The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The most extraordinary op-ed of 2017

I do not mean extraordinary in a good way.

White House Economic Council Gary Cohn, left, with national security adviser H.R. McMaster, takes a picture as President Trump visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In the ongoing debate over President Trump’s foreign policy, Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster have generally been painted as part of the “adults in the room” caucus. To the extent that the Trump White House had mainstream foreign policy thinkers, Cohn and McMaster were it. That’s why there were so many sighs of relief when McMaster replaced Mike Flynn as national security adviser. In recent weeks, however, McMaster has come under some serious fire for throwing his reputation on the grenade that is the Russia investigation.

On Wednesday, McMaster and Cohn wrote a lulu of an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which they tried to frame Trump’s overseas trip as a raging success. To their credit, they managed to avoid the kind of North Korean-level cheerleading that has plagued this White House as of late. They did, however, engage in quite a bit of revisionist history of what happened on the trip. They praised Trump for “reconfirming America’s commitment to NATO and Article 5,” which is a wee bit odd, since the consensus is that Trump did not confirm anything on Article V.

Highlights from the national security adviser's briefing on President Trump's May 10 Oval Office meeting with Russian officials (Video: Video: Reuters, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Video: Reuters)

In other portions of the op-ed, McMaster and Cohn attempt to frame Trump’s “America first” rhetoric in a way that makes allies and partners in the world feel better:

America First does not mean America alone. It is a commitment to protecting and advancing our vital interests while also fostering cooperation and strengthening relationships with our allies and partners. A determination to stand up for our people and our way of life deepens our friends’ respect for America….
We are asking a lot of our allies and partners. But in return America will once again be a true friend to our partners and the worst foe to our enemies. The president’s visit showed the power of both competing to advance interests and engaging to develop relationships and foster cooperation. We have a vital interest in taking the lead internationally to advance American military, political and economic strength.

There’s a lot of word salad going on in those paragraphs.  How exactly can “competing to advance interests” be reconciled with “engaging to develop relationships and foster cooperation?” What are the principles under which one approach is preferred to the other? How does a president complaining about spending too much on NATO take the lead internationally?

The most extraordinary paragraph in this op-ed, however, is this one:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

Now anyone familiar with Hans Morgenthau or Kenneth Waltz might squint at this paragraph and think, “Hey, this sounds a lot like realism; that isn’t so bad.” But as I noted Wednesday, the Trump administration seems wedded to a vulgar form of realism that harms the national interest far more than it helps.

This paragraph highlights the problem in two ways. First — and this is so obvious I can’t believe I have to type out these words — the United States can’t simultaneously proclaim “America first” and then claim any kind of moral strength. Saying loudly and repeatedly that American values are not going to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy strips you of any moral power whatsoever.

The second and bigger problem is that the “embrace” of a Hobbesian vision of the world by the most powerful country in the world pretty much guarantees Hobbesian reciprocity by everyone else. Most international relations scholars would agree that there are parts of the world that fit this brutal description. But even realists don’t think it’s a good thing. Cooperation between the United States and its key partners and allies is not based entirely on realpolitik principles. It has helped foster a zone of stability across Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim that has lasted quite some time. In many issue areas, such as trade or counterterrorism or climate change, countries gain far more from cooperation than competition.

Furthermore, such an embrace of the Hobbesian worldview is, in many ways, anti-American. U.S. foreign policy for the past 70 years was premised on the notion that even in an anarchic world, one could nurture an international order grounded on American values of liberty and democracy and free enterprise. Even before 1945, when the United States was not a superpower, America trafficked in the aspirational goal of a world governed by international law.

Has the United States always lived up to these aspirations? No, of course not. But these exceptions and emendations were usually acknowledged as unfortunate necessities. Indeed, these values were an important part of American soft power that helped attract allies across the world and keep them after the end of the Cold War, when realists predicted that a balancing coalition might have emerged.

This op-ed tries to claim that an “America first” approach is an act of leadership, but Trump’s worldview is the opposite of that. Acting like the world is always nasty and brutish simply encourages others to act in a similar manner. And the United States loses far more than it gains from having countries such as Germany or Japan act in a strictly transactional fashion towards us. Even longstanding realists get that point.

On many issues, the world is not a global community. Realism offers a valuable first cut at understanding those issues. America policymakers must always be prepared to cope with rivals and adversaries who might exploit the absence of global governance to do what they want. But this is an insane way to approach countries that have been longstanding allies.

McMaster and Cohn have to know this to be true. And yet they attached their names, and their credibility, to this logical and moral shambles. What that says about them, I will leave to the reader’s imagination.