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A More Informed “Anti-Globalism”
We must separate the rightful backlash against President Obama's liberal institutionalism from the wrongful attack upon the soundness of the Reagan Doctrine.
Ever since the rise of Trumpism, there has been much debate and discussion over whether our current political moment has signaled the end of the “three-legged stool” conservatism that for decades both defined the political coalition that comprised what could be called movement conservatism and informed the typical policies of the Republican Party. Specifically, the aggressively isolationist bent of the MAGA movement seems to have lopped off the muscular foreign policy leg of the stool wholly and completely. But perhaps, the situation is far more complicated than simply a wholesale rejection of an engaged and strong American foreign policy.
To be sure, the excesses of the Bush era left a sour taste in many mouths for interventionism, military adventurism, and nation-building. Today, there are many who call themselves conservative who rally to those figures who decry the “forever wars” perpetrated by “war hawks and neoconservatives.” American society as a whole, it would seem, has become dovish to the extreme and increasingly wary of any possible foreign entanglements.
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But when attempting to get to the bottom of this growing “anti-globalism” instinct on the American Right, are we talking about a total abandonment of Reagan’s legacy across the board by all conservatives and Republicans, or are we perhaps observing two different phenomena blended together whose subtle differences are only observable through careful consideration?
For example, there is clearly some disagreement over how much true isolationism this anti-globalism actually entails on certain issues such as the rise and fall of ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, Iran’s nuclear program and paramilitary efforts, the abandonment of Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing threat as a challenge to American dominance and their posturing on Taiwan, and in responding decisively to the threats of global terrorism.
Many of the same conservatives who call themselves anti-globalists chalk up the defeat of ISIS as one of the Trump administration’s most significant accomplishments, they cheered when Tomahawk missiles rained on Syrian forces in response to the use of chemical weapons, they celebrated the death of Soleimani and support Israel in standing up to Iran, they recognize China as a clear threat that must be answered in American foreign policy, they were outraged by the manner in which President Biden surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban, most of them support standing by Taiwan if attacked by China, and many of them stand by Ukraine in their defense against Russian aggression.
It seems clear, then, that despite the rhetoric of those portions of MAGA that are truly committed isolationists who want to see a wholescale American retreat from the world at large, a substantial majority of conservatives do not see their views of anti-globalism as necessarily an abandonment of Reagan-style foreign policy. We can indeed observe two different anti-globalist phenomena, one that’s loud but in the political minority, while the other is quiet but has resoundingly more support among the rank-and-file of the conservative movement.
My observation is that while the loudest voices seek to characterize anti-globalism as a pushback against Bush and Reagan-style conservative foreign engagement, most bread-and-butter conservatives are actually motivated more by a pushback against Obama-style liberal institutionalism. The difficulty is that because this difference in motivations is neither understood nor articulated well, a cross-over of rhetoric, terms, and activist efforts has muddied the situation considerably.
So, what do I mean by Obama-style liberal institutionalism? Liberal institutionalism is the term used in the study of international relations for an approach to foreign policy built predominantly on the efficacy and effectiveness of international institutions and the belief that such institutions can provide the most effective basis for international cooperation, world peace, and the establishment of liberal norms across the globe. Specific to President Obama’s unique approach to this view, I refer to his efforts to lessen the role of the United States as an independent leader of the free world and to increase its role as a supporter and booster of international institutions.
While this does not quite rise to what some conspiracy theorists call the formation of a global government, it does involve establishing a regime of international law that such figures as Barack Obama believe provides the basis for establishing a form of law and order in how nations interact. Such global institutions as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank represent the backbone of global institutions upon which liberal institutionalists place their beliefs for international cooperation and world peace.
While these organizations have worthy visions and noteworthy accomplishments, I believe that conservatives have every reason to distrust such international institutions and question their effectiveness in establishing and enforcing international law. For example, the UN offers both Russia and China, the world’s most belligerent industrialized states, permanent seats on its security council and has therefore proven useless in keeping to the values of its charter in the face of Russian aggression. The World Health Organization failed to credibly lead the nations of the world through the COVID pandemic. The World Trade Organization has been unable to prevent trade wars between powerful nations that have impacted the global economy and has failed to bring any semblance of consistency to oil prices as both Russia and OPEC have gotten to virtually dictate global demand. And despite decades and decades of financing, the World Bank’s track record of raising developing nations into peership with the world’s industrialized nations is poor, to say the least.
It is not at all hyperbolic to say that the very notion of international law represents little more than a paper tiger, especially in the face of human rights abuses, military aggression, and violations of sovereignty. International institutions, then, trade the strength and efficacy of national sovereignty for assurances that eventually hold no legitimacy nor actual power. They weaken the independence of nation-states in a utopian belief in international government without being able to deliver on their promises. The nations of the world get to choose whether to respect the dictates of international law and when they don’t, the international institutions that attempt to establish such law have no serious means to enforce it.
The rise of Trump, in very many ways, demonstrates a backlash against this liberal internationalism. He tapped into an anti-globalism that demands, first and foremost, a respect for the sanctity of national sovereignty, self-determination, and American independence in how and why we choose to interact with the world. Rather than rejecting Reaganism, this anti-globalism was a demand for its return.
And this is where our other form of anti-globalism, the fly in the ointment, as it were, comes into play. Amid this backlash against Obama-era liberal institutionalism, a dormant strain of militant isolationism awoke and inserted itself into the conversation. Loud voices lumped the Left’s hopes for world peace built upon global institutions with the Right’s traditional sovereignty-driven foreign engagement.
The Reagan Doctrine is very different from liberal institutionalism. Rather than surrendering elements of national sovereignty in the hopes of strengthening global institutions in the effort to establish international law, a Reaganesque approach to foreign policy embraces America’s role as the leader of the free world. It moves to support internally driven ideals in the international realm through clear and consistent interaction with the nations of the world and the establishment of voluntary treaty organizations that strengthen rather than weaken national sovereignty and enforce international norms through a commitment to both independent and joint action.
The Ukraine war has been a singularly powerful demonstration of the fecklessness of international institutions and the strength of treaty-based organizations. Russian’s invasion of Ukraine has been the most brazen attack on the value of national sovereignty since WWII, and it has been NATO, not the UN, that has held together the response of the free world and given Ukraine the means to push back against Russian aggression.
But the loudest segments of MAGA also want to reject this approach to international engagement, believing that America, the strongest and freest nation in the world, can retreat to within its borders and ignore the world altogether without any consequences. This militant isolationism fails to understand how a treaty-based international order accompanied by consistent American commitments beyond our shores benefits American interests and secures, rather than displaces, national sovereignty. However, most conservatives and Republicans actually do understand and continue to embrace the principles of the Reagan Doctrine. There have simply not been enough voices laying out the difference between the rejection of liberal institutionalism and the rejection of Reaganism to aid bread-and-butter conservatives in recognizing the creeping retreatists and peaceniks in their midst.
The path out of this confusion will be forged by those willing to articulate the crucial difference between what most conservatives believe and the bill of sale MAGA and its right-wing infotainment enablers are selling them. Conservatives are right to reject the utopian vision for international law and the surrender of national sovereignty that goes with it. This rejection of liberal institutionalism should be embraced and fully articulated, especially by non-MAGA conservative voices. But a clear differentiation must be established between this rejection of the Obama Doctrine and the rejection of the Reagan Doctrine orchestrated by militant isolationists in the Trumpian right who are taking advantage of our nation’s war weariness to push America out of its role as a shining city on a hill.
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