Most Americans are worried about our domestic crises. Obama left office after doubling the debt to $20 trillion. Near-zero interest rates over eight years have impoverished an entire generation of seniors — and yet remain key to servicing the costs of such reckless borrowing.
Over the last eight years, GDP never grew at 3 percent annually, the first time we’ve seen such low growth since the Hoover administration. Obamacare spiked health-care premiums and deductibles while restricting access and reducing patient choices. Racial politics are at a nadir and make one nostalgic for the environment before 2009.
Red-blue tensions are at an all-time high, and suddenly there is talk of 1860s-like Confederate nullification of federal laws. It’s now the norm for prominent commentators to call for the murder, forced removal, or resignation of the current president. A New York Times columnist asked the IRS to commit a felony by sending him Trump’s tax returns, and then he boasts by providing his own address.
The Democratic party is nearly ruined, reduced to a shrill coastal party animated not by an agenda but by unhinged hatred of Donald Trump and a new religion of race, class, and gender politics.
Given all that, we sometimes forget the dire situation abroad — or rather ignore that our indecision and misdirection reflect internal chaos and looming fiscal crises. The ramifications of setting faux-redlines, the reset with Russia, and then the reset of reset, radical defense cuts, and nonstop contextualization of and apology for past American behavior — all of which in part grew out of cultural wars at home or were connected to economic uncertainty — have led to a volatile world.
Here are the challenges Obama left behind:
1) The Obama radical reset with Putin, followed by about-face hostility to Russia, followed by near hysterical charges of collusion with the Trump campaign have made relations with the world’s second-largest nuclear power more dangerous than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Russia has received signals that it would face no consequences for its behavior, then that there might be consequences in theory but not in fact, and finally that it went from being a friend to an existential enemy without much pause in between.
The only deterrent in the last few years against further Russian aggression toward its former Soviet states hinged on Russia’s own perceptions of self-interest and its worries over economic anemia. It will be both necessary and nearly impossible to normalize relations with Putin, who senses that the usually pro-Russian Democrats now prefer permanent hostility (not for the sins of annexing Crimea or Eastern Ukraine but for allegedly hurting Hillary Clinton through the Wikileaks revelations). And Putin probably surmises that Trump will be forced to prove his anti-Putin fides by exaggerating the appearance of bellicosity. Tragically, Putin hovers about not just as a carrion to feast on easy scraps, but also in some strange way because he still sees some affinities and areas of mutual concern between Russia and the West.
2) China has grown contemptuous of the United States. By leveraging Asian countries, flagrantly cheating on international trade agreements, expanding its defenses, creating artificial atolls as bases in the Spratly Islands, and cutting the leash on its mad-dog North Korean pit bull, China sought to re-create something akin to the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the early 1940s, or the earlier New Order in East Asia of the late 1930s. Its policy for the next ten years or so is to sow troubles and create third-party crises for the United States — a respite until it thinks it can achieve military parity by 2025.
China presents unusual challenges, because besides being the most populous country in the world and the second-largest economy, it is surrounded by pro-American, vibrant — and vulnerable — democracies (Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea). It is also the only country to have four nuclear powers on its immediate borders (India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia) — and could easily have three more nearby (Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea). It is thus both tempted to bully wealthy but for now weak nonnuclear neighbors, and yet it’s terrified of poor but dangerous nuclear ones.
Over the last eight years, it has developed the orthodoxy that the South China Sea is to China as the Caribbean is to the U.S., a private lake where rival foreign warships and bases are not welcome — as if the Caribbean was ever crowded with Chinese-allied states or was a nexus for half the world’s daily trade. Incrementally, over the last few years, the United States has nearly conceded these Chinese expansions and has reached a point where not to concede them any longer is as dangerous as having done it in the first place.
3) The Iran deal was always an unspoken pathway to a nuclear bomb. So eager was the Obama administration for a foreign-policy legacy that it institutionalized exemptions for Iranian violations of the spirit and the letter of the agreement of U.N. resolutions. And in Machiavellian fashion, Obama so invested the Europeans in the profiteering from newfound Iranian trade that it will be hard to wean them off — on the argument that the Iranians have chronically cheated on the accord. Does one renounce the deal, or shrug and allow it to proceed, or just ready ourselves to react forcefully when the Iranians commit certain violations? For now, Iran bets that loud hints of a continuing nuclear-weapons program, whose present status is not really known, will be a deterrent to its suffering the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, Moammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. Any recent even remote idea that Iran/Syria/Hezbollah was some sort of useful foil to the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel was lunatic.
4) North Korea during the last year created a new normal of threatening its enemies, launching missiles, and improving its nuclear capability — all on the pretext that it was unhinged and not subject to classical deterrence, and that the United States was not a reliable guarantor of the security of South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Correcting that impression is fraught with real dangers and with the surety that whatever the U.S. does, it will be blamed for provoking a lunatic nuclear state.
5) The 2011 U.S. pullout from Iraq, the fake redline in Syria, the promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the demonization of Egyptian head of state (General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), the Libyan bombing, the failed “special relationship” with an Ottomanizing Turkey, the stalemate in Afghanistan, and the decoupling from Israel and the Gulf States — all have left the U.S. with poor options. Few Americans wish to reenter that quagmire of the Middle East; fewer wish to allow ISIS to continue its global terrorism. All want to destroy it; none believes the task can be done solely with air power. Trump has never squared the circle of demanding an end to ISIS while simultaneously ruling out large interventions on the ground to accomplish such an ambitious mission. The appeal of his Jacksonian punitive foreign policy was never quite explained by his equal reluctance to involve ourselves in other nations’ business. His base, in extremis, wants quick overwhelming wins, but he can achieve them militarily only within very narrow political limits and with no margin of error.
6) Under Obama, the defense budget was slashed and military capability eroded. What the U.S. thinks it can do abroad and what it can really do are now two different matters. And how, at a time of record debt, does the U.S. reformulate its military and reassert its authority — especially in the short term? The usual Republican corrective — in the manner of Reagan in 1981 — is to rely on GDP “growth” to cover the increased cost of defense at a time of record debt, but such supply-side calculus might not fly this time around, when the debt is no longer $1 trillion but $20 trillion.
7) No one has quite calibrated the proper strategic corrective to Obama’s lead-from-behind recessional, in part because it was accompanied by radical reductions in military capability and passed off as a reaction to economic stagnation and unhappiness with past American interventions.
Deterrence is quite easy to forfeit but expensive to reestablish. Rebuilding it usually entails at least some danger because enemies don’t give up easily their hard-won advantages. British prime minister Stanley Baldwin left office in 1937 correctly proclaiming that the world was at peace, but he had lost deterrence and more or less conceded the agendas of the rising Third Reich — and thereby guaranteed a terrible war for his successors.
No one yet has fully digested these challenges, much less offered answers to them.
Is the corrective to Obama’s haphazard and passive-aggressive policies of bombing and droning, decorated with protestations of non-interventionism, something akin to Bill Clinton’s stand-off bombing in the Balkans and Iraq? Or Ronald Reagan’s punitive shelling and bombing of Libya or Lebanon, or his walk-over in Grenada? Both presidents, for different reasons, usually avoided deploying large U.S. ground forces in simultaneous and asymmetrical wars.
No one wishes a Gulf War III ground war or another senseless bombing campaign, but so far no one has articulated the new Trump-Jacksonian moment.
With isolationists, we at least know that they wish to let the world be and concentrate on problems at home.
Neoconservatives were not shy about championing nation-building abroad in the belief that the more constitutional governments in the world, the less likely we’d see anti-Americanism and war.
Realists envisioned a return to a balance of power, triangulation, and promotion of alliances, where American interests, not idealism, govern a muscular U.S. profile.
Lead-from-behind Obamism proved to be little more than allowing the United Nations and the European Union to redefine American interests as something akin to Davos globalization.
What, then, is a Jacksonian Trump approach?
Trump seems none of the above. But he is inheriting a world that is imploding, an electorate that has no belly to fix it, and a military that for the present is in no shape to do so even if it wanted to.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its posting.