What Is the National Interest?

The Road from Etchasketchistan, Part 2

A few years ago, I compared the state of our foreign policy debate to the fictional country of Etchasketchistan. It is as if the foreign policy establishment have been turned upside down and shaken, resetting the alignments that have held since 9/11, and in some cases since the end of World War II. You can no longer reliably predict who is going to sound like a “realist,” a democracy-promoting “neocon,” or an “isolationist.”

This re-alignment—it might be more accurate to call it a de-alignment—started with a briefly opposed and quickly abandoned US intervention in Syria. For about a week in 2013 it was the Democrats, driven in large part by partisan support for President Obama, who sounded like democracy-promoting hawks, and it was Republicans who talked like skeptical anti-interventionists. I observed later that the old alignments seem to snap back into place a little with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and de facto invasion of Eastern Ukraine, which reminded Republicans that they are supposed to be hawks who stand up to the Russkis.

But now we’ve got a Republican presidential nominee who likes the Russkis and their strongman leader, so it’s time to go back to Etchasketchistan for a good shake that will de-align everything again.

Hence, last week saw Donald Trump praising Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a man with “very strong control over a country,” saying that “certainly in [the Russian] system he has been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”

This is reflected in a wider shift in opinions on Putin among Republicans, driven by Trump’s example.

But worst of all is the fact that this is being echoed and even amplified by heretofore sober and sensible people who apparently feel they have to run interference for their political team. Partisanship can do funny things to your brain.

Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, drew out the implication that he and Trump are specifically praising Putin’s domestic leadership: “I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country, and that’s going to change the day that Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America.” Yes, well, that’s what we’re afraid of.

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt took the argument another step farther, tweeting that Putin has done a better than Barack Obama at securing his country’s national interests.

This is a bit more extensive than Trump’s previous claims that Putin has been more assertive on the world stage than Obama (which is not a very high bar to clear). Hewitt draws out the further implication that Putin has “served his country’s national interest.”

On a slightly less reputable level, Dinesh D’Souza chimed in that Putin “LOVES his country & FIGHTS for its interests.”

It’s the well-known “BUT HE FIGHTS” defense of Trump, transferred to foreign policy.

All of this is troubling because it raises the prospect that Trump and his supporters will seek to promote American interests in exactly the same way that Putin has supposedly promoted Russia’s interests—which would, in fact, be a disaster for our interests.

If our foreign policy is lost in Etchasketchistan, if everything is shaken up and we have no framework that guides either party toward a clear foreign policy, then we’re going to have to rebuild our foreign policy from the foundations. There is no more important foundation than a clear understanding of what America’s “interests” are, and there is no better concrete case to start with than by examining what Putin has done to Russian interests and what his admirers would do to America if they followed his example.

I have already laid out extensively how Putin has failed to Make Russia Great Again.

After the Cold War, Russia had the following opportunities. It had a significant number of educated workers with skills in science and technology, whose efforts had been stifled under Soviet Communism but could flourish in a free economy. It had extensive contacts with its former Eastern European satellites, offset by their resentment and suspicion after decades under the Soviet boot. Russia could have pursued a policy intended to reassure the Poles and Ukrainians and the Baltic states and to secure their lasting friendship. Russia has a vast and influential cultural legacy—think of all those great novelists and composers—which had been largely crushed under the totalitarian thought police. Set free, it could once against reach a global audience. Finally, Russia is also surrounded by Asian countries that are former parts of the Soviet Union and have strong Russian connections, whose stability and economic flourishing would help open up Russian opportunities in Asia.

Instead, Vladimir Putin systematically subverted all of these national interests, subordinating them to his quest for state control and personal power. Instead of trying to establish a truly free economy, he imprisoned and exiled independent businessmen, whom he regarded as a threat to his power, and instead established a centralized kleptocracy. He turned Russia into yet another corrupt petrostate based on the exploitation of state-controlled oil resources. In neighboring countries, Putin supported subservient dictators who would pose no challenge to his corrupt system. Where strong and free countries threatened to emerge, as in Ukraine, he stoked the embers of “frozen conflicts” intended to keep Russia surrounded by weak and unstable neighbors. In the process, he has completely alienated emerging Eastern European countries like Poland, turning former Warsaw Pact allies into lasting enemies. He also provoked Western economic sanctions on Russia, which, in combination with falling oil prices—thanks to good old American free enterprise—has crumpled the Russian economy.

Against this sorry record, Hewitt was able to name only one big thing Putin had done to assert Russia’s interests: “projection of Russian power back into the Middle East,” by way of Putin’s alliance with Syria’s Bashar Assad.

Take a moment to savor the irony here. Trump and his supporters—not Hewitt, but guys like this—generally sneer at US intervention in the Middle East as a foolish mistake. But what is bad for us is suddenly good for Putin? Also consider that Putin’s Syrian adventure falls into his wider strategy of building a “zombie empire,” a global alliance not of the strong and stable, but of the weak and dependent, a coalition of regimes on their last legs. The Assad regime, a broken remnant that is unlikely ever to regain full control of its own country, certainly fits that bill.

But never mind the details. Consider the idea that merely showing the flag in a military adventure in the Middle East compensates for comprehensively wrecking Russia’s interests at home and in its immediate neighborhood. This fits in with a certain conception of a nation’s interests—an old, monarchical conception, in which the “national interest” is conflated with the preening, chest-thumping prestige of the head of the state.

In a year of bitter ironies, the closest thing to this theory in America is a school of thought known as “National Greatness Conservatism”—developed by those reviled neoconservatives. In a 1997 essay in The Weekly Standard, of all places, David Brooks announced the theory and summed it up this way.

It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation…. But energetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride.

In foreign policy, he described this in terms of “American nationalism.” Does any of that sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like Trumpism in a nutshell? It’s a short step from “National Greatness Conservatism” to “Make America Great Again.”

In practice, this is likely to achieve precisely what Putin has achieved for Russia: a lot of patriotic slogans and blustering adventurism meant to “convey a spirit of confidence and vigor”—and to support the interests of the leader and his cronies—at the expense of the core interests of the country.

The real legacy of Vladimir Putin’s leadership can be summed up in the way the Russian government encouraged athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs, in a quest for the momentary prestige of winning a lot of Olympic medals at Sochi—at the cost of having most of the Russian Olympic team banned from Rio this year, an unprecedented national humiliation.

Beyond the posturing and preening, what are America’s core interests? The core American interests are freedom and prosperity. The central purpose of government, written right into our founding documents, is the protection of liberty: “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” So the first and foremost goal of foreign policy is to protect our lives and freedom from external threats.

But the larger purpose of liberty is “the pursuit of happiness,” the achievement of our personal goals and values, which include a vibrant, creative culture and a vibrant, growing economy. So the “national interest” also has to include our interest in an economy driven by work, growth, innovation—and trade. That’s why our foreign policy interests have historically included things like the opening of sea lanes used for international trade and their protection from pirates or from belligerent foreign powers. More recently, we have pursued is a decades-long policy of negotiating internal free trade agreements—which are calculated to have added at least a trillion dollars to our annual economic output. America has always been a trading nation, and international trade has always been part of our national interest.

Now I think you can see some of the dangers of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Based on a whole false economic mythology, he specifically targets America’s overseas trade as a problem to be shut down. And while he’s busy boasting about how he’s going to smack down China and Mexico, Trump has no specific plan for how to deal with our actual enemies. He has no strategy for defeating the Islamic State, only a declaration that he will ask for a strategy once he’s in office. (It is only the astonishingly poor leadership of the current administration that could make this seem new and fresh.) And when it comes to pushing back against Russia’s attempt to turn Europe back into a zone of conflict, he seems inclined to give Russia a free hand.

There is a lot that can be debated about exactly what America’s interests are and what that should mean for our strategy in different parts of the world. But the concern with Trump is that he seems to value the symbolic bluster of being a “strong leader”—both overseas and at home—above any clear definition of American interests. What is alarming is not just the prospect of having a president who is likely to be friendly to the interests of a rival like Russia (which is no contrast whatsoever to the current administration). What is alarming is the prospect of having a president who really believes that what Putin has been doing for the last fifteen years has been promoting Russian national interests—and that he might want to pursue the same disastrous course of action for the United States.

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