Swiss!” The idea that what’s wrong with our economy at the moment is a national failure to nickel-and-dime Shinzo Abe over the price of a kilo of rice in Yokohama is not only absurd, it is beneath us.
A funny kind of nationalism, that.