The End of Internationalism in the West

In the West, at the moment, internationalism seems to be in decline. Nations are closing in on themselves in trade and in political terms, and publics are increasingly turning to politicians and policies which promise to put the nation-state, not any idea of the common good, first.

To an extent, of course, this has always been the case. Politicians would be unable to win elections if they did not promise to act in the interest of their voters, if they did not promise to better the country for having chosen them to lead.

There was, until recently, a habit among politicians of nodding towards more international concerns; a favourite was the phrase ‘working with allies and partners’, something which suggested shared enterprises, shared goals – a common benefit for people of all nations.

Now, it seems, there is something different at work, something which has gained momentum in recent times; this upsurge in isolationism is likely to be self-defeating and even dangerous.

The apparent decline of internationalism in the West, and the corresponding rise of nativism and isolationism, represents a concrete challenge to the status quo. It is different, divergent; it is a deliberate rejection both of the idealised spirit of western foreign policy and also its actual objectives – a repudiation of recent history in word and deed.

New populist leaders, Donald Trump among them, do not harbour any lofty ambitions. Theirs is not an international vision. They do not want – or even say they want – the rest of the world to benefit from their being elected.

In fact such people actively wish to hurt foreign countries: by building walls, by instituting tariffs, by rejecting the very idea of co-operation and mutual defence (see for example Trump’s repeated criticisms of NATO), and by wrapping all of this in the flag and the stark rhetoric in which these pronouncements come bundled.

Syria represents a cautionary tale. Much could be said about how what has happened there demonstrates the failure of international bodies to keep peace and protect civilians. The war has raged on for over half a decade; many hundreds of thousands have died, with many millions forced from their homes; and an end to the fighting seems no closer.

Such an analysis must include the seeming willingness of the Obama administration to use an evidently failing ‘ceasefire’ as cover. There was no real chance that the deal as written could come off; and nor would it have been a good or noble one if it had.

The Assad regime would still have sought, as it has always sought, to persist in its doomed bid to reconquer the rest of the country. This endeavour, bound to fail due to the regime’s chronic manpower shortages and openly sectarian modus operandi, would no doubt have included more bombing of civilian areas, more chemical weapons attacks, and yet more cooperation with the Russian state, which has displayed single-mindedness in protecting its proxy.

While Russia actively acts to defend Assad, all the while massacring children and other innocents in Aleppo and elsewhere, America is effectively absent. This callousness cannot be attributed entirely to Trump and his ideological allies. Indifference comes in from all sides and in all colours, even faux-sophisticated liberal ones.

More than 10 years ago, Samantha Power, now US ambassador to the United Nations, wrote A Problem from Hell, in which she castigated the fact of American inactivity in the face of genocide. This indifference was compounded by a public indifference which galvanised politicians to act with similar intentions. Genocide was not prevented; it was not punished; it was not even acknowledged.

It may be obvious to suggest that Syria’s civil war, with its mass casualties, sectarian violence and vast brutality, is our generation’s problem from hell, a test which the administration is failing – but that does not make it untrue.

Look forward to the coming US presidential election: Donald Trump is obviously and deliberately isolationist in tone. He is willing to levy punitive tariffs on countries which export cheaply, and he opposes any and all trade deals which could, as a by-product, foster both economic advantage and political co-operation among nations.

Trump represents the best chance for nativism in the modern age; in him its proponents could see one of their number attaining both support and actual political power, something which does not happen often in the democratic world. On the whole, electorates reject such claims, no matter how seductive.

No longer is this the case.

Trump’s suggestion in last week’s debate that Hillary Clinton has ‘experience, but it’s bad experience’ was an active repudiation of the past 30 years of US foreign policy in both deed and word. (The fact that this formulation distils almost perfectly what many Trump supporters think about ‘Washington’ is an added bonus.)

In a way, this statement is quite remarkable, and deserves comment – not least because, in her more recent statements on Syria, Clinton has presented herself as someone more interested in acting to prevent war crimes than the present administration. But the fact remains that Obama and John Kerry, his Secretary of State, talk a good game; they seem as if they sincerely want the fighting to stop, even though they are apparently unwilling to act in Syria for other reasons.

Trump on the other hand has no such moral concerns. He wants to ‘cut the head off ISIS and take their oil’; in fact, he thinks IS would not have come about if the United States had ‘taken the oil’ of Iraq years ago. He has no interest in forming alliances or maintaining them. His voice is an atavistic cry of rage, one which disdains the internationalist ideals of American policy in the past. For many Americans, this is incredibly appealing.

His support is not falling as many predicted it would. He could well win the presidential election in November, borne aloft on a tide of real anger – at politicians, at Washington, at the world. Trump declared in his speech at the Republican National Convention that ‘I am your voice’. Only in the future will we know how close that statement is to the truth.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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