Dazed and Confused
The current media firestorm surrounding the alleged murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi assassination team in their Turkish consulate is partially a reaction to the confused state of American foreign policy. Khashoggi, born in Saudi Arabia and living in the United States, was a fierce critic of the Saudi regime. The CIA has verified from taped evidence that Khashoggi was not only killed by the Saudis, but that his murder was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman, the current Saudi dictator.
Despite this, President Trump insists that Salman did not order the assassination. But of course Trump is not alone in ignoring Saudi actions. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and George W. Bush basically took no action against the Saudis. Barack Obama ignored the Saudi military incursion in Yemen, which quickly turned into a human rights disaster.
Overlooking and excusing Saudi actions is part of a larger pattern. Many past presidents have not only overlooked bad dictator behavior, they have explicitly allied with dictators. In WWII we allied with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism, in the Cold War we allied with various right wing dictatorships to defeat communism, and in the War on Terror we continue to ally with dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia, to defeat jihadism. In all cases we ignored the atrocities committed by our dictatorial allies.
The alliances are products of a political philosophy known as realpolitik, which states that each nation should only engage in activities in its own self-interest. This is in contrast to the other political philosophy sometimes guiding our foreign policy, American Exceptionalism, that states that the purpose of the United States is to help the world achieve democracy, which sometimes means that we engage in activities that are not in our immediate self-interest. United States foreign policy has sometimes been informed by realpolitik, and sometimes by American Exceptionalism, depending on the specific administration in power. The inconsistent application of one or the other of these contradictory philosophies is confusing to everyone: the American people, our allies, and our enemies.
Despite our confusion, global democracy expanded greatly up until 2008. But now, there has been a decade long decline in global democracy which shows no signs of reversing. Therefore perhaps it is time for the United States to fully embrace American Exceptionalism and drop realpolitik. Unfortunately the Trump administration shows no signs of doing this. Trump came into office promoting ‘America First’, which is simply another term for realpolitik. However, a consistent application of America First would mean an American withdrawal from NATO, and a withdrawal of American troops from everywhere in the world. Trump has not done these things, which means we are still adhering to our American Exceptionalist commitments. In the meantime Trump treats some dictators as if they were our best friends, and our allied democratic leaders with contempt. In other words, nothing has changed. We are still dazed and confused, torn between two contradictory philosophies about how to interact globally.
Our confusion resonates outward in the world. Our dictatorial enemies perceive our confusion as weakness, and this perception encourages their aggression. Our eastern European allies do not know if we will protect them from Russian aggression. Our Asian allies do not know if we will protect them from Chinese aggression. If we did finally drop realpolitik and consistently embrace American Exceptionalism, the message to our allies and to the world would be that the United States is fully committed to complete worldwide democracy. Such a consistent commitment would bolster the resolve on smaller countries to stand up to dictatorial bullying, and to curtail the anti-democratic forces within their own borders. We need to remember that the desire for freedom is a human universal, and if people overcome their fear this desire will be expressed. We cannot let the 21st Century version of fascism take over the world, which it now seems to be doing. If we passively allow this to happen, all those Americans that died expanding freedom over the last 235 years will have died in vain.
Anthony Stahelski can be reached at [email protected]