Here in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the mood is “Kurdistan first” with the announcement of a referendum on independence in September. In neighboring Saudi Arabia, it’s “Saudi first,” as a brash young crown prince steers the kingdom toward a more assertive role in the region. In Moscow, where I visited a few weeks ago, it’s “Russia first,” with a vengeance. And so it goes, around most of the world.
The politics of national self-interest is on steroids these days. For global leaders, it’s the “me” moment. The nearly universal slogan among countries that might once have acted with more restraint seems to be: “Go for it.”
The prime catalyst of this global movement of self-assertion is, obviously, President Trump. From early in his 2016 campaign, he proclaimed his vision of “America first” in which the interests of the United States and its companies and workers would prevail over international obligations.
Trump has waffled on many of his commitments since becoming president, but not “America first.” He withdrew from the Paris agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to name two multinational accords that Trump decided harmed American interests, or at least those of his political supporters.
Trump’s critics, including me, have been arguing that this selfish stance is actually weakening America by shredding the network of global alliances and institutions on which U.S. power has rested. But let’s put aside this issue of self-inflicted wounds and focus instead on what happens when other leaders decide to emulate Trump’s disdain for traditional limits on the exercise of power.
Nobody wants to seem like a chump in Trump world. When the leader of the global system proclaims that he won’t be bound by foreign restraints, the spirit becomes infectious. Call the global zeitgeist what you will: The new realism. Eyes on the prize. Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
Middle East leaders have been notably more aggressive in asserting their own versions of national interest. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates defied pleas from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stop escalating their blockade against Qatar for allegedly supporting extremism. Their argument was simple self-interest: If Qatar wants to ally with the Gulf Arabs, then it must accept our rules. Otherwise, Qatar is out.
For the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, the issue has been whether to wait on their dream of independence. They decided to go ahead with their referendum, despite worries among top U.S. officials that it could upset American efforts to hold Iraq together and thereby destabilize the region. The implicit Kurdish answer: That’s not our problem. We need to do what’s right for our people.
Trump has at least been consistent. His aides cite a benchmark speech he made April 27, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, in which he offered an early systematic “America first” pitch. He argued that the country had been blundering around the world with half-baked, do-gooder schemes “since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
Trump explained: “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy. We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed.”
What’s interesting is that this same basic critique has been made, almost word for word, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s not a conspiracy-minded argument that Trump is Putin’s man, but simply an observation that our president embraces the same raw cynicism about values-based foreign policy as does the leader of Russia. (It’s an interesting footnote, by the way, that in the audience that day as Trump gave his framework speech was Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.)
Who are the outliers in this me-first world? Perhaps the Europeans. Despite body blows to the European Union over the past few years, France and Germany, the two dominant players, retain the conviction that their destinies involve something larger than national self-interest. Fear and nationalism have shaken Europe but not overwhelmed it. An enlightened center is holding at Europe’s core.
China, too, manages to retain the image that it stands for something larger than itself, with its “one belt, one road” rhetoric of Chinese-led interdependence. The question, as Harvard University’s Graham Allison argues in his provocative new book, “Destined for War,” is whether the expanding Chinese hegemon will collide with the retreating American one.
The politics of selfishness may seem inevitable in Trump world. But by definition, it can’t produce a global system. That’s its fatal flaw.
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