National Security & Defense

The Alt-Center

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar Province, Afghanistan, August 7, 2018. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)
The centrist elite has been successful in raising alarm about the supposed death of the old liberal order. But the picture it paints is a fantasy.

When I’m done ruminating on the depredations of the “deep state,” sometimes I wonder if there’s a dark room somewhere in which graduates from the Kennedy School of Government and the PPE programs of Oxford and Cambridge are programming bots and producing viral news sites to spread their messages across social media. From this den they amplify the voices of their resolutely centrist, establishment-oriented collaborators, creating an alternate reality.

In this reality, Brexit is already a disaster. Hungary and Poland are places of severe political repression. Donald Trump is subverting the Constitution and running a pro-Russia foreign policy. America has withdrawn from the world stage, having given up on global leadership. Angela Merkel is the “leader of the free world and the only one trying to save the seven-decade-long liberal world order that is rapidly collapsing. The message is that there’s too much change and it’s terrifying.

Commentators have been building this picture for a long time. Bret Stephens wrote a book in 2014 titled America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. Stephens was mostly concerned with the rhetorical momentum that advocates of foreign-policy restraint had made in recent years. He could not really cite anywhere on earth that the United States military had actually stopped occupying. The great sin of the time wasn’t that President Obama had refused to intervene in Syria — U.S. Special Forces had been supporting various Sunni militias there since 2012 — but that he hadn’t intervened forcefully enough. The war in Afghanistan was only 13 years old, rather than 18, then. Simpler times.

Since that book, America has elected a president who promised to end Middle East wars, and still talks about our troops coming home. But again, for President Trump, this is mostly rhetorical, however much it might reflect a genuine gut preference for a reduced global military footprint. Very little has been done on his watch to tangibly reduce that footprint, much as he might claim otherwise.

Yet Trump’s rhetoric is enough to make him complicit in the centrist reality-building project. An old foreign-policy hand such as Richard Haas can write an obituary for 70 years of the liberal world order and describe its death like this:

Under President Donald Trump, the US decided against joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. It has threatened to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. It has unilaterally introduced steel and aluminum tariffs, relying on a justification (national security) that others could use, in the process placing the world at risk of a trade war. It has raised questions about its commitment to NATO and other alliance relationships. And it rarely speaks about democracy or human rights. “America First” and the liberal world order seem incompatible.

After the TPP, we’re down mostly to, again, rhetorical deviations. But Haas and his ilk have done their job well nevertheless. Intelligent commentators about, say, Brexit will note, as if it were an incontestable fact, that we are “in an era of American isolation.”

This confusion of rhetoric and reality is everywhere these days. Trump’s occasionally warm remarks about Vladimir Putin are taken to be statements about American foreign policy, which is as adversarial to Russia as it’s been since the early 1990s, with sanctions and hostile diplomatic statements tossed around liberally.

Trump talks as if he can do anything he wants as president, but his administration complies punctiliously with court orders. He sometimes questions NATO, but the U.S. seems to be investing more in its collective defense, and has recently gotten back on the right side of Turkey. Contrary to the predictions and the mood of the media class, the United Kingdom has experienced a period of economic expansion in the years since the Brexit vote. Hungary lacks compelling opposition parties, but retains a culture of protest and raucous dissent. The Polish government’s most novel attempts to reform its nation’s judiciary were turned back.

The liberal world order is kludgy and in search of a greater purpose and mission. Maybe it will find it in resisting the authoritarian depredations of China, maybe not. But the world of 2019 is not so cataclysmic in comparison to the world of 2016 or 2014 or 2009 or even 1999. In fact, maybe too little has changed.

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