One thing that we do not seem to understand is the magnitude of the distorting effect 9/11 had on everyone’s thinking about foreign policy. However, if we try to think our way back into 9/10, we may have the key to understanding Trump, which could be important since he’s about to have control of both our diplomacy and our nuclear codes.
If you go back to before the 1960s, the two political parties had fundamentally different conceptions of foreign policy. On the whole, the Democrats were more belligerent. Democrats got us into almost every war we fought until the Gulf War, and Republicans got us out of them. The entire mindset that says the world is an arena between the forces of good and evil was a Democrat affliction. Wilson got us into World War One. Roosevelt got us into World War Two. Truman got us into Korea. Johnson got us into Vietnam. The after-effects of Vietnam have confused us in this regard, but Nixon ending the war and opening China was typical of Republican orthodoxy in foreign policy; bombing Cambodia back to Stone Age was not.
The Cold War created a perplexity, however. The natural tendency of conservatives to be isolationist conflicted with the natural tendency of conservatives to be hostile towards communism. This tension finally resolved itself in 1980 when the Trumanesque Cold Warriors went over to the Republicans and came into power under Reagan. What we have forgotten this far out was that Reagan was a very complicated figure, or rather, what he signified was complicated: he was able to bring together all these different conservative factions which don’t really fit together and forge a unity out of them. But the central faction was the former Democrats who wanted to take the fight to the Soviet Union instead of continuing Nixonian detente. Since we now regard Reagan as the quintessential Republican, aggressive foreign policy seems a part of the package; since we now regard the antiwar protesters who ended the Johnson (D) presidency as quintessential Democrats, peace-making seems a part of the package. In the end, Reagan remained a Republican: just as Nixon went to China, Reagan went to Reykjavik. Republicans themselves are now so affected by liberal interventionism that they can’t even say he made peace with the Russians. They have to same he “won the Cold War.” Well, whatever gets you through the night.
The Reaganesque Cold Warriors were not interested in abortion, or fiscal responsibility, or laissez-faire economics. They were interested in destroying Evil Empires. They tended to be mercantilists in their (mis)understanding of international trade. They tended to accept, as Democrats had long accepted, that big government has a moral mission to improve and emancipate both at home and abroad. That they had come to view the domestic side of this rather differently than Democrats did is less important than the fact that they also “saw like a state” and regarded politics as a moral mission. The interest that these people had in the Middle East, to the extent that it was not influenced by a sentimental attachment to the security of Israel, regarded the Middle East as a Cold War Theater in which Israel (and Iran!) were extensions of American power just as Western Europe was, and Arab nationalism was just a mask for Soviet expansionism. The crucial point here is that if there were no Soviet Union, the Middle East ceases to be interesting as an arena. The habit of regarding Iraq as to-be-destroyed originates in the perception of Iraq as crypto-Russian. This also explains why one would naturally associate Iraq with nuclear war.
If you think your way back into the mindset of 2000, there were many different ways of regarding where we were, but in some sense the neoconservative vision of the world had won. If you were a neoconservative Democrat, you wanted to extend and consolidate the victory over the Russians by enlarging NATO, promoting further development of the EU, further international trade (no more need to prevent trade with the enemy as before, because the enemy was gone). You also wanted to altruistically use accumulated American power for the good: in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda. Well, OK, maybe not in Rwanda. But if you were a neoconservative Republican, while you might have some unfinished business to wind up with former Soviet proxies in the Middle East, the real focus should be on The Coming Conflict With China.
Whatever virtues neoconservative Republicans might see in small government, fiscal responsibility and international trade ultimately take a backseat to furthering what are essentially wartime interests. You don’t try to balance the budget by cutting military spending during a war. You might lose the war! You don’t have free trade with a country with which you are at war. You might lose the war! And of course China is a communist dictatorship. (Notice how this inkblot can be viewed. Is China basically good because of economic liberalization, and its style of government is of lesser importance? Or is it basically evil because of its lack of political liberalization, making its economic liberalization worrisome because it makes its tyranny stronger? If you think in the first way, our victory in the Cold War is complete; the latter, and trade with China is a seduction that will lead us to our doom.)
Now I don’t think The Donald is a deep thinker by any means. Reagan was not a deep thinker. But even not-so-deep thinkers have their default assumptions. Trump’s unexpected reaching out to Taiwan is a new and extremely significant datapoint in the task of plumbing the mystery that is Trump. If I am right, it turns out that he is a 9/10/2001 neoconservative Republican. He is what Bush was supposed to be, before Osama Bin Laden dragged him, and us, into the abyss of the Middle East. And what that means is that he thinks trade with China will only help our great enemy defeat us. This means that we have to watch carefully what happens with the TPP. If Trump really does cancel the TPP, then he’s exactly the domestic protectionist without a clue that we libertarians have thought he was all along. But if I am right, if he is a New Cold Warrior against China, then he will surprise everyone by not canceling the TPP… because the TPP excludes China. It’s a strategic attempt to wean us from dependence on China.
So for those of you who miss 9/10/2001, happy days are here again! It’ll be like 1980 all over again! Lots of saber-rattling, lots of military spending, lots of Titanic deficits. There may be a problem though. Reagan “won” the Cold War by spending into oblivion an empire which was on its last legs anyway. China does not resemble the Soviet Union. It is a rising power, and if it resembles anything, it resembles Germany… just before World War One. The process of defeating, destroying, rebuilding, reuniting and re-integrating a normal Germany into the community of nations took the better part of a century, and it wasn’t cheap, in blood or treasure.