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Trump has changed my mind. For years I’ve thought that the United States was entirely too involved in dominating the rest of the world—for their own good, of course. I spent a career studying Latin America, where the US impact has been baleful more often than not. Then you have Vietnam, and the multifaceted follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention our serial misdeeds in Iran, South Africa, the Congo—anyone who’s spent time studying modern American foreign policy knows I could go on, and on. And there’s still a point in pointing out how often our best-intentioned interventions have done more harm than good.

Global Leadership

Nearly eighty years after Franklin Roosevelt took the leadership of the civilized world, we can look back and see how the United States used its power to shape the international order in accordance with its liberal values in both economics and politics. The United Nations was originally a near-universal alliance of the whole world against the Axis powers in World War II. It became a kind of quasi-democracy of nation-states (one-nation-one-vote) with its Security Council immobilized by Cold War tensions. Our alliance system was ostensibly responsible for defending the “Free World,” against Communist aggression (even if our Free World Allies included some of the most execrable tyrants in history). The ideal was a free society on the model of the United States.

The values implicit in Trump’s foreign policy are, in short, economic nationalism and political authoritarianism, both essentially antithetical to the values of the American-sponsored world order of the last eighty years.

In the economic realm, US leadership institutionalized the norm of capitalist economies linked by free trade (though getting to fully free trade took decades of complex negotiations culminating in the World Trade Organization in the 1990s). The idea, reflecting American conventional wisdom, was that democracy and political freedom went naturally with capitalism and economic freedom.

The United States not only invented these political and economic structures, we enforced them, when we decided, for example, that the elected government of Iran was not part of the Free World, but the Shah whom we put in power was part of it.

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So I have no illusions about the inconsistency and hypocrisy of US global leadership. But now, in Donald Trump, we have a leader who seems determined to undermine this global order. On one hand he’s directly assaulting the whole free trade regime by unilaterally imposing tariffs and inviting a trade war with our biggest trading partners, including the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and China. On the other hand he is persistently denigrating our key alliance, NATO, while cultivating warm relations with erstwhile adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea.

The values implicit in Trump’s foreign policy are, in short, economic nationalism and political authoritarianism, both essentially antithetical to the values of the American-sponsored world order of the last eighty years. Trump has from time to time expressed skepticism or opposition to military interventions abroad, though he certainly does try to throw his weight around anyway. But even if he were consistently trying to get out of the role of world leader, he couldn’t do it because the US is still overwhelmingly the world’s leading military power and still the world’s largest economy. What we do matters, even—or especially—when it is perverse.

So instead of setting a tone for a world in which political and economic freedom are valued (often, it is true, in the breach), Trump is setting a tone that favors fraudulently elected authoritarians and destructive economic nationalism.

impeachment unavoidable

Leading powers do set the tone of world order. Trump is setting a most unfortunate tone. That’s one more reason we need to beat him.

John Peeler