Of the leading political figures of the age, Ronald Reagan was perhaps the most sharply defined. He stood without ambiguity…
When two-and-a-half years ago Ronald Reagan was elected to the Presidency, almost everyone expected that there would be a marked change in the direction of American foreign policy. Nor was there much disagreement over the nature of this anticipated change. How could there have been? Of the leading political figures of the age, Ronald Reagan was perhaps the most sharply defined. He stood without ambiguity for the view that the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was the central issue of our time; that it could be defined as a struggle between good and evil; that in this struggle the United States had been falling behind while an expansionist Soviet Union was forging ahead; and that unless we made every effort to restore and assert our power, the future would belong to the forces of totalitarian Communism.
Obviously, by itself this view did not yield a blueprint for day-to-day action in international affairs. But just as obviously it suggested motion in a certain direction: a significant increase in defense spending so as to restore the deteriorating military balance, and a new determination to resist the expansion of Soviet imperial control and influence. No one who voted for Reagan could have had any doubt that this was what he would aim for, and it was therefore reasonable to suppose that the decisive majority by which he was elected signified the crystallization of a new consensus in American public opinion on the seriousness of the Soviet threat and the need to take action against it.
It is very important to recognize, however, that Reagan did not create this new consensus. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it created him; or, to be still more precise, that its prior existence made his election possible. As evidence of this proposition, we can point to the dramatic rise in alarm over the Soviet threat after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. We can also point to the growth of support for increases in defense spending charted throughout the 1970’s by all the public-opinion polls. And we can, finally, point to a palpable intensification of nationalist sentiment in the country, beginning with the surprising outburst of patriotism that accompanied the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and culminating in the pro-American demonstrations provoked by the humiliating seizure of the hostages in Iran three years later.
But even more striking than any of this was the radical alteration in both the tone and substance of the Carter administration’s foreign policy in its fourth and—as it would turn out—final year in office. Jimmy Carter, who throughout his campaign for the Presidency in 1976 had promised to cut defense spending by at least $5 billion and also never to lie to the American people, could now be discovered boasting that he had broken both of these promises by raising defense spending in his first three years as President. Carter, who had begun by congratulating the nation on having overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and who had spoken of the obsolescence of military power as a factor in international conflict, now not only grew alarmed over the prospect of a Soviet takeover of the Persian Gulf, but enunciated a new presidential doctrine committing the United States to the use of force in order to prevent it. Carter, who had begun by stigmatizing the American effort to save South Vietnam from Communism as a symptom of “intellectual and moral poverty,” and who had cooperated in administering the coup de grâce to the Somoza government in Nicaragua, now cut off American aid to the Communist-dominated Sandinista regime which had replaced Somoza, and in addition sent money and military advisers to El Salvador to help prevent a Communist-dominated guerrilla force from taking power there.
Without denying that these highly dramatic reversals represented a conscientious effort by a sitting President of the United States to discharge his constitutional responsibilities as the guardian of the national security, I would nevertheless maintain that Carter the President would not have done such things without the permission (or even, perhaps, the urging) of Carter the politician. For the politician in Carter could see all too clearly that a shift in the climate of opinion was robbing his policies as President of the popularity they had briefly seemed to enjoy and thereby jeopardizing his chances for reelection to a second term.
In the end, Carter lost to a much more plausible and, to all appearances much more reliable, exponent of the policies to which Carter himself had so recently become a convert. The new consensus on the Soviet threat which had already waxed strong enough to force a change of direction on Jimmy Carter was by now too strong to settle for him when in Ronald Reagan it could get the real thing.
Yet no sooner had it swept Reagan into office than questions began to be raised about the precise meaning and limits of the new consensus. Those who opposed Reagan, and some who supported him, were quick to deny that his election had provided him with a clear “mandate” in foreign policy. No one went so far as to deny that Carter had been badly hurt by the national humiliation over Iran and his inability to do anything about it, but many denied that the Iranian episode was much more than a freakish accident. Reagan had won, they said, mainly because of economic factors, or because so many different groups had come to dislike Carter for a great variety of reasons forming no coherent political pattern. In any case, if Reagan should make a serious attempt to put his “simplistic” view of the world into practice, he would soon find himself frustrated by “reality” (by which his opponents meant their own view of the world).
At first not much consolation could be derived by Reagan’s opponents from this prediction. In his early months in office, he seemed bent on doing almost exactly What the critics were so sure he would be unable to do. Within days of moving into the White House, he spoke of Communism as a bizarre historical phenomenon destined to disappear in the foreseeable future, and he gave every indication of wishing to hurry the process along. In his economic program, the only area of government spending to be increased rather than cut was defense. The emphasis on arms control, which had been so marked in the past three administrations, was to be muted in favor of an arms build-up aimed at restoring the strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Through his Secretary of State, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., he served unambiguous notice that he regarded the guerrilla movement in El Salvador as an effort by the Soviet Union, acting through Cuba and Nicaragua, to extend its imperial reach in Central America, and he expressed his determination to prevent this.
Not surprisingly, there were cries of alarm, especially over the language in which these intentions were described. But anyone looking more closely than it suited the critics to do could see that they had less to worry about than they imagined. First of all, the Reagan administration implicitly agreed with its opponents in interpreting the election not so much as a mandate for changing the foreign policy of the nation as for reforming the economy. Most of the energy during Reagan’s early months in office went into his economic program, while foreign policy was treated almost as a distraction. Thus the heavy emphasis placed on holding the line in Central America, and especially for the moment in El Salvador, was soon softened, evidently because the White House feared that the controversy Haig had provoked both in the Congress and in the media would undercut support for the President’s economic progam.
Nor was this the only sign that wherever the interests of Reagan’s economic program conflicted with the interests of his foreign policy, the former would be favored over the latter. For example, he revoked the grain embargo instituted by Carter against the Soviets in response to the invasion of Afghanistan, even though he was supposedly against doing anything to help or strengthen them. No matter that this move was rationalized with the argument that embargoes were ineffective and that we were doing more harm to ourselves than to the Soviets. The fact was that on this issue, Reagan showed that his was an administration which—in George Will’s devastating characterization—“loved commerce more than it loathed Communism,” a characterization that would later be richly confirmed by the decision to go on subsidizing the Polish economy even after the Soviet-ordered institution of martial law by the Quisling Jaruzelski regime.
To be sure, there were two major exceptions to this subordination of foreign policy to economic considerations. One was the President’s brave and stubborn determination to hold out for a significant increase in defense spending even when the pressure to back down became nearly intolerable. Yet the very erosion of the support Reagan had originally enjoyed on this issue could be blamed in some measure on his own decision to give priority to the economy over foreign policy. For if reducing government spending was our most important order of business, there was no way that the defense budget could be spared from the ax, and there would always be enough evidence of “waste” in the Pentagon to reassure deficit-minded Republicans that in opposing the President on this issue they were not endangering the national security. (Most Democrats were already reassured.) Here indeed was a “reality” to frustrate Reagan’s ideas, but in this case it was a Coleridgean reality that he himself was at least half helping to create.
The other great exception to the favoring of commerce over anti-Communism was Reagan’s staunch opposition to the construction of a pipeline that would carry natural gas from the Soviet Union to Western Europe. Here too, however, his ideas were undermined by a reality he himself had helped to create. As apologists for the pipeline kept saying, by selling American grain to the Soviets, Reagan had not exactly put himself in the best position to demand that the Europeans refuse to sell equipment for building the pipeline. American opponents of the pipeline countered by arguing that there were great differences between the two deals. Grain sales, they said, were a straight form of trade, whereas the subsidized pipeline deal was a form of aid; grain sales cost the Soviets hard currency, whereas the Soviets would ultimately earn hard currency through the pipeline; grain sales gave the Soviets no political leverage over the United States, whereas becoming the supplier of energy to Western Europe would enable the Soviets to threaten a cutoff as a way of exerting pressure in some future crisis.
Yet whatever the merits of these arguments, in the eyes of Reagan’s European critics and their American allies, the United States was at the very best being inconsistent and at the worst hypocritical. Either Reagan wanted to declare “economic warfare” on the Soviet Union or he did not. But if he did, he could not ask the Europeans to shoulder the burden while decreeing a special exemption for the American farmer.
The net result of this assignment to economic policy of a higher priority than foreign policy was the creation of a vacuum into which the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat was able to move. Discredited by Iran and Afghanistan and demoralized by Reagan’s landslide victory, the opposition (which included Republicans as well as Democrats) was now handed a chance to regroup much sooner than it had expected. Even its severest critics would have to grant that it went on to make the most of this happy windfall.
The opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat was, and is, heavily influenced by two closely related though distinguishable elements: pacifism and isolationism. I am well aware that most members of the opposition would indignantly deny that their ideas can be identified either with pacifism or with isolationism. But as I hope to show, my use of these terms is fully warranted by the historical pedigree of what the opposition says and the logical consequences of the policies it advocates.
Of the two major elements whose influence has shaped the opposition to the 1980 consensus, pacifism is at once the more elusive and the more pervasive. It is elusive because there are in the United States only a minuscule number of people frankly and openly committed to pacifism in the strict sense of the term: the belief that war is the greatest of all evils and that nothing, literally nothing, nothing whatever, is worth defending by force of arms or can justify resorting to war. Indeed, even among the few self-declared pacifists in America, there are many who make an exception for “wars of national liberation” and are even willing to defend terrorism.
But if pacifism in the strict sense can scarcely be said to exist in America, pacifism in a looser form has become more influential than it has ever been before except perhaps in England in the period between the two world wars. What made pacifism so fashionable then was the carnage of World War I—a war that no one seemed able to explain or justify and yet that had decimated an entire generation of young men who went blindly to the slaughter mouthing “mindless” and “meaningless” patriotic slogans.
This pacifist tide was fed, however, not only by memories of World War I but also by apocalyptic visions of what a second world war would be like. It was widely believed in the 30’s that there was no defense against aerial bombardment, and that the next war would therefore spell the end of the world, or at least of “civilization as we know it.” Along with being evil, then, war had become senseless and could no longer be seen in Clausewitzian terms as a continuation of policy by other means.
The same combination of disillusioned memory and apocalyptic anticipation is at work in the spread of pacifism in America today. The memory in our case is of course the memory of Vietnam whose effect on American attitudes toward war in general has been strikingly similar to the effect of World War I on the British in the 20’s and 30’s. In 1933, the notorious resolution “that this house will in no circumstances fight for its king and country” carried the day in a debate at Oxford; fifty years later, in 1983 (just after, ironically, the same resolution had been debated again at Oxford and this time defeated), a joint session of the U.S. Congress cheered when Ronald Reagan interrupted his appeal for increased aid to El Salvador with the words: “Now, before I go any further, let me say to those who invoke the memory of Vietnam: there is no thought of sending American combat troops to Central America.” The Senators and Congressmen cheered not merely because they approved of Reagan’s declaration in the case of Central America but because the “thought of sending American combat troops” anywhere, or for any purpose, has been rendered almost taboo by “the memory of Vietnam.” Even those, both in and out of Congress, who insist that there are “places where they would favor American action,” as Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post puts it, “never can seem to think of one this side of San Diego.” In America today, slogans like “No More Vietnams,” “Hell No, We Won’t Go,” and “Nothing is ever settled by force” have become the functional equivalent of the resolution never to fight for king and country.
As in the 30’s, moreover, the pacifist attitudes growing out of the country’s most recent experience of war have been reinforced by apocalyptic visions of the future. What the idea of aerial bombardment did for British pacifism in the 30’s, the idea of nuclear missiles has done for American (and of course West European) pacifism in the 80’s. But nuclear weapons have been a much greater blessing to pacifism than aerial bombardment ever was. Whereas not everyone in the 30’s agreed that there was no defense against aerial bombardment, virtually everyone in the United States today believes that there is no defense against nuclear missiles. More and more Americans have come to doubt, furthermore, that a limited nuclear war is possible. It is now almost universally assumed that any use of nuclear weapons anywhere would inevitably escalate into all-out nuclear war and the certain destruction of the entire world. This means that for the first time ever, the basic pacifist premise—that war is a greater evil than any objective for which it might be fought—has acquired plausibility in the eyes of many people otherwise not inclined to pacifism either by temperament or by philosophy. Hence the emergence of what has been called nuclear pacifism.
Nuclear pacifism expresses itself in a variety of positions. At its most forthright and logical, it calls for unilateral disarmament on the plainly sensible ground that if nuclear weapons can never and must never be used, there is no point in possessing them at all. Some unilateralists think that if the West gave up its nuclear arsenal, the Soviets would follow suit. Others admit that the Soviet Union might take advantage of such a move to compel a Western surrender. But whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the Soviet response, all unilateralists by definition agree that the West should immediately begin getting rid of its own nuclear weapons without waiting for the Soviets to respond in kind.
Although unilateralism has become a serious political force in Western Europe, it has thus far made very little headway in the United States. Perhaps the closest any reputable American group has come to endorsing unilateralism is the pastoral letter of the Roman Catholic bishops (“The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response”). To be sure, the bishops explicitly say that they “do not advocate a policy of unilateral disarmament.” They are willing to accord “a strictly conditioned moral acceptance” to the temporary or interim possession of nuclear weapons by the West as a deterrent, provided that deterrence is “used as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” Yet they declare their “profound skepticism about the moral acceptability of any use of nuclear weapons.” But if it is immoral to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances (even in retaliation for a nuclear attack), they might just as well be renounced unilaterally for all the good they do even as a deterrent or a bargaining chip.
The West German bishops, whose minds have been concentrated wonderfully by the overwhelming superiority of the Soviet conventional forces poised against their country and deterred only by the NATO promise that an invasion would if necessary be met with a nuclear response, have been sensitive to the unilateralist implications contained in the casuistical formulations of their American brethren. For their part, the German bishops have come out in support of NATO’s policy on this point. So too have the French bishops.
Here, then, we have the representatives of a constituency which not long ago was among the most hawkish in America, and perhaps the most resolutely anti-Communist, throwing their moral and political weight on the side of a position verging on unilateral disarmament, and doing so in the full awareness (as the pastoral letter suggests) that this might well result in a Soviet-dominated world. What more vivid measure could there be of the great boost that nuclear weapons have given to pacifism in America?
Historically, pacifist thought, while in itself always enjoying only a limited appeal and often operating on the margins of political debate, has nevertheless exerted a great influence on the mainstream—not under its own doctrinal flag but in the bowdlerized form of illusions about and pressures for disarmament. In the period between the two world wars, these pacifist-inspired illusions and pressures gave us the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 renouncing war. They also found more concrete expression in the Washington naval armaments treaty of 1922 (limiting the number of American, British, Japanese, French, and Italian warships) and the London naval agreement of 1930 (which set limits on the size of submarines and other warships).
The best that can be said for these efforts is that if their purpose was to prevent or lessen the risk of war by reducing armaments, they obviously failed. But the worst that can be said for them—that if they had any effect at all, it was to increase rather than decrease the chances of war—is closer to the truth. Thus the naval agreement of 1922, recently cited by the historian Gaddis Smith as a successful example of a “freeze,” is seen by Barbara Tuchman (who is at least as dovish as Smith in her attitude toward nuclear weapons) to have “fueled the rising Japanese militarism that led eventually to Pearl Harbor.”
Mrs. Tuchman’s judgment is shared by most historians, as is the view taken by Eugene V. Rostow, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, both of the Washington “freeze” of 1922 and of the limitations later negotiated in London in 1930. “The post-World War I arms-limitation agreements . . . helped to bring on World War II, by reinforcing the blind and willful optimism of the West, thus inhibiting the possibility of military preparedness and diplomatic actions through which Britain and France could easily have deterred the war.”
Some who accept this assesssment (including Mrs. Tuchman) think that the invention of nuclear weapons has changed everything by making the prevention of war a more overriding imperative than it was in the pre-nuclear age. But as Mrs. Tuchman herself recognizes, the record thus far simply does not bear out this idea. On the contrary, negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons show almost exactly the same characteristics as the arms-control agreements of the pre-nuclear past.
First of all, negotiations over nuclear weapons have not led to real reductions in the quantity or quality of those weapons, and such limitations as they have succeeded in establishing have not notably lessened the risk of war. Take as an example even the proudest single achievement of arms control in the nuclear age—the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Far from eliminating or even cutting down on the testing of nuclear weapons (and therefore of their further development), the treaty has been followed by an increase in the number of such tests. The only effect the treaty has had on testing has been to drive it underground. That may, as Mrs. Tuchman drily notes, be a gain for the environment but it is not a gain for disarmament.
Secondly, arms-control agreements in the nuclear age, like the disarmament agreements of the 20’s and 30’s, have resulted in cutbacks by the democratic side and increases by the totalitarian side. Under SALT I, the Soviet Union took full advantage of what was legally permitted and forged ahead to increase the quantity of its nuclear weapons while also improving their quality. This is exactly how the Japanese and later the Germans acted in the 1930’s. The United States (following the precedent set by itself and the other Western democracies in the 1930’s after the naval agreements) either stood still or cut back in the years after SALT I was ratified. The one significant advance we did make, the placing of more than one warhead on a single missile (MRV), is now regarded by almost all arms-control enthusiasts as “destabilizing.” But in view of the fact that this innovation was developed in order to conform to the provisions of SALT I (which limited the number of missiles rather than the number of warheads), it demonstrates that the process of arms control has not even been capable of achieving one of its minimal objectives, which is (in the words of the Scowcroft Report) to “help channel modernization into stabilizing rather than destabilizing paths.”1
There is nothing arbitrary or accidental about this record of failure. It stems directly from the pacifist illusion that wars are caused by arms and can therefore be prevented by reducing or eliminating arms. But wars are not caused by arms. Salvador de Madariaga, who chaired the League of Nations Disarmament Commission, came to believe that disarmament was a “mirage” because it tackled the problem of war “upside down and at the wrong end. . . . Nations don’t distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter.”
This simple and unanswerable observation explains why on the one hand there are no arms on the border between the United States and Canada and why on the other hand it is indeed “absurd” to expect that anything much can be done about the arms on the border between East and West Europe.
But there is a further point to be made. The “common agreement on fundamentals” that de Madariaga rightly sees as a necessary precondition of disarmament can never be reached with a nation whose ambitions are to overturn the existing international system and to replace it with a new system in which it will enjoy hegemony. Because Nazi Germany was such a nation, it was foolish of Chamberlain and other Western leaders to imagine that war with Hitler could be avoided by negotiated concessions (or “appeasement,” to use the then respectable term). And because the Soviet Union is also such a nation, it is equally foolish to imagine that a “common agreement on fundamentals” can be arrived at between Moscow and the West.
To say that the Soviet Union’s aim is to create a new international system in which it would enjoy hegemony is not to suggest (as the vulgar caricature has it) that there is a “timetable” or a “blueprint” for world conquest guiding every action the Kremlin takes. It is, however, to recognize that the strategy of the Soviet Union is to move toward a greater and greater expansion of its power and influence, at a pace and by tactical means that combine maximum prudence with maximum opportunism.
In other words, wherever a chance presents itself and the risks are not too great, the Soviets will take advantage of it. If force must be used, as in Afghanistan, it will be used, but the clear preference of the Soviet leadership is either to employ surrogates to do the fighting, or better still, to win through intimidation rather than through war.
Since their military arsenal is designed to serve this expansionist strategy, the Soviets will never voluntarily surrender an advantage in the balance of military power. Nor will they ever enter into (or honor) any agreement that prevents them from achieving military superiority. To accept anything less than superiority—even equality or parity—would be tantamount to accepting the present international system. Indeed, because their ideological or political attractiveness has diminished in recent years, and because they suffer from a great disadvantage to the West in the economic area as well, their reliance on military power has increased and will ineluctably grow in the future. For how else can they compensate for their other weaknesses in the overall “correlation of forces”?
The United States, by contrast, leads an alliance whose strategic objective is to maintain “stability,” and our military arsenal is designed to serve this defensive purpose. Far from pursuing superiority, the United States voluntarily gave it up, allowing the Soviets to achieve parity on the theory that they had surrendered their originally revolutionary aims and had now become a “status-quo power,” content with the present international arrangements. The Soviets themselves made nonsense of this theory by continuing their military buildup even after they had caught up and reached parity. In addition they sent Cuban surrogates to Africa, and then their own troops into Afghanistan (while also providing military support to Communist guerrillas in Central America). So much, then, for the idea that they had become a “status-quo power,” and so much therefore for the chances of arriving at de Madariaga’s “common agreement on fundamentals.”
The brutal truth is that with one side eager (for economic or other reasons) to cut back on its armaments and the other side eager to consolidate and enhance its advantages, disarmament negotiations offer only a fraudulent hope. In the 30’s, the Germans and the Japanese built up their armed forces (with or without cheating) because they wanted to do so, while the democracies—pushed by internal political and economic pressures to disarm—did not even fulfill their legal quotas under the various disarmament agreements. A similar pattern has developed in our own day under cover of the SALT process, during which we have either stood still or moved back while the Soviets have built and built and built, not only expanding and refining their nuclear arsenal but enlarging and improving every category of their conventional force as well. Yet so pervasive has the influence of the pacifist illusion become in the West that, even in the face of all this, hope continues to be invested in disarmament and the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat clamors for new and ever more radical measures.
It is in the guise of these new measures that the second major influence behind the opposition to the 1980 consensus—isolationism—has been able to stage a sensational comeback in American political culture. Like pacifism (to which it has no necessary logical connection but with which it can and always has comfortably allied itself), isolationism claims very few open adherents in the United States. For like pacifism too, isolationism was so discredited by World War II that those who have continued to believe in it, or those who have rediscovered it in recent years, rarely invoke its name in talking about their position. As if this did not cause enough trouble for frank and honest discussion, the name of isolationism (or sometimes neo-isolationism) has occasionally been claimed by writers like Robert W. Tucker and William Pfaff who for better or worse are not truly entitled to it. (Almost the only political commentator with any visibility today who both claims the title and is truly entitled to it is Earl Ravenal.)
However isolationism may be defined in the abstract, historically it has mainly meant a policy of American disengagement from the affairs, and especially the wars, of Europe. This is why the two latest manifestations of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States—the proposal that we commit ourselves to “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and the proposal that we commit ourselves to a “freeze” on the building, testing, and deployment of all such weapons—can legitimately be described as forms of isolationism.
It is true that most proponents of these measures deny that their intention is to disengage the United States from Europe, or that this would be the effect. Thus McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith (who have now become collectively known in certain European circles as the “American gang of four”) take great pains in their famous Foreign Affairs article endorsing no-first-use to insist that they come not to destroy but to strengthen the American commitment to the defense of Western Europe. It is, they write, the “disarray that currently besets the nuclear policy and practices of the Alliance,” and specifically the divisive debate over the proposed deployment of the new intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe, that led them to back the idea of no-first-use. A no-first-use policy would, they believe, restore credibility to NATO’s deterrent and is therefore a good idea on military grounds. But in their view, “The political coherence of the Alliance, especially in times of stress, is at least as important as the military strength required to maintain credible deterrence. Indeed the political requirement has, if anything, an even higher priority.”
How does no-first-use measure up to that overriding political requirement? Perfectly, the American gang of four tells us: “. . . the value of a no-first-use policy . . . is first of all for the internal health of the Western Alliance itself.” And so far as West Germany in particular is concerned, “A policy of no-first-use would not and should not imply an abandonment” of the American guarantee but “only its redefinition.”
This complacent judgment by the American gang of four is not shared by an equally distinguished West German gang of four whose minds have been as wonderfully concentrated by the prospect of Soviet domination as have the minds of their clerical compatriots.2 According to the Germans, not only would renunciation of first use fail to contribute to the “internal health of the Western Alliance itself,” but it would have the opposite effect of increasing insecurity and fear. Nor do the Germans agree that no-first-use would mean nothing more than a “redefinition” of “the American protective guarantee” to Western Europe. As they see it, this “redefinition” would define the “present commitments of the United States” right out of existence.
In short, far from being the best means “for keeping the Alliance united and effective,” the Germans assert that “the proposed no-first-use policy would destroy the confidence of Europeans and especially of Germans in the European-American Alliance as a community of risk, and would endanger the strategic unity of the Alliance and the security of Western Europe.”
The Germans are right. NATO has relied on the threat of a nuclear response to deter not a nuclear attack on Western Europe but an invasion by conventional forces. The reason for this reliance on a nuclear response is that the conventional forces of NATO have never been large enough to repel a conventional Soviet invasion. Not being adequate to repel in actual combat, they are also inadequate to deter such an invasion. Therefore to renounce first use means renouncing deterrence of a conventional war; it is also to counsel surrender in the face of an inevitable defeat by decisively superior forces. (On this point the Germans do not diplomatically mince words: “The advice of the authors to renounce the use of nuclear weapons even in the face of pending conventional defeat of Western Europe is tantamount to suggesting that ‘rather Red than dead’ would be the only remaining option for those Europeans then still alive.”)
The only way around this trap is to create a Western conventional capability that would be a match for the conventional Soviet forces arrayed against Western Europe. With the rise of anti-nuclear sentiment in the last year or two, this solution has become more and more popular. Except for the American bishops, everyone, it seems, is now in favor of a conventional military build-up. Even critics of the “military-industrial complex” who have complained without let-up about the “bloated” military budget can nowadays be found paying their rhetorical respects to the need for larger and better conventional forces.
But the fact is that nuclear weapons are much cheaper than conventional forces; they give “more bang for a buck,” in the phrase used during the Eisenhower years to justify a greater reliance on them in our overall military posture. How many of those both in the United States and Europe agitating against nuclear and for conventional weapons would be willing to spend the enormous sums that would be needed to build the requisite number of tanks and artillery and munitions? And what about the manpower? What about the draft that would have to be instituted in the United States and extended in Western Europe also at enormous financial cost (not to mention political unrest)?
There is reason, then, to doubt the sincerity of many of the pious genuflections before the newly fashionable idol of a conventional balance of power. But it is not the sincerity of the American gang of four that comes into question when they too pay their obeisances to the conventional defense of Europe; it is, rather, their intellectual and political seriousness. “It seems clear,” they write, “that the nations of the Alliance together can provide whatever forces are needed, and within realistic budgetary constraints.” Since no evidence is adduced to support this astonishing claim, one wonders why “it seems clear.” It is not, at any rate, clear to everyone. According to one extremely optimistic assessment—a report by the European Security Study entitled “Strengthening Conventional Deterrence in Europe”—NATO conventional forces could be adequately upgraded through new technologies over a period of ten years at a cost of only an additional 1 percent above “the present NATO commitments [of an annual real growth of 3 percent in defense spending] if such commitments are sustained and extended beyond 1986.” Yet even the optimistic authors of this report “recognize that political pressures generated by the current economic situation in the NATO countries make it difficult to achieve even the present NATO commitments.”
As for the United States in particular, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (who was once commander-in-chief of NATO) estimates that an adequate conventional defense would mean “tripling the armed forces, and putting the economy on a wartime footing.” Possibly this estimate is too pessimistic. Even so, half of the entire military appropriation requested by the Reagan administration for this year will go to the conventional defense of Europe. Is it “clear” to anyone that more could be made available?
The only way around this trap is to envisage the additional burden being shouldered by the Europeans themselves. And that is precisely the objective of several proponents of no-first-use like Irving Kristol and Herman Kahn who are generally hawkish in their ideas about defense and whose espousal of no-first-use therefore comes as a surprise. But Kristol thinks that the dependence of Europe on the United States has sapped Europeans of the will to defend themselves. Therefore an American withdrawal in the form of a policy of no-first-use (coupled with the removal of American troops who would no longer be needed as a “tripwire”) might shock the Europeans into doing whatever would be necessary to insure their own defense. Kahn, who differs from Kristol on the issue of withdrawing troops, agrees with him that no-first-use would have a salutary effect on the Europeans.
Both Kristol and Kahn admit, however, that the Europeans might well be shocked by this policy not into building an adequate defensive capability of their own but rather into collapsing before the intimidating military might of the Soviet Union. Kahn’s vision of this possibility extends only to a neutralized Germany, but he thinks “we can live with that.” Kristol foresees worse: appeasement leading to the Finlandization of Western Europe as a whole. But if this were to come about, it would in Kristol’s stern opinion prove that the Europeans were “simply unworthy” of the liberties they enjoy (and, he adds, the same harsh judgment of “political decadence” would be passed by future historians on the United States as well if we in our turn were to refuse “the burden of large, expensive, conventional military establishments, so that we can meet our responsibilities without always and immediately raising the specter of nuclear disaster”).
In any case, Kristol does not doubt that an American policy of no-first-use would put Western Europe at the mercy of the Soviet Union unless it were accompanied by a massive build-up of conventional military force. (Kahn adds the requirement of a credible strategy for fighting a limited nuclear war if the Soviets should use nuclear weapons first.) But there is little likelihood that a conventional build-up will be undertaken either by the Europeans or by the United States. If there is to be a barrier to Soviet domination of the West, it will have to continue taking the form of nuclear weapons. Kristol may be right in saying that this Western dependency on nuclear weapons should never have been allowed to develop. But it is hard to imagine democratic societies placing themselves in peacetime on the kind of permanent war footing that an adequate conventional defense would have required. It is harder still to imagine a future reversal of this situation with expensive welfare states now in place everywhere in the democratic world. To remove nuclear weapons from the picture, then, is for all practical purposes to give the Soviets a decisive edge.
If a policy of no-first-use would do this in Europe, so too would a freeze (since it would prevent deployment of the intermediate-range Pershing 2’s and cruise missiles needed to balance the Soviet SS-20’s). That much is obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is that a freeze would give the Soviet Union a decisive edge not only over the Europeans but over the United States as well.
Proponents of the freeze all deny that the Soviet Union has achieved superiority over the United States in nuclear weaponry. Although most, if not indeed all, of them think that superiority is in any case a meaningless concept as applied to nuclear weapons, they still make a great and indignant point of insisting that a “rough parity” in strategic forces now exists between the two superpowers.
The Reagan administration does not agree. Its position is that the Soviets have an edge because their missiles are now sufficiently powerful and sufficiently accurate to take out our land-based ICBM’s in a first strike, thus depriving us of the means to do anything other than attack their civilian population, after which they would still have enough left over to retaliate in kind against our cities. In our aging Minutemen we have no matching capability, and until that force of land-based ICBM’s is modernized by the deployment of MX or some substitute like the smaller single-warhead “Midgetman,” the Soviets will continue to enjoy an edge. It follows that the “window of vulnerability” is still open. A freeze would prevent us from closing it and hence would lock us into a position of strategic inferiority.3
Yet even if Reagan’s critics were right in claiming that the window of vulnerability is a myth and that the nuclear balance is about equal, a freeze (even a mutual and verifiable freeze) would still lock the United States into a position of strategic inferiority. The reason, simply, is that with a freeze, Soviet superiority in conventional arms would become and remain the decisive factor in the overall balance of military power.
Unlike no-first-use, which would leave Western Europe open to a Soviet invasion (though this in itself would probably suffice to bring about a gradual political capitulation without any troops and tanks actually moving across the borders), the freeze would not expose the United States to any such threat. But—again, unless there were a massive conventional build-up, which, again, is unlikely—a freeze would signify the acquiescence of the United States in a balance of military power clearly favorable to the Soviet Union. This, in turn, would necessitate a very severe contraction of American commitments around the world. For our own defense, we would rely on “minimum deterrence”—that is, a presumably (though at best only temporarily) invulnerable force of submarines armed with nuclear weapons capable of devastating the Soviet Union in retaliation for an attack on the United States itself. The rest of the world we would leave to deal as best it could with the unchecked might of the Soviet Union. Soon enough, however, alone in a sea of Finlandized and Vichyized regimes, we too would find what John F. Kennedy called the “red tide” lapping at our political shores and inexorably eroding our independence and our liberty.
The isolationism that is implicit in the freeze movement, then, goes even farther than the isolationism hiding behind no-first-use. But even the freeze does not go so far as the variety of isolationism that has surfaced in the debate over Central America. If, historically, isolationism has meant American disengagement from Europe, it has also meant the determination to keep the Americas free of foreign influence. The Monroe Doctrine, indeed, was promulgated as the corollary to an isolationist foreign policy. Yet there is now a school of thought in Congress and the media which denies that the United States has the right to fight against the spread of Soviet influence even in the Americas.
Of course, it can be argued that the Monroe Doctrine has already been abrogated by the transformation of Cuba into a Soviet satellite, and that it is a little late to invoke it now in connection with El Salvador and Nicaragua. But the radical new isolationism which has appeared among us on this issue does not rest content even with the de-facto repeal of the Monroe Doctrine. In what is certainly one of the most bizarre pieces of legislation in the history of American foreign policy, the Congress of the United States has in effect demanded that we not only forget about the Monroe Doctrine but that we observe the Brezhnev Doctrine in its place. Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, once a country has become “socialist” (i.e., Communist) it must remain “socialist”; all “socialist” revolutions are to be considered irreversible. Congress evidently agrees. By enacting the Boland Amendment, which forbids the U.S. government to assist in overthrowing the “socialist” Sandinista regime, Congress has virtually written the Brezhnev Doctrine into American law.
But we are not yet done with the incredible perversity of the new isolationists on this issue. Not satisfied with turning the United States into the virtual enforcer of the Brezhnev Doctrine where Nicaragua is concerned, they are also doing their best to help the guerrillas in El Salvador get into power, despite the fact that these guerrillas are openly connected to the Soviet Union through Nicaragua and Cuba. In Congress and in the media, the new isolationists work to obstruct the giving of aid; they devote all their energies to attacking the elected government of El Salvador for its abuses of human rights; they ridicule the administration’s judgment that these abuses are declining; and they loudly and persistently demand that the guerrillas be given a share of power.
Adding intellectual insult to political injury, they claim to be doing all this because they wish to prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador, and they wax righteous with anyone who suggests otherwise. Thus one Congressman who has participated in these various efforts has attacked UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick for observing that there are those in Congress “who would actually like to see the Marxist forces take power in El Salvador.” “It is,” declared the Congressman, “slander and McCarthyite nonsense to say that members of Congress want to see Marxism triumph, in El Salvador or anywhere else.” In a similar vein, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, replying for the Democrats to the President’s appeal for increased aid to El Salvador, began his assault on Reagan’s speech by affirming his opposition to “the establishment of Marxist states in Central America.”
These loud protestations are all very well, but if we ask what political views like those of Senator Dodd logically imply, we have to conclude that Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s charge, far from being slanderous or McCarthyite, verges on the self-evident. For what outcome other than a Marxist victory in El Salvador can be expected from a policy that restricts military aid to the government while simultaneously hampering efforts to interdict the flow of arms to the guerrillas; that puts continual pressure on the government to institute wide-ranging reforms in the midst of a guerrilla war; and that insists that the government enter into some form of coalition with the Communist-dominated guerrilla forces? It is hard to think of a better recipe for a Marxist victory in El Salvador than this combination of policies.
During the Vietnam war those who advocated accommodation with the Vietcong were able to persuade themselves that the National Liberation Front was indigenous to South Vietnam rather than an instrument of the Communist regime in the north; that although it included Communists, it was not dominated by them; and that it was fighting against the oppressions and repressions of the Diem and Thieu regimes. We now know from Hanoi itself that all these claims were false and that those in the United States who believed them were deceived. Similarly with Castro’s rebellion against the Batista regime in Cuba. Though we now know from Castro’s own mouth that he was a Communist from the beginning, when at first he claimed to be a Jeffersonian Democrat almost everyone in the United States believed him.
Things are very different today. As Ambassador Kirkpatrick points out in an article in the Washington Post, “what distinguishes the current debate about military and economic aid for Central America from similar disputes about China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua is that we have fewer illusions and more information.” Hardly anyone claims any longer that the regime in Nicaragua is a coalition of different political groups whose objective is to create a pluralistic democracy there. The Sandinistas “are done with dissembling,” and have by their candor “denied their international supporters the comforts of ambiguity.” They openly proclaim, as one Sandinista leader puts it, that “We guide ourselves by the scientific doctrines of the Revolution, by Marxism-Leninism.” They make no effort to hide their close association with Cuba, which has sent thousands of teachers, managers, and military advisers to help them move more smoothly toward a fully totalitarian society and to enlarge and strengthen an army which is already the most powerful in the region.
Nor are the Sandinistas connected to the Soviet Union only indirectly, through Cuba. Recently, the Soviets began building a new port on the strategically important Pacific coast of Nicaragua, with the ostensible purpose of servicing Soviet fishing boats. More recently still, a member of the Nicaraguan junta said that his government would consider installing Soviet nuclear missiles in Nicaragua if requested by Moscow to do so. No wonder one French observer thinks “we are headed for a slow-motion replay of the Cuban missile crisis.”
In El Salvador, too, “the comforts of ambiguity” have largely disappeared. The elections of March 1982 in El Salvador, with their huge turnout despite threats of guerrilla reprisal, have made it hard to go on maintaining that the guerrillas enjoy great popular support at home, and the documentary evidence has made it more and more difficult to deny that they are (in Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s words) “directed from command-control centers in Nicaragua, armed with Soviet-bloc arms delivered through Cuba and Nicaragua, bent on establishing in El Salvador the kind of one-party dictatorship linked to the Soviet Union that already exists in Nicaragua.”
Beyond having every reason to know who the guerrillas are, those who advocate a “political solution” in the form of “power sharing” in El Salvador also have every reason to know what invariably happens to such arrangements. Nicaragua is only the most recent example of how a coalition in which Communists are included soon ceases to be a coalition and becomes a one-party regime.
Given all this, to say that the new isolationists would like to see a Marxist regime take over in El Salvador may be the only alternative to the truly slanderous charge that they are so stupid and so ignorant of history that they cannot understand the clear implication of what they say and do.
But why would anyone in Congress or anywhere else wish to see a Marxist regime take power in El Salvador? In the vast majority of instances, the answer obviously cannot be that they are Marxists themselves or that they are sympathetic to Communism. But nowadays it is not necessary to be either a Marxist or a Communist sympathizer in order to believe that Communism is the wave of the future, at least in the “Third World,” and that to range oneself against it is to be on “the losing side.” Thus Senator Dodd: “American dollars alone cannot buy military victory . . . in Central America. If we continue down that road, if we continue to ally ourselves with repression, we will not only deny our own most basic values, we will also find ourselves once again on the losing side.”
One would never guess from these words that 68 percent of the dollars we have sent to El Salvador have gone to economic rather than military aid; that what we have allied ourselves with in El Salvador is a democratically elected government; that it is trying with some success both to carry social reform forward and to cut down on the murders and other horrors that always and everywhere accompany guerrilla war; that if the guerrillas came to power they would be far more repressive than the present government in El Salvador. Despite all this, Senator Dodd declares that we are standing against “the tide of history” instead of moving with it.
Outside the halls of Congress, among columnists, editorialists, and academics, the idea that a Communist victory is the inevitable wave of the future comes out even more clearly. How, asks Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, can a government as bad as the one in El Salvador “win a war, whatever aid it gets,” against guerrilla forces “powerfully motivated by a desire to change a society long marked by brutality and exploitation?”
Again, one would never guess that the government in El Salvador has demonstrated in a free election that it enjoys vast popular support and that the grievances of the people have not led them to support the alternative represented by the guerrillas. Nor, when it comes to Nicaragua, does Lewis assume the invincibility of the powerfully motivated guerrillas fighting against a brutal and oppressive regime there. But of course, being against the Sandinistas, they must be unregenerate Somocistas (even though old leaders of the fight against Somoza are prominent among them); and being anti-Communists, they cannot be regarded as the inevitable victors in a struggle against a Communist regime.
But the most, honest of all the statements yet published on these issues is by Seweryn Bialer, who directs the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University. After declaring that “it is simply unrealistic to expect that American support for the Salvadoran government can prevent the insurrectionist forces from making significant advances—and perhaps even winning the war—in the next two years,” Bialer goes on to conclude flatly that it is also “unrealistic for the United States to hope to defeat Communist—or potentially Communist—regimes in the region.” Bialer knows this “from talks with representatives of the Salvadoran guerrillas, Sandinista leaders, and Cuban officials,” who have assured him that they will win. He also knows from the same sources that the Nicaraguan guerrillas cannot be expected to “defeat the Sandinistas or prevent their evolution toward Communism.” But of course he really knows it from the assumption he makes that the Salvadoran guerrillas are (to revert to Senator Dodd’s telling image) moving with the tide of history while the Nicaraguan guerrillas are moving against it.
Besides believing that Communism is the wave of the future, the new isolationists evidently believe that Communist regimes are on the whole better for the people who live under them than the “corrupt” and “repressive” governments they replace. On this point, politicians are unable to speak with the same degree of candor as a columnist like Anthony Lewis or an organization like the American Friends Service Committee. Where El Salvador is concerned, although Lewis is under “no illusion that the guerrilla forces and their leaders are all noble democrats, believers in government under law,” he nevertheless tells us that what they are fighting against is “brutality and exploitation.” Now, only yesterday Lewis was railing against the brutality and exploitation of the Thieu regime in South Vietnam only to discover (if indeed he yet has) that it was a paradise compared with what the “powerfully motivated” Vietnamese Communists had in store for the people of South Vietnam. But this time he is sure it will be different. Though the Sandinistas “do indeed have human-rights violations on their record,” Lewis says, “what has happened in Nicaragua in the last few years is pretty tame stuff compared to what has happened—and is still happening—in El Salvador.” After all, only a hundred civilians have been killed in Nicaragua during the past few years as compared with more than 30,000 in El Salvador.
The Anthony Lewis who throws these figures around is the same Anthony Lewis who in writing first about the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi and then about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon uncritically accepted false casualty statistics to discredit the United States in the former case and Israel in the latter. Here, at it once again, he fails to consider that the guerrillas must have been responsible for at least some portion of the 30,000 civilians killed in El Salvador. Nor does he notice that during the period in question the war in El Salvador was still raging while one phase of the war in Nicaragua was over and the next not yet really begun. Nor does it occur to him that the Sandinistas are now in the process of consolidating their power and extending their control with the ultimate objective of turning the country into a totalitarian society on the model of Cuba. Nor does he recognize that Castroism, like every other example of Communist rule the world has ever known, has brought nothing but political repression, economic misery, and cultural starvation. Nor does he take into account the fact that the young men of Cuba have been turned into the cannon fodder of Soviet imperialism in Africa. None of these things disturbs Lewis’s belief that Nicaragua will be different.
Indeed, he and many others already detect signs that it is. Conditions, Lewis assures us, are better there than in El Salvador, and according to the national coordinator of the Human Rights Program of the American Friends Service Committee: “In many aspects of Nicaraguan life—nutrition, education, health care, and land reform—there have been tremendous improvements.” Having sung this old familiar song whose strains have echoed in countless reports from Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Ho’s North Vietnam, and Castro’s Cuba, this Quaker guardian of human rights acknowledges that there have been a few violations in Nicaragua. For these, however, he mainly blames not the government but “attempts to destabilize the government.” Needless to say, he offers no such apology for the human-rights violations in El Salvador. There, he no doubt feels, the people will go on suffering until the inevitable arrival of the same blessings that the Sandinistas are now bringing to the people of Nicaragua and which would be more abundant still if not for “attempts to destabilize the government.”
But even if a Communist victory were both inevitable and morally desirable as compared with the alternative in El Salvador, would it not still be a blow to the interests of the United States?
Not necessarily, says Seweryn Bialer. Admittedly the Sandinistas, like Castro before them and (although here Bialer is less forthright) the guerrillas in El Salvador after them, are bent on creating Communist states. Admittedly nothing the United States could have done, “neither ‘carrots’ nor ‘sticks,’ . . . could have prevented the Cuban evolution into a Communist state,” and the same is true of Nicaragua and (presumably) El Salvador. However, Bialer believes, “a less bellicose policy toward Cuba might well have prevented it from becoming a satellite of the Soviet Union.” Where Cuba is concerned, it is now too late: we have “probably missed the opportunity to separate what is authentically Cuban in the Cuban revolution from the influence of the Soviet Union in Havana.” But elsewhere in Central America it is not yet too late: we still have a chance, through “a shrewder, more deft United States policy [to] prevent El Salvador and Nicaragua from moving into the Soviet orbit.”
What we should do, according to this analysis, is coopt the Communist revolution in Central America. For “the only plausible way to prevent Soviet influence in the United States’ own backyard” is to accept and even promote the spread of Communism in the United States’ own backyard. Instead of making Central America safe for such brutal dictatorships as the one in Guatemala, which is how Bialer characterizes our present policy, we should—to put it more nakedly than Bialer himself does—be working to make the region safe for national Communism.
Never mind that there is no evidence for Bialer’s assertion that Castro once was, or that the Sandinistas or the guerrillas in El Salvador now are, “interested not in Soviet goals but rather in . . . independence, social reform, and economic development.” Never mind that Castro himself has given the lie to the idea that he was driven into the arms of the Soviet Union by a “bellicose” American policy (which in any case was not at all bellicose in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s victory and only became so as he moved through his own revolutionary ardor into the Soviet camp). Never mind the simple fact that the United States not only helped in the end to topple the Somoza regime in Nicaragua after many years of supporting it, but initially welcomed the new regime in Nicaragua, sending it more economic aid in its first eighteen months in power than it had given to Somoza in the preceding twenty years. Never mind that as in the earlier case of Castro, these friendly relations with the Sandinistas turned sour as it became clear even to a sympathetic Carter administration that they were both failing to keep their democratic promises at home and also actively working with Soviet and Cuban help to promote a “revolution without frontiers” in El Salvador and elsewhere in the region. All these inconvenient truths to the contrary notwithstanding, Bialer and others can still assure us that all the Sandinista government cares about is “its own independence, social reform, and economic development.”
Both Lewis and Bialer (among many other commentators) freely concede that the United States could prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador (and could reverse the Communist revolution in Nicaragua) if it sent its own troops in to do the job. But the not-so-hidden term in their analysis is that the United States will not and cannot intervene militarily in Central America. Bialer: “It is difficult if not impossible to imagine that Congress and the American public would agree to such a course.” Lewis: “Public feeling against any dispatch of U.S. combat forces to El Salvador is so great that it is hard to see how any President could send them.”
It is here that we arrive finally at the juncture where pacifism and isolationism—the two great shapers of the opposition to the 1980 consensus—meet and merge into a single mighty wave of appeasement.
Of course, the term appeasement itself retains its pejorative ring—so much so that in what may well be the prize polemical trick of the age, one opponent of Reagan has tried to discredit him by pointing out that Neville Chamberlain, the great apostle of appeasement, was also anti-Soviet. But appeasement by any other name smells as rank, and the stench of it now pervades the American political atmosphere. It would indeed be astonishing if this were not the case, since appeasement (as the word itself reveals) is the natural offspring of pacifism and the policy most compatible with isolationism.
Those like Bialer who call for the appeasement of Communism in Central America tell us that this is “the only way to fight Soviet influence” in the region. But the spirit of appeasement does not always disguise itself as a clever tactic for opposing Soviet expansionism. More often it appears in the shape of a rush to apologize for or explain away or even justify every aggressive move the Soviet Union makes. Thus many of the same people who think that the United States has no right or is ill-advised to intervene in Central America against the spread of Communist regimes there are quick to defend (while of course piously deploring) the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan or the suppression of Solidarity in Poland on the ground that keeping friendly regimes in countries so close to its own borders is a legitimate security interest of the Soviet Union.
Similarly, many of the same people who oppose the proposed deployment in Europe of the new intermediate-range missiles are willing, nay eager, to justify the Soviet deployment of such missiles in Europe and to translate the sophistries of Moscow’s case into terms that sound very reasonable to American ears. When, for example, Irving Kristol asked why the Soviets decided to deploy the SS-20’s in Europe and arrived at the surely correct answer that they did so for the purposes of political intimidation, he was immediately countered by Raymond L. Garthoff of the Brookings Institution who came up with “a perfectly understandable Soviet military rationale for modernization, without resort to speculation on intentions for a first strike or political pressure.”
The same impulse to deny or even cover up evidence of Soviet malevolence—and again by people, especially in the media, who leap at and magnify even the faintest indication of American wrongdoing—can be sniffed out in several other areas as well. Even before the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, there was a widespread refusal to credit the abundant evidence that the Soviets had been deeply involved in international terrorism. And then, even after the attempt, journalists who had never hesitated to convict the United States of outlandish charges merely on the basis of rumor, willfully blinded themselves for many months to the increasingly obvious conclusion that the Soviets were the guilty party. A comparable degree of skepticism has been manifested, and also for an extraordinarily long time, toward the evidence that the Soviets, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, had been using the poisonous chemicals known as “yellow rain” in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan.
While many of the skeptics have finally been forced to come around on the assassination attempt and on “yellow rain,” no such readiness to give up exonerating the Soviets has yet materialized on two other issues. One is Soviet involvement in Central America, for which an impossible standard of proof is demanded (again in contrast to how the United States is treated). The other is the issue of Soviet cheating on SALT. When President Reagan said recently that “There have been increasingly serious grounds for questioning [Soviet] compliance with the arms-control agreements that have already been signed,” he was instantly denounced for what a New York Times editorial called “loose talk about Soviet cheating.” Other commentators charged Reagan with hypocrisy: since he himself opposed ratification of SALT II, by what right did he accuse the Soviets of violating it?
In any event, said Tom Wicker of the New York Times, even though Reagan had promised “to refrain from actions which undercut SALT II so long as the Soviet Union shows equal restraint,” he himself had made proposals that “numerous experts” considered violations of the treaty. To which one of these experts, a former arms-control official in the Carter administraton named William E. Jackson, Jr., added that it would not be surprising if Moscow had “long since concluded that the unratified [SALT II] treaty is a dead letter.”
To sum up the Wicker-Jackson position: there is no conclusive proof that the Soviets actually violated SALT II, and even if there were, they would be justified in doing so by the way “the Reagan administration has trashed the very idea” of preserving SALT II and has “repeatedly denigrated the arms-control achievements of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.”
In the past apologies for Soviet behavior usually arose out of love or admiration or sympathy. But that is not what we are dealing with here. The new species of apologetics comes not from Communists or fellow-travelers but from people who are so driven by the fear of Soviet power and so mesmerized by pacifist illusions that they will go to any lengths to persuade themselves and others that safety can be found in negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Sometimes this pretense is maintained by dismissing or denying realities like the size and scope of the Soviet military build-up and the aggressive political strategy that has accompanied it in violation of the promise implicit in the Basic Principles of Détente of 1972; or by dismissing or denying the evidence that the Soviets have certainly violated the 1972 treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and have almost certainly cheated on SALT I. Yet even when denial is made impossible by an avalanche of incontrovertible evidence, the very acknowledgment of these previously suppressed realities is usually accompanied by intensified affirmations of the need to pursue and reach agreements.
The best recent illustration of how fear begets pacifist illusions which then beget appeasement is a column entitled “Sarajevo and St. Peter’s” by Flora Lewis of the New York Times. Miss Lewis here begins by quoting a British historian who had warned against pursuing the facts of the assassination attempt on the Pope because “the echo of a bullet at Sarajevo set off World War I.” Miss Lewis disagrees. The facts, she says, “should not, and probably cannot, be stifled. History and Western dignity demand the truth.” What then is the “warning” sounded by the horrible realization that “the line of responsibility leads directly to Moscow’s KGB and to the man who was then its chief and is now the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov”? Does this mean that agreements with such a man and such a nation are worthless? Not in the least, Miss Lewis tells us: “It means getting on with arms negotiations, engaging determinedly in a search for peace with an adversary too dangerous to defy or discount. The issue isn’t mutual trust, it is everybody’s survival in a world where dirty tricks are all too possible, and so is total disaster. The appropriate lesson of Sarajevo now is to face facts, and therefore plan for peace.”
One can scarcely imagine a more vivid expression of the spirit of appeasement which has been bred by the resurgence of pacifism and isolationism in the past two years.
If the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat and the need to take action against it is shaped by these elements (traveling, to repeat, under different names), what are its prospects for the future?
In trying to answer this question, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that despite appearances to the contrary, we are not dealing here with a struggle that divides neatly along party lines. On the two main issues we have been examining—defense and Central America—the Democratic Jimmy Carter and the Republican Ronald Reagan have been surprisingly close. As I have already pointed out, it was Carter who cut off American aid to Nicaragua and sent money and military advisers to El Salvador; and it was also Carter who endorsed the MX, agreed to deploy the Pershing 2’s and cruise missiles in Europe, and who withdrew SALT II because the votes for ratification could not be mustered in the (Democratically-controlled) Senate. Conversely, there are many Republicans in the House and Senate who are against or are lukewarm toward these same policies even when espoused by a President of their own party, and it is an open secret that many Democrats disagreed with Senator Dodd’s attack on Reagan’s speech about Central America. There are, then, Republicans in the opposition to the 1980 consensus and there are Democrats who remain part of that consensus.
Nor does the debate divide neatly along a liberal-conservative or Left-Right axis. The liberal New York Times opposes the freeze, while a conservative like former Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon calls for cuts in the defense budget. A conservative like Irving Kristol supports withdrawal of American troops from Europe, while liberals like Morton Kondracke of the New Republic and Richard Holbrooke (formerly of the Carter State Department and Foreign Policy magazine) oppose withdrawal of American support from El Salvador.
There is hope in these crisscrossings and incoherent combinations. For if it is true that the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat was given an ideal chance to regroup and mobilize by Reagan’s decision to pay more attention to the economy than to foreign policy, then the recent change in the balance of presidential attention might serve to restore the consensus to some approximation of its former bipartisan strength and confidence. The series of speeches Reagan has made in the past few months defending his policies on defense and Central America has already had an effect. The MX has survived a major congressional challenge, and Congress has also accepted a larger increase in defense spending than the opposition had not so long ago bargained for. On Central America, too, the opposition in Congress has been forced to back down. It has not (yet) succeeded in cutting off all aid to the Nicaraguan guerrillas or in forcing the government of El Salvador to submit to the demands of the guerrillas there.
On the other hand, Reagan has been forced to back down as well. To get the MX and other elements of his rearmament program, he has had to enter into an arms-control process which he once gave every indication of understanding to be a fraud and a trap; and he has also had to move more slowly and cautiously in Central America than he presumably would have wished.
Reagan has been forced to act in these ways largely because the consensus that elected him has been frightened by the relentless pounding and the demagogic appeals of the opposition. Even so, the American people have not changed their minds about the seriousness of the Soviet threat. We know this from the fact that in all the polls large majorities say that they are very worried about it. But the influence of the opposition shows in the equally large majorities who place their hopes in arms-control negotiations and who are especially reluctant to send American troops to Central America. As a politician, Ronald Reagan, confronted by this twin reluctance, has been compelled to bend.
But those who still hold with the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat, and who are not politicians, have no compelling need to bend. They are free to speak plainly, and they have a great responsibility to do so. They have a great responsibility to go on saying that the Soviet threat can only be successfully met by a policy of strength and resolve which will inevitably entail larger defense budgets and a continued reliance on nuclear weapons; that the hopes vested in arms control are delusory and dangerous, and serve mainly as a respectable cover for isolationism and appeasement; that we can deter a war with the Soviet Union only if we are prepared and willing if necessary to fight; that if the United States cannot prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador, it will stand revealed as a spent and impotent force; and that the United States must therefore do whatever may be required, up to and including the dispatch of American troops, to stop and then to reverse the totalitarian drift in Central America.
In short, they have a great responsibility to go on demonstrating that pacifism and isolationism in any guise and under any name can only give us a world fashioned in the image of the Soviet Union. I for one do not believe that the American people will cooperate knowingly in the emergence of such a world. And that is why I think the spirit of appeasement now hovering so heavily over the land can still be blown away by a renewed, persistent, and unembarrassed appeal to the realism, the sense of honor, and the patriotism that erupted after Iran and Afghanistan and then swept Ronald Reagan into office only two-and-a-half years ago.
1 This statement occurs in a brief summary of the non-pacifist case, such as it is, for arms-control negotiations with the-Soviet Union. What little there is to be said in favor of arms control from a non-pacifist perspective is also well put at greater length in “The Realities of Arms Control” by the Harvard Nuclear Study Group (Atlantic, June 1983).
2 The four are Karl Kaiser, who directs the leading German research institute on foreign affairs; Georg Leber, a labor leader and a former Social Democratic Defense Minister; Alois Mertes, the parliamentary foreign-policy spokesman of the Christian Democrats; and Franz-Josef Schulze, a retired general who has served in various high positions in NATO. Like their American opponents in this debate, then, the Germans are a bipartisan group with much professional experience in foreign and defense policy.
3 It is widely asserted that the Scowcroft Commission appointed by Reagan to advise on the deployment and basing of the MX has exposed the “window of vulnerability” as a myth. But the Scowcroft Report does no such thing. It clearly acknowledges that our land-based ICBM's need to be modernized. It also acknowledges that they are vulnerable. Recognizing, however, that the only way to solve the problem of vulnerability in the short term—namely, the Carter scheme of movable multiple shelters (MPS)—had to be rejected because of “local political opposition,” the Scowcroft Commission takes such comfort as it can find in the idea that the other legs of the strategic triad will temporarily compensate for this vulnerability until it is eventually cured by the substitution of smaller single-warhead missiles for the MX.
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Appeasement By Any Other Name
Must-Reads from Magazine
Last year, we asked experts to examine Candidate Trump’s policy proposals. This year, we’ve asked them to examine how he has executed these proposals in office.
On Trade By Scott Lincicome
Last year, economic, legal, and geopolitical calamity lurked in the shadows of almost every trade-policy promise made by presidential candidate Donald Trump. Eight months into the Trump presidency, those problems have—thankfully—not yet materialized. Instead, Trump trade policy has been a mixture of bluster, disappointment, relief, and uncertainty. This last category warrants close attention: In the coming months, Trump’s dangerous trade ambitions could remain in check, thus keeping a global trade system alive. Or politics, legal ambiguity, and Trump’s own emotional impulses could deal that system a fatal blow.
There is no doubt that President Trump has already done serious damage to the United States’ longstanding position as a world leader on trade policy, the American political consensus in favor of trade liberalization, and Republican views of trade and globalization. His constant vituperation has offended U.S. allies and trading partners, causing them to turn to Europe, Asia, or Latin America in search of alternatives to the once-welcoming and predictable U.S. market. He has accelerated (not started) the American retreat from the World Trade Organization, further wounding a multilateral trading system that was a U.S. invention—an invention that has, contrary to popular belief, served U.S. economic and foreign-policy interests well since the 1940s.
Trump’s day-one withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the flawed-yet-deserving Asia-Pacific trade agreement started by President Bush and ultimately signed by President Obama—has left vacuums in both Asia-Pacific trade and international economic law. TPP was far from perfect, but it was widely supported by U.S. trade and foreign-policy experts because of its economic and geopolitical benefits. The deal contained important new rules for 21st-century issues such as e-commerce, GMOs, and state-owned enterprises. Moreover, it would have provided small but significant benefits for U.S. workers and the economy, while cementing the United States’s influence in a region increasingly covered by China’s shadow. Now, TPP parties are working to complete a “TPP-11” deal that excludes the United States, while China is negotiating its own version of the TPP—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And many of TPP’s novel provisions are being relitigated in contentious NAFTA renegotiations with Canada and Mexico (both TPP parties).
All of this is disappointing, but it’s probably survivable and hardly the fire and brimstone of the Trump campaign trail (hence, the relief). Trump has repeatedly threatened tariffs and other forms of dangerous unilateral protectionism, but economic, legal, and political realities have intervened. For example, when Trump promised new “national security” tariffs on steel and aluminum under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the opposition from Congress, business groups, strategic allies, NGOs, and even members of Trump’s administration was unrelenting. As a result, planned tariffs have quietly been shelved (for now). Other presidential threats have similarly come and gone without major action, giving market participants some heartburn but little long-term pain. Only in the opaque area of trade remedies—antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard measures—has there been a marked uptick in U.S. protectionism. But this is the result of long and technical administrative proceedings initiated by U.S. industries or unions that formally petitioned the government under relevant domestic law—hardly the wave-of-the-hand actions that Trump promised.
Some measure of relief is warranted, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. Indeed, in the last eight months, Trump has publicly threatened to
- block steel and aluminum imports for national-security reasons or bring new cases against semiconductors and ships, under the aforementioned Section 232;
- withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea FTA;
- slap tariffs on Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 because of alleged Chinese intellectual-property-rights violations; and
- impose onerous new “Buy American” requirements on U.S. pipelines and government-funded infrastructure projects.
And those are just the public threats. Behind closed doors, Trump has reportedly considered enacting sweeping import restrictions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The president reportedly yelled, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” when told by his “globalist” advisers that legal and economic realities prevent him from imposing broad-based protectionism on a whim.
None of the threats on Trump’s wish list is officially off the table, and any one of them would have serious economic consequences: Steel tariffs alone would put more than 1.3 million American jobs at risk; NAFTA withdrawal could destroy 250,000 more; and several nations have promised immediate retaliation against American goods, services, or investment in response to Trumpian protectionism. Trump’s actions would also raise major legal issues. For example, the World Trade Organization’s broad, subjective “national security” exception wasn’t intended to be used as a get-out-of-jail free-card for steel tariffs, and a dispute over a member’s right to invoke it could imperil the multilateral trading system. Meanwhile, Trump’s withdrawal from a free-trade agreement without congressional consent would raise major constitutional questions as to whether the president had that authority and what would happen to the myriad U.S. tariffs and other commitments that were embedded in legislation and passed into law. Lawsuits over these and other issues surrounding presidential trade powers would throw billions of dollars of cross-border trade and investments into legal limbo.
The president’s unpredictability, political weakness, and clear affinity for protectionism, combined with ample (though ambiguous) legal authority to act unilaterally, mean that any one of his trade threats could still materialize in the coming months. The White House’s internationalists may have won the early battles, but the war will rage for as long as Trump is president. Continued vigilance and advocacy for the benefits of freer trade remain critical.
And congressional legislation clarifying and limiting the president’s trade powers might not be a bad idea either…just in case.
Click here to read what Scott Lincicome wrote about Candidate Trump and trade last year.
Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and visiting lecturer at Duke University Law School. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
On Taxes By James Pethokoukis
At some point in his first term, President Donald Trump will likely sign legislation that cuts taxes by some amount for somebody. This modest prediction is based less on reading the political tea leaves than understanding conservative politics. If any issue made the modern Republican Party, it was tax cuts. Not surprising, then, that candidate Trump promised big cuts for individuals and businesses. And with the GOP now holding the White House and Congress, failure to deliver is almost unimaginable.
Of course it’s almost equally unimaginable that the Trump tax cuts will at all resemble the ambitious plans devised by Trump advisers during the campaign. There were two of those blueprints. The first, rolled out September 2015, proposed lowering the top personal rate to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent, and cutting the corporate rate to 15 percent from the current 35 percent. Along with other changes, including eliminating the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, this initial plan might have lowered annual government revenue by a whopping $1 trillion a year or more (even if one assumes much faster economic growth).
This was, in other words, more a fantasy proposal cooked up by Reagan-era supply-siders than a serious effort to reform the tax code without worsening our historically high federal debt. Indeed, Trump’s sole purpose in signing on to the plan may have been to win over that very same group, still influential among base voters. Trump himself talked little about the plan while on the hustings, especially compared with immigration, trade, and The Wall.
The Trump campaign’s second bite at the apple a year later was a scaled-back plan, but still a colossal one. Instead of losing a trillion bucks a year, maybe the government would be out just a half trillion or so. Again, since the plan was unaccompanied by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, it was more a set of glorified campaign talking points than a serious proposal. And like the first, Trump didn’t talk much about it.
So after Trump’s shock election, there really was no realistic Trump tax plan. No worries, however, since there was a House Republican tax plan all ready to go, with an enthusiastic House Speaker Paul Ryan ready to push it hard through the lower chamber. It was an ambitious proposal but one within reality, especially with a bit of fiscal tweaking. That plan called for, among other things, lowering the top personal rate to 33 percent and the corporate rate to 20 percent, immediately expensing new capital investment, and expanding the child tax credit.
And more so than the Trump campaign plans, the House plan intended to reform the tax code, not just cut taxes. For example, it eliminated all personal itemized deductions other than mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The House plan also made a stronger attempt to pay for the tax through a border-adjustment tax and limiting business-interest deductibility. All in all, the plan cost a couple of trillion dollars over a decade, not assuming economic feedback. On such a dynamic basis, according to Tax Foundation modeling, the House plan would reduce 10-year revenues by just under $200 billion.
So if Republicans really wanted to make their plan revenue neutral, it was certainly doable through relatively minor changes, such as less dramatic corporate or personal rate cuts. Yet the plan would still be a massive improvement over the status quo, both in terms of encouraging more domestic investment and providing middle-class tax relief.
With a detailed plan at the ready and Republicans running Washington, it is easy to understand why many in the GOP thought it reasonable to predict that Trump would be signing a mega tax bill by August of this year, just as Ronald Reagan did in the first year of his first term. Reagan did it from his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Maybe Trump would repeat the feat from his Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan.
But that did not happen. Then again, very little of Trump’s ambitious domestic agenda has happened as planned. Repeal and replace was promised by Easter, leaving plenty of time to hash out the fine details of tax reform and move legislation through the House and Senate. But the GOP health reform was a long slog consuming valuable time, attention, and political capital. Also deserving blame was Trump’s inability to focus on pushing policy priorities rather than pounding political opponents on Twitter. As of now, it seems highly unlikely that significant tax reform will occur in 2017. And 2018 looks challenging as well.
Yes, Trump has provided more distraction than leadership on this issue. And trying to pass major legislation in a midterm year only adds to the political difficulties. But the biggest problem is that there is no tax-reform plan for Republicans to push.
What happened to the ready-to-serve House plan? It suffered from not being a fantasy. It acknowledged both political and policy constraints, something the populist president almost never does. For instance: the House plan tried to pay for the tax cuts—a political necessity to placate debt-hawk Republicans. That requires making somebody somewhere unhappy. Ryan knew that without such an effort, it would be extraordinarily difficult to reduce the corporate tax rate to anywhere close to 20 percent. But while exporters supported the border tax, importers hated it, complaining that it would raise costs. Nor was the Trump White House happy about axing business-interest deductibility.
Still, as problematic as those pay-fors were, the alternatives—limiting tax breaks for mortgages, 401(k)s, and state and local taxes—are equally if not more so. The state and local tax deduction is a case in point. Pushed hard by Republican leaders as the primary revenue generator to replace border adjustment, it seems unlikely to survive criticism from blue-state Republicans. Eventual legislation is likely to be a far smaller and less comprehensive bill than first envisioned—more cut than reform—with some temporary parts designed to satisfy congressional budget rules. Indeed, Senate budget writers cleared room for just a $1.5 trillion tax cut, and even that might be overly ambitious. Expect Trump and his people to call whatever passes a “down payment” on true tax reform. Pro-growth conservatives should call it a missed opportunity.
Click here to read what James Pethokoukis wrote about Candidate Trump and taxes last year.
James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also an official CNBC contributor.
‘The Wall’ By Linda Chavez
“We’re going to build a wall. That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.” Donald Trump made this promise on August 23, 2016, repeated it throughout his presidential campaign, and has reiterated it in tweets and at press conferences and rallies ever since. But the only spinning going on lately has been the president’s own efforts to assure his base that he will eventually build a wall, or a fence, or some barrier along the U.S. border with Mexico, except maybe for those areas that don’t need one or already have one. Oh, and someone will pay for it—preferably Mexico, as he promised—but if not, Congress, unless Democrats or even Republicans refuse to go along. A year after winning the presidency, Trump’s most ubiquitous pledge, The Great Wall separating the U.S. from Mexico, remains largely a figment of his imagination and evidence of his supporters’ gullibility.
No issue defined Trump’s campaign more viscerally than immigration, and on none was his position less ambiguous. Trump’s presidential record on immigration enforcement and policy, however, is decidedly more mixed. He continues to promise that construction of the wall is going to start soon: “Way ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. Way, way, way ahead of schedule,” he said in February. But the cost, with estimates as high as $70 billion, and the sheer impracticality of erecting a solid barrier along 1,900 miles make little sense in light of recent trends in illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is at historically low levels today (roughly the same, in absolute numbers, as it was in the early 1970s) and has been falling more or less consistently since the peak in 2000, mostly because fewer people are crossing the border from Mexico. Apprehensions of Mexicans are at a 50-year low, as are all apprehensions along the southern border. Year-to-date in 2017, apprehensions at the Mexican border have dropped 24 percent compared with those in 2016, when a slight uptick occurred as more people tried to cross in advance of a feared Trump victory and border crackdown. The population of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is down as well and now stands at roughly 11 million, from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007; and two-thirds of these unauthorized immigrants have lived here a decade or longer. More Mexicans—whom Trump described as “bringing drugs. . . crime. They’re rapists”—are now leaving the U.S. than arriving. In 2013, for the first time since the 1960s, Mexico fell as the top source of immigrants to the U.S., behind both China and India.
Trump’s pledge to build a wall, of course, wasn’t his only promise on immigration, but he hasn’t lived up to his own hype in other areas either, which is a good thing. He said he’d end on day one the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provided temporary protection from removal for young people who arrived here illegally before age 16. Instead, Trump waited until September 5 to send his beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to announce that DACA would end in six months unless Congress acted. Trump then almost immediately backtracked in a series of tweets and offhand statements. Polls show that large majorities of Americans, including some two-thirds of Trump voters, have no interest in deporting so-called Dreamers, half of whom came before they were seven years old and 90 percent of whom are employed and paying taxes. Trump’s own misgivings and the backlash over the policy’s announcement led him into a tentative deal with Democratic leaders Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer in September to support legislation granting legal status for Dreamers who complete school, get jobs, or join the military. Trump’s most nativist supporters have already dubbed him “Amnesty Don” for even suggesting that Dreamers should be allowed to remain and gain temporary legal status, much less earn a path toward citizenship. But whether such legislation will make it through Congress is still uncertain. Similar bills have repeatedly passed one chamber and died in the other over the past 10 years, but the potential threat that the administration might begin deporting many of the 800,000 young adults who signed up for DACA should concentrate the minds of the Republican leadership to allow legislation to move forward. One of the complications in the House is the “Hastert Rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, an informal agreement that binds the speaker from bringing a bill to the floor unless a majority of the majority party supports it.
To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric and his appointment of hard-line immigration restrictionists to posts in his administration have led to fear among immigrants, as have the administration’s erratic, irrational enforcement policies. Previous administrations, including Barack Obama’s, gave priority to detaining and deporting aliens convicted of serious crimes, but in one of his first executive orders and Department of Homeland Security memoranda, Trump broadened the priorities for detention and removal to include anyone even suspected of committing a crime, with or without charges or conviction. As a result, arrests for immigration offenses have increased under Trump and have swept up hundreds of individuals who pose no threat to safety or security, some picked up outside their children’s schools or when seeking court orders against domestic abuse. Actual deportations, on the other hand, are down slightly in Trump’s first eight months compared with the same period in Obama’s last year. This is largely because the overloaded system isn’t equipped for mass deportation. Trump promised to rid the country of a greatly exaggerated 2 million criminal aliens and “a vast number of additional criminal illegal immigrants who have fled or evaded justice.” But his boasting that “their days on the run will soon be over” has always been aimed less at promoting sensible immigration policy than at stoking nativist anger in pursuit of his own brand of identity politics. Trump’s America will be a less welcoming place for immigrants—legal as well as illegal—if Trump gets his way on proposed legislation to reduce legal immigration by half over the next decade. But labor shortages and an aging population make it unlikely that Trump’s efforts will succeed. The simple fact is that we need more, not fewer, immigrants if the economy is to grow. Building walls and deporting workers is exactly the wrong way to go about needed immigration reform, whether Trump and his hard-core base can admit it or not.
Click here to read what Linda Chavez wrote about Candidate Trump and ‘The Wall’ last year.
Linda Chavez is the president of the Becoming American Institute and a frequent contributor to Commentary.
On Infrastructure By Philip Klein
A massive infrastructure bill was supposed to be one of the early triumphs of President Trump’s administration. Instead, Trump’s inability to advance the ball on one of his signature issues has highlighted the lack of focus, inattention to detail, and difficulties working with Congress that are emblematic of his presidency to date.
The idea of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, though overshadowed by daily controversies during the wild 2016 campaign, wove together several elements of the Trump phenomenon.
His experience in building projects such as luxury hotels, resorts, skyscrapers, and golf courses became central to his argument that he had the skills required to get things done in Washington. By touting the economic benefits of infrastructure during his campaign, Trump also signaled that he was an unorthodox Republican, breaking with decades of conservative critiques of Keynesian stimulus projects. Trump also spoke of infrastructure in nationalist terms, integrating it into riffs about how the United States was constantly losing to China. “They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” he said during the campaign. “We have trains that go: Chug. Chug. Chug.”
When Trump pulled off his election-victory upset, Washington insiders quickly focused on infrastructure as one issue on which he could get a legislative win and box Democrats into a corner. After all, could Democrats really resist passing a major policy priority that had eluded them when one of their own was in the White House?
In his Inaugural Address, Trump threw a jab at Bush-era Republicanism, declaring that the U.S. “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” Going forward, he said, “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” He promised: “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
Now in the fall of the first year of his presidency, any effort to advance infrastructure legislation has been drowned out by daily controversies involving White House intrigue, the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, and Trump’s raucous Twitter feed. Congress, meanwhile, spent much of the year focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare.
This isn’t to say that the Trump administration didn’t try, in fits and starts, to push infrastructure. In May, with the release of his first budget, Trump included $200 billion in funding for infrastructure as the first step in his $1 trillion infrastructure initiative. He also released a six-page fact sheet outlining his vision for infrastructure, which remains the most detailed resource on his infrastructure goals.
The document, broadly speaking, argues that current infrastructure money is spent inefficiently. It proposes greater selectivity in using federal dollars for infrastructure investments that are in the national interest and recommends giving state and local governments more leeway over their own projects. It also calls for more public-private partnerships.
Specifically, the proposal would create a nongovernment entity to manage the nation’s air-traffic-control system. It would also support private rest stops, give states the ability to work with private companies to manage their toll roads, and streamline the environmental-review process. The proposal received little attention, as it was rolled out during a week when Russia hearings took center stage in Congress and Trump was traveling in Europe and the Middle East.
Such inattention was supposed to end in early June, when White House officials announced “Infrastructure Week.” This was a carefully orchestrated campaign in which Trump was supposed to deliver speeches and lead staged events to highlight different aspects of his infrastructure initiative. But during this week, Washington was captivated by testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey, and Trump veered way off message in his speeches and on his favorite social-media platform.
He went on a Twitter tear. Trump attacked his own Justice Department for pursuing a “watered down” travel ban, took a shot at the mayor of London in the wake of a terrorist attack, unloaded on “fake news” outlets, and hit Comey as a liar. During a speech meant to make the case for both parties to get behind his infrastructure effort, Trump went off on a tangent, blasting Democrats as “obstructionists” on health care.
In truth, any hope of getting Democrats on board for the Trump infrastructure push had been fading even before this implosion. Liberals had already pressured lawmakers to pursue a policy of total resistance to Trump. But during Trump’s big policy push, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared overtly that Democrats had no appetite for his infrastructure initiative due to its reliance on privatization.
Before long, the phrase “Infrastructure Week” had become a punch line—an ironic metaphor for a presidency gone off the rails.
Trump has made little progress on infrastructure since then, beyond issuing an executive order in August aimed at making the permitting process for building roads, bridges, and pipelines more efficient. But again, this announcement was overshadowed, as it came during the same news conference in which he blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville and complained about the slippery slope of removing the Robert E. Lee statue.
On the other hand, by striking a deal with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling and negotiating with them on immigration, Trump has revived talk about the possibility that he could be ready to compromise with them to get infrastructure legislation passed as well. It is important to note, however, that in both cases—DACA and the debt ceiling—there was a ticking-time-bomb element that forced action. No such urgency exists when it comes to infrastructure.
From the perspective of a limited-government conservative, Trump’s inability thus far to negotiate a trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package with Democrats is nothing to shed tears about. But if we’re looking at the issue through the broader lens of whether or not Trump has been able to deliver on his ambitious campaign promises and make the transition from being a bombastic reality-television star to governing, it’s a case study in failure.
Click here to read what Philip Klein wrote about Candidate Trump and infrastructure last year.
Philip Klein is managing editor of the Washington Examiner.
On NATO By Tod Lindberg
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was unsparing in his disparagement of U.S. alliances. In a word, allies were freeloaders—complacent in their reliance on the United States to provide them security, contributing nothing like their “fair share” of the cost of their defense, and lavishing the dividend on their domestic needs. Maybe that was acceptable when they were flat on their backs after a war that left the United States on top, but now that they are prospering and the United States has pressing needs of its own, it’s time for the allies to pay up. He also mused about NATO being “obsolete.”
This was alarming (to put it mildly) to most American foreign-policy specialists—to say nothing of the reaction of U.S. allies. The postwar alliance structure in Europe has been the backbone of security on a continent where the United States fought two wars. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization underpinned the postwar revival of Western Europe and subsequently, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union, of Central and Eastern Europe. The relevance of the alliance has gained renewed salience with Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, first in Georgia in 2008, then in Ukraine in 2014.
At the heart of the alliance is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949—the commitment of each member to regard an armed attack on any as an attack on all. In practical terms, the meaning of Article 5 is that American power provides a security guarantee for Europe, a commitment upheld and explicitly reiterated by U.S. presidents since Harry S. Truman. The treaty is binding, yet equally in practical terms, it is the
American president whose commander-in-chief powers will dictate the response of the U.S. military to any attack—and by extension, the sincerity of his commitment determines the deterrent value of Article 5 against potential aggressors. Would a President Trump abrogate the U.S. commitment? Or hold it hostage to defense-spending increases by allies—perhaps even by demanding the payment of a much larger past-due bill, as the candidate suggested on at least one occasion?
In Asia, the biggest long-term challenge is the rise of China; the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines (as well as the more complicated commitment enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act) represent the underpinning of Pacific security. Would this, too, be up for grabs under Trump? Was “America First” shorthand for an isolationist retooling of U.S. relations with the rest of the world? The short answer to these questions turns out to be no. Trump has no apparent intention to do away with U.S. alliance relationships, however cumbersome and expensive he perceives them to be, and he evinces no intention to try to replace the postwar security architecture with something new and different, whatever that might be. So what happened? Were his many critics sounding the alarm therefore wrong about his intentions? Did he change his mind? Is the question of alliances now settled? Since Trump has taken office, alliance policy seems to have operated on two tracks within the U.S. government. The first track is the president’s own. He has continued to warn allies that they need to pay up—though his demands have moderated considerably, coalescing around the 2 percent of GDP that allies have pledged to spend on defense (though very few do). And although he has reaffirmed the U.S. Article 5 commitment on some occasions, on others when it would have been appropriate for him to do so, he has declined, apparently intentionally. Still, he has never repudiated the commitment. There seem to be two possibilities here: either a deliberate exercise in ambiguity, or incompetence and confusion of the kind his critics have long diagnosed.
I think the evidence points distinctly toward the former. That evidence is the second track of policy within the government. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—as well as officials junior to them—have been on something close to a nonstop reassurance tour of U.S. allies and partners since the beginning of the administration. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has joined the chorus since he stepped in to replace the ousted Michael Flynn. Their message has been unambiguous: The United States stands by its security and alliance commitments, and allies must contribute more to collective defense. True, some allies continue to harbor doubts centered on the persona of Trump. Yet—therefore?—many are moving to spend more on defense.
Now, the simple fact is that Trump could order his Cabinet members and senior staff to desist from repeating the first half of their message—the reassurance. Trump might have had some resignations to cope with, but it is well within his power to issue such an edict, and he hasn’t done so. The most likely reason he hasn’t is that he has concluded that too much is riding on these alliances. To continue in this speculative vein, what Trump knew to be true about U.S. allies during the campaign season was that they weren’t contributing enough; that’s a message that Washington has been sending with little effect for decades. What he didn’t know on the campaign trail and has since determined is how central these alliances are to U.S. national security. U.S. alliances aren’t quite so fragile as some feared. The case for them, competently made by the likes of Mattis, must be compelling, including to the skeptic in chief.
It’s here that we may be getting a little lesson in the cunning of history. From his skeptical premise, Trump sparked a very broad debate over alliances. Senior officials of his administration have probably devoted more time and energy to making the public case for NATO and our Pacific alliances during his first 10 months in office than their predecessors did in the previous 10 years. The latter had taken the utility of alliances to U.S. national security as a given.
All this attention has had an effect on public opinion. But the effect has not been, as many feared, a groundswell of support for isolationist or anti-alliance sentiment. Just the opposite. For the past three years, the Chicago Council Survey has asked, “How effective do you think [maintaining effective alliances is] to achieving the foreign-policy goals of the United States?” In 2015, 32 percent of all respondents responded “very effective.” In 2016, the figure was 40 percent. In 2017? Forty-nine percent. Specifically on NATO, 69 percent say the alliance is “essential” to U.S. security, a slight increase from 65 percent in 2016 and well above the 57 percent who said the same when the Chicago Council first asked the question in 2002.
For the first time in the history of the survey, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say they would support “the use of U.S. troops…if Russia invades a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.” The Trump administration has had little to say about the Russian threat to the Baltics but a great deal to say about the danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. A year ago, 47 percent said they would favor “the use of U.S. troops…if North Korea invaded South Korea.” That was the view of 26 percent of Americans in 1990. Today, it’s what 62 percent think.
Finally, on the question of allies paying up, the survey asked which comes closer to the respondent’s views: “The United States should encourage greater allied defense spending through persuasion and diplomatic means” or “The United States should withhold its commitment to defend NATO members” until they actually spend more. Overall, 59 percent said persuasion and diplomacy; 38 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) would put Article 5 at risk. Maybe I’m hearing things, but that sounds to me more like a warning to our allies to take seriously American insistence that they spend more on defense starting now than it does an abrogation of the commitments at the center of U.S. national-security strategy for 70 years.
Click here to read what Tod Lindberg wrote about Candidate Trump and NATO last year.
Tod Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a member of the Chicago Council Survey’s foreign policy advisory board.
On Asia By Michael Auslin
Despite continued Russian threats in Eastern Europe and the lurking danger of an Iranian race to a nuclear bomb, it is Asia that has vaulted to the top of the national-security agenda. Barack Obama had warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be the major national-security threat he would face, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has proved him right. Kim is on the threshold of fielding a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach U.S. territory in the Pacific and even the American homeland. He is within striking distance of achieving his family’s long-held dream of possessing the ultimate weapon. Not since 1994, when Bill Clinton initially ordered and then called back an air strike on Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear facilities, has the region seemed so close to war.
Beyond the Korean peninsula, Asia has arguably been Trump’s central foreign preoccupation since his entry into politics. He talked during his campaign about a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. And despite his noninterventionist affect, he began his transition phase by getting tough on China for its increasingly assertive actions during the Obama years, including the successful building and militarization of islands in contested waters in the South China Sea.
Then Trump retreated from his tough stance toward Beijing, initiating a period of seesawing between cooperation and confrontation and mixing together trade and economic concerns with security and diplomatic issues. His explicit linkage of the two, carefully separated by previous presidents, has been particularly unnerving to Beijing. China’s regime has warned of the risks of a larger trade war if Trump continues to threaten economic retaliation for disagreement on security issues. Of equal concern to Beijing has been his recent willingness to permit more frequent freedom-of-navigation operations by the U.S. Navy in the disputed South China Sea waters off the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Trump’s initial hard line, including an unprecedented transition-period phone call to Taiwan’s president, put Beijing on its back foot. But his subsequent inconstancy has led to a reassertion of Chinese activism on economic and diplomatic issues. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and general anti-free-trade stance have allowed Chinese President Xi Jinping to claim the mantle of global economic leadership—promoting free-trade alternatives and grandiose policies such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” in which Xi has promised more than $1 trillion of infrastructure investment to link the world in a trading network centered in China.
In contrast, Trump’s relations with America’s Asian allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, have been surprisingly smooth. Again backing down from campaign rhetoric, Trump early on reaffirmed the importance of both alliances, and buried talk of making the two pay more for hosting U.S. forces on their territory. His bond with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been particularly close, and his conversations with South Korea’s new left-leaning president, Moon Jae In, have gone better than some expected. Far from scaling back the alliances, Trump and his top officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have put them at the center of American strategy in the Pacific, especially with respect to North Korea.
It is North Korea, however, that remains the first great test of the Trump administration. Trump clearly inherited a failed policy, stretching over past Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and was doubly cursed in coming to office on the eve of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ICBM breakout.
Yet despite Trump’s heated rhetoric, he and his team have actually moved cautiously on North Korea. Like its predecessors, the administration has combined shows of force, such as flying B-1 bombers over the peninsula, with appeals to the United Nations for further sanctions on Pyongyang. Two new rounds of sanctions, in July and September, may indeed have been harder than those previously levied, but, just as in the past, the administration had to settle for less than it wanted. More worrying, Trump appears to be adopting the long-held goal of presidents past: North Korean denuclearization. This is a strategic mistake that threatens to lock him into an unending series of negotiations that have served over the past quarter-century to buy time for Pyongyang to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. I believe it would be a far more realistic move for Trump to drop the chimera of denuclearization and instead tacitly acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons-capable state. This would free up the administration to focus on the far more important job of deterring and containing a nuclear North Korea. Since Trump is almost certainly sure to avoid a preventive war to remove Kim’s nuclear weapons, given the associated military and political risks, he will be forced in the end to accept them. That then mandates a credible and comprehensive policy to restrict North Korea’s actions abroad while making clear that any nuclear use will result in a devastating counterstrike. Washington has been deterring North Korea ever since the end of the Korean War. This new approach explicitly makes deterrence the center of U.S. policy, dropping the unobtainable goal of denuclearization or the imprudent goal of normalizing relations with North Korea. To be successful, Trump will need to get the support of both Seoul and Tokyo, which is a tall order. The alternative, however, is another round of Kabuki negotiations and the diversion of U.S. attention from the far more necessary task of ensuring that Kim Jong Un is kept in his nuclear box.
Click here to read what Michael Auslin wrote about Candidate Trump and Asia last year.
Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).
On Israel By Daniella J. Greenbaum
As a candidate, Donald Trump’s positions on Israel were a blend of incoherence and inconsistency. He was an isolationist, except he was also Israel’s biggest supporter; he would enforce the Iran deal, except he wanted to rip it up on day one; he was the most pro- Israel candidate on the stage, except that he wanted to be “the neutral guy”; he wouldn’t commit to a policy on Jerusalem, except he declared his plan to immediately move the American Embassy to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.
Words—especially a president’s—matter, but until Trump took office, it was impossible to predict how his administration would treat the Jewish state. Some Israel advocates became convinced that Trump’s victory would lead to the fulfillment of their bucket list of Middle East dreams—in particular, resolution of the long-simmering issue involving the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act, which became law in 1995, recognized that “each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital” and that “since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel.” It ordered that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
And yet, despite all that, the American Embassy has remained in Tel Aviv. (Presidents were given the power to push the date back on national-security grounds.) Much like then-candidates Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Trump pledged to move the embassy if elected president. In a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference, Trump said unequivocally: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
The American Embassy belongs in Jerusalem, and Trump’s evolution on the issue was, for the most part, encouraging. (Early on in his candidacy, he was booed at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting after refusing to take a position on Jerusalem’s status.) But for Israelis, who face myriad threats on a daily basis—both physically, from their many hostile neighbors, and economically, through an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign—the location of the embassy ranks low on the list of urgent political matters. Even the most ardent proponents of this policy shift acknowledge it has the potential to inflame tensions in the region. Like his predecessors, Trump signed the waiver and suspended the move.
Next on the bucket list: discarding Barack Obama’s cataclysmic Iran deal. When Trump was a candidate, his intentions for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were anything but clear. He told AIPAC, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But he also said, “We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before folks, believe me.” It’s hard to know which part of his schizophrenic speech the audience—and the country—was supposed to believe. The schizophrenia has continued during his tenure, with Trump certifying the Iran deal twice before announcing in October his decision not to recertify a third time. Despite signaling his extreme displeasure with the deal, Trump has so far opted not to terminate it. But, by refusing to recertify, he has instead left to Congress the decision whether or not to reimpose sanctions.
Most important, perhaps, to pro-Israel forces was Trump’s choice of foreign-policy team. While Jared Kushner’s lack of political experience made him an odd choice for Middle East maven—Trump exclaimed at an inauguration event: “if [he] can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can”—there is no denying that Kushner is a Zionist. Along with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, Kushner visited Israel this summer to determine whether restarting peace talks was a viable course of action. The duo have articulated their desire to refrain from repeating the mistakes of previous administrations: “It is no secret that our approach to these discussions departs from some of the usual orthodoxy. … Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about the future,” Greenblatt explained. Maybe that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu seems so elated. Bibi’s friction with Obama was well documented, and the prime minister has expressed his jubilation at the changed nature of his relationship to Washington. During the United Nations General Assembly, he tweeted: “Under your leadership, @realDonaldTrump, the alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”
During the campaign, it was hard to imagine that might be the case. Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “America First,” a classic isolationist trope with anti-Semitic overtones, was deeply concerning to pro- Israel voters. He continually insisted that foreign governments were a drain on the American economy: “I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world…where they’re not paying us what we need.” According to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” The report calculates that the United States has, over the years, provided Israel with more than $127 billion in bilateral assistance. If words and campaign promises meant anything to Trump, the candidate who insisted that Israel could pay “big league” would have metamorphosed into the president who ensured that it did.
But Trump’s campaign promises seem to have had no bearing on his actions. In an appropriations bill, Congress pledged an extra $75 million in aid to Israel, on top of the annual $3.1 billion already promised for this year. As part of negotiations for the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, the Israeli government promised to return any funds that surpassed the pre-negotiated aid package. In what was doubtlessly a major disappointment to Trump’s America-first base, the State Department confirmed it will not be asking the Israelis to return the additional funds.
His behavior toward Israel during his eight months in office has confirmed what was evident throughout the campaign: Donald Trump’s words and actions have, at best, a haphazard relationship to each other. So far Israel has benefited. That may not always be the case.
Click here to read what Jordan Chandler Hirsch wrote about Candidate Trump and Israel last year.
Daniella J. Greenbaum is assistant editor of Commentary.
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Of Hobbes and Harvey Weinstein
In man’s natural state, with no social or religious order to impose limits upon his hungers and passions, “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, force and fraud are…the cardinal virtues.” Thus did Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, anticipate and describe the sordid story of the film producer Harvey Weinstein.
The reason Weinstein’s three decades of monstrous personal and professional conduct are so appalling and fascinating in equal measure is that he was clearly functioning outside the “social compact” Hobbes said was necessary to save men from a perpetual state of war they would wage against one another in the state of nature. For that is what Weinstein was doing, in his own way: waging Hobbesian war against the women he abused and finding orgasmic pleasure in his victories.
And Weinstein did so while cleverly pretending to leadership within the social compact and disingenuously advocating for its improvement both through political change and artistic accomplishment. Hobbes said the life of man in the state of nature was nasty, brutish, and short, but he did not say the warrior could not be strategic. Rochefoucauld’s immortal declaration that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue is entirely wrong in this case. Weinstein paid off feminists and liberals to extend his zone of protection and seduction, not to help support the virtues he was subverting with his own vices.
Hobbes said that in the state of nature there was “no arts; no letters; no society.” But if the man in the state of nature, the nihilistic warrior, coexists with people who live within the social compact, would it not be a brilliant strategy to use the arts, letters, and society as cover, and a means of infiltrating and suborning the social compact? Harvey Weinstein is a brutal thug, a man of no grace, more akin to a mafioso than a maker of culture. And yet as a movie producer he gravitated toward respectable, quality, middlebrow, elevated and elevating fare. People wanted to work with him because of the kinds of movies he made. I think we can see that was the whole point of the exercise: It was exciting to be called into his presence because you knew you would do better, more socially responsible, more praiseworthy work under his aegis than you would with another producer.
And then, garbed only in a bathrobe, Weinstein would strike.
Weinstein was universally known to be a terrible person long before the horrifying tales of his sexual predation, depredation, and assault were finally revealed. And—this is important—known to be a uniquely terrible person. His specific acts of repugnant public thuggishness were detailed in dozens of articles and blog items over the decades, and were notable precisely because they were and are not common currency in business or anywhere else. It was said of him after the latest revelations that he had mysterious abilities to suppress negative stories about himself, and perhaps he did; even so, it was a matter of common knowledge that he was the most disgusting person in the movie business, and that’s saying a lot. And that’s before we get to sex.
To take one example, Ken Auletta related a story in the New Yorker in 2001 about the director Julie Taymor and her husband, the composer Eliot Goldenthal. She had helmed a movie about Frida Kahlo produced by Weinstein. There was a preview screening at the Lincoln Square theater in Manhattan. The audience liked it, but some of its responses indicated that the plotline was confusing. Weinstein, whose hunger to edit the work of others had long since earned him the name “Harvey Scissorhands,” wanted to recut it to clarify the picture. Taymor didn’t, citing the audience’s favorable reaction. Then this happened:
He saw Taymor’s agent…and yelled at him, “Get the fuck out of here!” To Goldenthal, who wrote the score for Frida, Weinstein said, “I don’t like the look on your face.” Then, according to several witnesses, he moved very close to Goldenthal and said, “Why don’t you defend her so I can beat the shit out of you?” Goldenthal quickly escorted Taymor away. When asked about this incident, Weinstein insisted that he did not threaten Goldenthal, yet he concedes, “I am not saying I was remotely hospitable. I did not behave well. I was not physically menacing to anybody. But I was rude and impolite.” One member of Taymor’s team described Weinstein’s conduct as actually bordering on “criminal assault.”
Weinstein told the late David Carr in 2002 that his conduct in such cases had merely been the result of excess glucose in his system, that he was changing his diet, and he was getting better. That glucose problem was his blanket explanation for all the bad stories about him, like this one:
“You know what? It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.” Weinstein said that to Andrew Goldman, then a reporter for the New York Observer, when he took him out of a party in a headlock last November after there was a tussle for Goldman’s tape recorder and someone got knocked in the head.
Goldman’s then-girlfriend, Rebecca Traister, asked Weinstein about a controversial movie he had produced. Traister provided the predicate for this anecdote in a recent piece: “Weinstein didn’t like my question about O, there was an altercation…[and] he called me a c—.”
Auletta also related how Weinstein physically threatened the studio executive Stacey Snider. She went to Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and told him the story. Katzenberg, “one of his closest friends in the business,” told Weinstein he had to apologize. He did, kind of. Afterward, Katzenberg told Auletta, “I love Harvey.”
These anecdotes are 15 years old. And there were anecdotes published about Weinstein’s behavior dating back another 15 years. What they revealed then is no different from what they reveal now: Weinstein is an out-and-out psychopath. And apparently this was fine in his profession…as long as he was successful and important, and the stories involved only violence and intimidation.
Flash-forward to October 2017. Katzenberg—the man who loved Harvey—publicly released an email he had sent to Weinstein after he was done for: “You have done terrible things to a number of women over a period of years. I cannot in any way say this is OK with me…There appear to be two Harvey Weinsteins…one that I have known well, appreciated, and admired and another that I have not known at all.”
So which Weinstein, pray tell, was the one from whom Katzenberg had had to protect Stacey Snider? The one he knew or the one he didn’t know? Because they are, of course, the same person. We know that sexual violence is more about power than sex—about the ultimate domination and humiliation. In these anecdotes and others about Weinstein, we see that his great passions in life were dominating and humiliating. Even if the rumors hadn’t been swirling around his sexual misconduct for decades, could anyone actually have been surprised he sought to secure his victory over the social compact in the most visceral way possible outside of murder?
The commentariat’s reaction to the Weinstein revelations has been desperately confused, and for once, the confusion is constructive, because there are strange ideological and moral convergences.
The most extreme argument has it that he’s really not a unique monster, that every working woman in America has encountered a Weinstein, and that the problem derives from a culture of “toxic masculinity.” This attitude is an outgrowth of the now-fashionable view that there have been no real gains for women and minorities over the past half-century, that the gains are illusory or tokenish, and that something more revolutionary is required to level the playing field.
As a matter of fact in the Weinstein case, this view is false. Women have indeed encountered boors and creeps in their workplaces. But a wolf-whistler is not a rapist. Someone who leers at a woman isn’t the same as someone who masturbates in front of her. Coping with grotesque and inappropriate co-workers and bosses is something every human being, regardless of gender, has had to deal with, and will have to deal with until we are all replaced by robots. It’s worse for women, to be sure. Still, no one should have to go through such experiences. But we all have and we all do. It’s one of the many unpleasant aspects of being human.
Still, the extreme view of “toxic masculinity” contains a deeper truth that is anything but revolutionary. It takes us right back to Hobbes. His central insight—indeed, the insight of civilization itself—is that every man is a potential Weinstein. This clear-eyed, even cold-eyed view of man’s nature is the central conviction of philosophical conservatism. Without limits, without having impressed upon us a fear of the legal sanction of punishment or the social sanction of shame and ostracism, we are in danger of seeking our earthly rewards in the state of nature.
The revolutionary and the conservative also seem to agree there’s something viscerally disturbing about sex crimes that sets them apart. But here is where the consensus between us breaks down. Logically, if the problem is that we live in a toxic culture that facilitates these crimes, then the men who commit them are, at root, cogs in an inherently unjust system. The fault ultimately is the system’s, not theirs.
Harvey Weinstein is an exceptionally clever man who spent decades standing above and outside the system, manipulating it and gaming it for his own ends. He’s no cog. Tina Brown once ran Weinstein’s magazine and book-publishing line. She wrote that “strange contracts pre-dating us would suddenly surface, book deals with no deadline attached authored by attractive or nearly famous women, one I recall was by the stewardess on a private plane.” Which means he didn’t get into book publishing, or magazine publishing, to oversee the production of books and articles. He did it because he needed entities through which he would pass through payoffs both to women he had harassed and molested and to journalists whose silence he bought through options and advances. His primary interest wasn’t in the creation of culture. It was the creation of conditions under which he could hunt.
Which may explain his choice of the entertainment industry in the first place. In how many industries is there a specific term for demanding sexual favors in exchange for employment? There’s a “casting couch”; there’s no “insurance-adjustor couch.” In how many industries do people conduct meetings in hotel rooms at off hours anyway? And in how many industries could that meeting in a hotel room end up with the dominant player telling a young woman she should feel comfortable getting naked in front of him because the job for which she is applying will require her to get naked in front of millions?
Weinstein is entirely responsible for his own actions, but his predatory existence was certainly made easier by the general collapse of most formal boundaries between the genders. Young women were told to meet him in private at night in fancy suites. Half a century earlier, no young woman would have been permitted to travel alone in a hotel elevator to a man’s room. The world in which that was the norm imposed unacceptable limitations on the freedoms of women. But it did place serious impediments in the paths of predators whose despicable joy in life is living entirely without religious, spiritual, cultural, or moral impediment.
Hobbes was the great philosopher of limits. We Americans don’t accept his view of things; we tend to think better of people than he did. We tend to believe in the greater good, which he resolutely did not. We believe in self-government, which he certainly did not. But what our more optimistic outlook finds extraordinarily difficult to reckon with is behavior that challenges this complacency about human nature. We try to find larger explanations for it that place it in a more comprehensible context: It’s toxic masculinity! It’s the residue of the 1960s! It’s the people who enabled it! The truth is that, on occasion—and this is one such occasion—we are forced to come face to face with the worst of what any of us could be. And no one explanation suffices save Hamlet’s: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?”
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The education-reform outfit’s hard-left shift
In remaking itself, TFA has subtly downgraded the principles that had won it allies across the spectrum. George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Chris Christie, and Meg Whitman are a few of the Republicans who championed TFA. The group attracted such boldface names, and hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the largest American firms and philanthropies, because it stood for a simple but powerful idea: that teacher quality is the decisive factor in the educational outcomes produced by schools.
Judging by its interventions in recent debates, it isn’t all that clear that senior TFA executives still believe this. These days, TFA’s voice on charters, accountability, and curricular rigor is decidedly muffled. Such education-reform essentials have been eclipsed in TFA’s discourse by immigration, policing, “queer” and transgender-identity issues, and other left-wing causes. TFA’s message seems to be that until numerous other social ills are cured—until immigration is less restricted, policing becomes more gentle, and poverty is eliminated—an excellent education will elude the poor. That was the status-quo defeatism TFA originally set out to challenge.
Wendy Kopp conceived TFA when she was a senior at Princeton in 1989. Unable to get a New York City teaching job without a graduate degree and state certification, Kopp wrote a thesis calling for the creation of a nontraditional recruitment pipeline that would bring America’s most promising young people to its neediest classrooms. TFA members would teach for two years, applying their energy and ambition to drive achievement at the classroom level. She speculated that some would stay in education, while others would go on to careers in law, medicine, business, journalism, etc. But all would remain “lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity.”
The following year, Kopp launched TFA with a corps of 489 new teachers who were dispatched to schools in six regions—a virtuoso feat of social entrepreneurship. Since then some 50,000 teachers have completed the program. This year’s corps counts around 6,400 members, serving 53 regions from coast to coast.
By the time I joined, in 2005, TFA had distilled the experience of its best corps members into a theory of educational transformation called “Teaching as Leadership.” Most people, it said, aren’t natural-born educators. But they could rise to classroom greatness by setting “big goals” for all students, planning engaging lessons, continually assessing their students, maintaining tough discipline, and investing parents and the wider community in their goals.
Mostly, great teachers work hard—really hard. TFA brought the work habits usually associated with large law firms and high-end management consultancies to America’s K–12 failure factories. Its “summer institute” for new recruits was a grueling ordeal of tears, sweat, and 16-hour days. When I was a corps member, we were told that this is what it would take to overcome the forces of the status quo, which were chronically low expectations; broken homes and criminality in the streets; messy, undisciplined classrooms; and bloated bureaucracies that put the needs of adults above those of children.
The TFA worldview diverged sharply from the one that predominated in the education industry. The leading lights of the profession held that the achievement gap was a product of inadequate funding and larger social inequalities. Thus they transferred blame for classroom outcomes from teachers to policymakers and society at large. Teachers’ unions were particularly fond of this theory, since it provided cover for resisting accountability and high expectations.
TFA raged against all this. The assumption that some kids were doomed to underachievement was wrong and, indeed, bigoted. Ditto for the notion that inner-city children couldn’t be expected to behave like young scholars. These children could pull themselves up, provided they had dedicated educators who believed in them. This wasn’t to say that external factors were discounted altogether. But TFA concentrated on the things that educators and school leaders could control. It would emphasize self-help and uplift. And it would accept friends and allies across political divides to fulfill the promise of educational equality.T oday’s Teach for America is a different story. TFA’s leaders have now fully enlisted the organization in the culture war—to the detriment of its mission and the high-minded civic sensibility that used to animate its work.
This has been most visible in TFA’s response to the 2016 election. TFA chief executive Elisa Villanueva Beard, who took over from Kopp four years ago, doesn’t bother to mask either her progressivism or her revulsion at the new administration. When, a couple of weeks after the election, the president-elect announced his choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, Beard’s response was swift and cold.
A November 23 TFA news release began by decrying Trump’s “indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign” and called on DeVos to uphold “diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.” The statement went on to outline 11 TFA demands. Topping the litany was protection of the previous administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted legal status to certain illegal immigrants brought into the country as children. Then came the identity-politics checklist: “SAFE classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers,” “safe classrooms for students and teachers with disabilities,” “safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and so on.
Of the 11 demands, only three directly touched core education-reform areas—high expectations, accountability, and data-driven instruction—and these were couched in the broadest terms possible. Most notably, there wasn’t a single kind word for DeVos: no well wishes, no hope of “working together to achieve common goals,” no call for dialogue, nothing but angry demands. This, even though the secretary-designee was a passionate charter advocate and came from the same corporate philanthropy and activism ecosystem that TFA had long inhabited.
It is true that inner-city educators were horrified at the election of a candidate who winked at David Duke and suggested that a federal judge’s Mexican heritage was disqualifying. TFA’s particular concern about DACA makes sense, since many corps members work with illegal-immigrant children in border states. (My own stint took me to the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas.)
Even so, TFA’s allergic reaction to the Trump phenomenon reflects faulty strategic thinking. Beard isn’t Rachel Maddow, and TFA isn’t supposed to be an immigration-reform outfit, still less a progressive think tank. With Republicans having swept all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of statehouses and governors’ mansions, TFA must come to terms with the GOP. Condemning the new education secretary as barely legitimate wasn’t wise.
Beard is also making a grave mistake by attempting to banish legitimate conservative positions from the reform movement. In the wake of the bloody white-nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, she blasted an email to the organization that denounced in one breath opposition to affirmative action and “racist and xenophobic violence.” Some two-thirds of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action. Will these Americans give TFA a fair hearing on educational reform when the organization equates them with alt-right thugs? In a phone interview, Beard said she didn’t intend to link white nationalism with opposition to affirmative action.
As for DACA, the amount of attention TFA devotes to the fate of those affected is out of all proportion. TFA has a full-time director for DACA issues. A search of its website reveals at least 31 news releases, statements, and personal blogs on DACA—including a 2013 call for solidarity with “UndocuQueer students” that delved into the more exotic dimensions of intersectionality. As one education reformer told me in an interview, “They are super-concerned with ‘can’t wait’ issues—DACA and so on—and so much of their mental space [is filled up] by that kind of thing that less of their attention and time is being spent” on central priorities. “Personally, I think that’s such a shame.” (This reformer, and others I interviewed for this article, declined to speak on the record.)
By contrast, TFA didn’t call out Mayor Bill de Blasio on his attempts to roll back charter schools in New York. The organization has rarely targeted teachers’ unions the way it has ripped into Trump. But it is the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that pose the main obstacle to expanding school choice and dismissing ineffective teachers. It is the unions that are bent on snuffing out data-driven instruction. It was a teachers’ union boss (Karen Lewis of Chicago), not the 45th president, who in 2012 accused TFA of supporting policies that “kill and disenfranchise children.”T
each for America’s turn to the harder left predated Trump’s ascent, and it isn’t mainly about him. Rather, it tracks deeper shifts within American liberalism, from the meritocratic Clintonian ideas of the 1990s and early aughts to today’s socialist revival and the fervid politics of race, gender, and sexuality.
Culturally, TFA was always more liberal than conservative. Educators tend to be liberal Democrats, regardless of the path that brings them to the classroom. But education reformers are unwanted children of American liberalism. They are signed up for the Democratic program, but they clash with public-sector labor unions, the most powerful component of the party base.
As TFA went from startup to corporate-backed giant, it sustained withering attacks from leftist quarters. On her influential education blog, New York University’s Diane Ravitch (a one-time education reformer who changed sides) relentlessly hammered corps members as “woefully unprepared,” as scabs “used to take jobs away from experienced teachers,” as agents of “privatization” and the “neoliberal attack on the public sector.” It was Ravitch who publicized Lewis’s claim that TFAers “kill” kids.
Michelle Rhee, the Korean-American alumna who in 2007 was tapped as chancellor of the District of Columbia system, became a lightning rod for anti-TFA sentiment on the left. Rhee’s no-nonsense approach to failing schools was summed up in a Time magazine cover that showed her holding a broom in the middle of a classroom. When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty didn’t win reelection in 2010, it was seen as a popular verdict against this image of TFA-style reform.
In 2013, one university instructor, herself a TFA alumna, urged college professors not to write letters of recommendation for students seeking admission to the organization. Liberal pundits took issue with TFA’s alleged elitism and lack of diversity, portraying it as the latest in a long line of “effete” white reformist institutions that invariably let down the minorities they try to help. TFA, argued a writer in the insurgent leftist magazine Jacobin, is “another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education-reform movement.” By “unseemly,” the writer meant conservative and corporate.
The assaults have had an effect. Applications to TFA dropped to 37,000 last year, down from 57,000 in 2013. Thus ended a growth spurt that had seen the organization increase the size of its corps by about a fifth each year since 2000. Partly this was due to more jobs and better salaries on offer to elite graduates in a rebounding private sector. But as Beard conceded in a statement in April 2016, partly it was the “toxic debate surrounding education” that was “pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact.”
The temptation for any successful nonprofit crusade is to care more about viability and growth than the original cause. Wounded by the union-led attacks, TFA leaders have apparently concluded that identity politics and a progressive public presence can revive recruitment. With its raft of corporate donors and the massive Walton-family endowment, TFA would never fit in comfortably with an American liberalism moving in the direction of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But talk of Black Lives and “UndocuQueers” might help it reconnect with younger millennials nursed on race-and-gender theory.
Thus, TFA leads its current pitch by touting its diversity. Beard opened her keynote at last year’s 25th-anniversary summit in Washington by noting: “We are more diverse than we have ever been. . . . We are a community that is black, that is Latino, that is white, that is American Indian, that is Asian and Pacific Islander, that is multiracial. We are a community that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and trans.” The organization’s first priority, Beard went on, will always be “to build an inclusive community.”
It makes sense to recruit diverse teachers to lead classrooms in minority-majority regions, to be sure. But one can’t help detecting a certain liberal guilt behind this rhetoric, as if TFA had taken all the attacks against it to heart: We aren’t elite, we swear! Yet the 90 percent of black children who don’t reach math proficiency by eighth grade need good math teachers, period. Their parents don’t care how teachers worship (if at all), what they look like, or what they get up to in the bedroom. They want teachers who will put their children on a trajectory out of poverty.
Minority parents, moreover, fear for their kids’ well-being in chaotic schools and gang-infested streets. Yet to hear many of the speakers at TFA’s summit, you would have thought that police and other authority figures represent the main threat to black and Hispanic children. At a session titled “#StayWoke,” a TFA teacher railed against the police:
I teach 22 second-graders in Southeast D.C., all of them students of color. Sixteen of them are beautiful, carefree black and brown boys, who, despite their charm and playfulness, could be slain in the streets by the power that be [sic], simply because of the color of their skin, what clothes they wear, or the music they choose to listen to.
Educators must therefore impart “a racial literacy, a literacy of resistance.” Their students “must grow up woke.” Another teacher-panelist condemned anti-gang violence initiatives that
come from the same place as the appetite to charge black and brown people with charges of self-destruction. The tradition of blaming black folk keeps us from aiming at real sources of violence. If we were really interested in ending violence, we would be asking who pulled the trigger to underfund schools in Philadelphia? Who poisoned our brothers and sisters in Flint, Michigan? Who and what made New Orleans the incarceration capital of the world? We would teach our students to raise these questions.
Throughout, he led the assembly in chants of “Stay Woke!”
Talk of teaching “resistance” represented a reversion to the radical pedagogy and racial separatism that left a legacy of broken inner-city schools in the previous century. TFA’s own experience, and that of TFA-linked charter networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, had taught reformers that, to thrive academically, low-income students need rigid structure and order. Racial resentment won’t set these kids up for success but for alienation and failure—and prison.
Another session, on “Academic Rigor, Social and Political Consciousness, and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” pushed similar ideas. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an associate professor of “Raza studies” at San Francisco State University, urged teachers to develop an ultra-localized race-conscious curriculum:
Don’t even essentialize Oakland’s culture! If you’re from the town, you know it’s a big-ass difference between the west and the east [sic]. We talk differently, we walk differently, we dress differently, we speak differently. The historical elements are different. So if you use stuff from the west [of Oakland] you have to really figure out, ‘How do I modify this to be relevant to the communities I’m serving in East Oakland?’ Develop curriculum, pedagogy, assessment that is responsive to the community you serve. You gotta become an ethnographer. You gotta get on the streets, get into the neighborhoods and barrios…talk to the ancestors…
If your curriculum is not building pathways to self-love for kids who at every turn of their day are taught to hate themselves, hate the color of their skin, hate the texture of their hair, hate the color of their eyes, hate the language they speak, hate the culture they come from, hate the ‘hood that they come from, hate the countries that their people come from, then what’s the purpose of your schooling?
Other sessions included “Native American Community Academy: A Case Study in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy”; “What Is the Role of White Leaders?”; “Navigating Gender Dynamics”; “Beyond Marriage Equality: Safety and Empowerment in the Education of LGBTQ Youth”; “A Chorus of Voices: Building Power Together,” featuring the incendiary Black Lives Matter activist and TFA alumnus DeRay McKesson; “Every Student Counts: Moving the Equity Agenda Forward for Asian American and Pacific Islander Students”; “Intentionally Diverse Learning Communities”; and much more of the kind.
Lost amid all this talk of identitarian self-love was the educator’s role in leading poor children toward things bigger and higher than Oakland, with its no doubt edifying east–west street rivalries—toward the glories of the West and the civic and constitutional bonds that link Americans of all backgrounds. You can be sure that the people who participate in TFA see to it that their own children learn to appreciate Caravaggio and Shakespeare and The Federalist. The whole point of the organization was to ensure that kids from Oakland could do the same.
Twenty-seven years since Teach for America was founded, the group’s mission remains vital. Today fewer than 1 in 10 children growing up in low-income communities graduate college. The basic political dynamics of education reform haven’t changed: Teach for America, and the other reform efforts it has inspired, have shown what works. The question is whether Teach for America is still determined to reform schools and fight for educational excellence for all—or whether it wants to become a cash-flush and slick vehicle for the new politics of identity.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'iGen' By Jean Twenge
n 1954, scientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran some experiments on rats in a laboratory at McGill University. What they found was remarkable and disturbing. They discovered that if electrodes were implanted into a particular part of the rat brain—the lateral hypothalamus—rats would voluntarily give themselves electric shocks. They would press a lever several thousand times per hour, for days on end, and even forgo food so that they could keep pressing. The scientists discovered that the rats were even prepared to endure torture in order to receive these shocks: The animals would run back and forth over an electrified grid if that’s what it took to get their fix. They enjoyed the shocks so much that they endured charring on the bottoms of their feet to receive them. For a long time afterward, Olds and Milner thought that they had discovered the “bliss center” of the brain—but this was wrong. They had discovered the reward center. They had found the part of the brain that gives us our drives and our desires. These scientists assumed that the rats must have been in a deep state of pleasure while receiving these electric shocks, but in reality they were in a prolonged state of acute craving.
Jean Twenge’s important new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, talks about a new form of electronic stimulation that appears to be driving young people to extreme distraction. A professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge has built her career on looking at patterns in very large samples of people across long periods of time. She takes data from the General Social Survey, which has examined adults 18 years and older since 1966; the American Freshman Survey, which has questioned college students since 1991; the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System; and the Monitoring the Future databases. She looks to see whether there have been any changes in behavior and personality across time for people the same age but from different generations. Prior to iGen, she was the author of The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), co-written with psychologist W. Keith Campbell, and Generation Me (2013), a book about self-entitled Millennials. Twenge knows whereof she speaks.
Unlike previous patterns of rising narcissism, the trends of self-regard and self-entitlement associated with those born after 1995 appear to have petered out. What Twenge does find, however, is that reversals in trends of narcissism have been replaced by sharp increases in anxiety. Rates of anxiety and depression are spiking rapidly in young people, while at the same time their engagement with adult behaviors is declining. Using dozens of graphs, Twenge shows the reader how teenagers today drink less, go out less, socialize less, are less motivated to get their driver’s license, work less, date less, and even have sex less.
At first glance, the data seem counterintuitive, because the social pressures to abstain from alcohol and casual sex have never been more relaxed. But, on further reading, it appears that young people’s avoidance of adult behaviors has at least something to do with the addictive and distracting nature of smartphones and social media. Of course, Twenge is careful to point out that this is all “correlational.” She does not have a smoking gun and cannot prove causality. But the speculation seems plausible. All of the changes she observes started accelerating after 2007, when smartphones became ubiquitous. She writes:
I asked my undergraduate students what I thought was a very simple question: “What do you do with your phone while you sleep? Why?” Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phones, putting them under their pillows, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media websites and watched videos right before they went to bed and reached for their phones again as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to bed and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke up in the middle of the night they often ended up looking at their phones. They talked about their phones the way an addict would talk about crack: “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it.”
Recent experiments also lend support to the hypothesis. In an experiment carried out in 2013, psychologists Larry Rosen and Nancy Cheever brought 163 university students into a room. Some students had their phones unexpectedly taken away and others were told to put their phones on silent and out of sight. All students were then asked to fill out a brief anxiety questionnaire in 20-minute intervals. Those who were the heaviest smartphone users and heaviest social-media users recorded anxiety levels that kept climbing over the 90-minute period. The kids who used their smartphones the least did not have any increase in anxiety. This experiment lends strong support to the hypothesis that smartphones, by their propensity to promote constant use, do in fact cause agitation.
Twenge’s chapter on mental health in the generation born after 1995 makes for the book’s most disturbing reading. Heavy smartphone and social-media use correlates with higher anxiety and increased feelings of loneliness, particularly in girls. Social media seems to allow girls to bully one another in much more subtle and effective ways than were previously available. They constantly include or exclude one another from online activities such as group “chats,” and they are forever surveilling their peers’ presentation and appearance. This means that if girls aren’t vigilantly checking their social-media accounts, they won’t know if they’re being gossiped about or excluded from some fun activity. Like the electrodes placed on Olds and Milner’s rats, this new technology seems to activate the reward center—but it does not induce states of contentment, satisfaction, or meaning. It also takes time away from other activities such as sports and in-person socializing that would induce feelings of contentment and satisfaction. For a young person who is developing his personality and his competencies in the real world, this could have a profound and long-lasting effect.
Twenge tries not to be alarmist, and she presents her findings in a cautious, conscientious manner. She takes care to make caveats and eschew emotionally laden language. But it’s hard not to be alarmed by what she has found. In the six years between 2009 and 2015, the number of high-school girls who attempted suicide increased by 43 percent and the number of college students who “seriously considered” ending their lives rose by 51 percent. Suicides in young people are carefully tracked—there can be no ambiguity in this data—and increasing rates of children killing themselves are strong evidence that something is seriously amiss. From 2007 (the year smartphones became omnipresent) to 2015, suicide among 15- to 19-year-olds rose by 46 percent, and among those aged 12 to 14, it rose by half. And this rise is particularly pronounced for young girls. Three times as many 12- to 14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007; among boys that age, suicide doubled in the same period. The suicide rate is always higher for boys (partly because they use more violent methods), but girls are now beginning to close this gender gap.
Another startling chapter in Twenge’s book focuses on sex, relationships, and family formation. We all know that young people are putting off marriage and child-rearing until later years, often for sensible reasons. But what is less well known is that young people are dating a lot less and spending a lot more time alone. It appears that old-fashioned romance and courtship norms are out the window, and so too is sex among young people. Twenge writes:
[M]ore young adults are not having sex at all. More than twice as many iGen’ers and late Millennials (those born in the 1990s) in their early twenties (16 percent) had not had sex at all since age 18 compared to GenX’ers at the same age (6 percent). A more sophisticated statistical analysis that included all adults and controlled for age and time period confirmed twice as many “adult virgins” among those born in the 1990s than among those born in the 1960s.
But if 16 percent are virgins, that means 84 percent of young people are having sex. Perhaps, then, there’s only a small segment bucking the trend toward more libertine lifestyles? Not so. Twenge writes:
Even with age controlled [in samples], Gen X’ers born in the 1970s report having an average of 10.05 sexual partners in their lifetimes, whereas Millennials and iGen’ers born in the 1990s report having sex with 5.29 partners. So Millennials and iGen’ers, the generations known for quick, casual sex, are actually having sex with fewer people.
For decades, conservatives have worried about loosened social and sexual mores among young people. It’s true that sexual promiscuity poses meaningful risks to youths’ well-being, especially among women. But there are also risks that manifest at a broader level when there is a lack of sexual activity in young people. And this risk can be summed up in three words—angry young men. Anthropologists are well aware that societies without strong norms of monogamous pairing produce a host of negative outcomes. In such populations, crime and child abuse increase while savings and GDP decline. Those are just some of the problems that come from men’s directing their energies toward competing with one another for mates instead of providing for families. In monogamous societies, male-to-male competition is tempered by the demands of family life and planning for children’s futures.
These trends identified by Twenge—increased anxiety and depression, huge amounts of time spent on the Internet, and less time spent dating and socializing—do not bode well for the future of Western societies. It should come as no surprise that young people who struggle to connect with one another and young men who can’t find girlfriends will express their anxieties as political resentments. Twenge’s book reveals just how extensive those anxieties are.
Like the rats that forgo food to binge on electric shocks, teenagers are forgoing formative life experiences and human connection in order to satiate their desire for electronic rewards. But the problem is not necessarily insurmountable. Twenge identifies possible protective factors such as playing sports, real-life socializing, adequate sleep, sunlight, and good food. Indeed, phone apps designed to encourage good habits are becoming popular, as are those that lock people out of their social-media accounts for predetermined periods of time. Twenge also argues that iGen has several positive indicators. They are less narcissistic and are more industrious than the generation before them, and they are also more realistic about the demands of work and careers. But harnessing those qualities will require an effort that seems at once piddling and gargantuan. IGen’s future well-being, and ours, depends on whether or not they can just put down their phones.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Playwrights and politics
No similar incidents have been reported, but not for lack of opportunity. In the past year, references to Trump have been shoehorned into any number of theatrical productions in New York and elsewhere. One Trump-related play by a noted author, Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, has already been produced off Broadway and across America, and various other Trump-themed plays are in the pipeline, including Tracy Letts’s The Minutes and Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, both of which will open on Broadway later this season.
The first thing to be said about this avalanche of theatrical activity is that these plays and productions, so far as is known, all show Trump in a negative light. That was to be expected. Save for David Mamet, I am not aware of any prominent present-day American playwright, stage actor, director, or technician who has ever publicly expressed anything other than liberal or progressive views on any political subject whatsoever. However, it appears one can simultaneously oppose Trump and still be skeptical about the artistic effects of such lockstep unanimity, for many left-of-center drama critics have had unfavorable things to say about the works of art inspired to date by the Trump presidency.
So even a political monoculture like that of the American theater can criticize the fruits of its own one-sidedness. But can such a culture produce any other kind of art? Or might the Theater of Trump be inherently flawed in a way that prevents it from transcending its limitations?F rom Aristophanes to Angels in America, politics has always been a normal part of the subject matter of theater. Not until the end of the 19th century, though, did a major playwright emerge whose primary interest in writing plays was political rather than aesthetic. George Bernard Shaw saw himself less as an artist than as a propagandist for the causes to which he subscribed, which included socialism, vegetarianism, pacifism, and (late in his life) Stalinism. But Shaw took care to sugar the political pill by embedding his preoccupations in entertaining comedies of ideas, and he was just as careful to make his villains as attractive—and persuasive-sounding—as his heroes.
In those far-off days, the English-speaking theater world was more politically diverse than it is today both on and off stage. It was only in the late ’40s that the balance started to shift, at first slowly, then with steadily increasing speed. In England, this ultimately led to a theater in which it is now common to find explicit political statements embedded not merely in plays but also in such commercial musicals as Billy Elliot, a show about the British miners’ strike of 1984 in which a chorus of children sings a holiday carol whose refrain runs as follows: “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / Cause it’s one day closer to your death.”
As this example suggests, postwar English political theater is consumed with indictments of the evils arising from the existence of a rigid class system. American playwrights, by contrast, are typically more inclined to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, both of whose plays portray (albeit for different reasons) the spiritual and emotional poverty of middle-class life. In both countries, most theater is neither explicitly nor implicitly political. Nevertheless, the theater communities of England and America have for the last half-century or so been all but unanimous in their offstage political convictions. This means that when an English-language play is political, the views that it embodies will almost certainly be left-liberal.
This unanimity of opinion is responsible for what I called, in a 2009 Commentary essay about Miller, the “theater of concurrence.”1 Its practitioners, presumably because all of their colleagues share their political views, take for granted that their audiences will also share them. Hence they write political plays in which no attempt is made to persuade dissenters to change their minds, it being assumed that no dissenters are present in the theater. In the theater of concurrence, disagreement with left-liberal orthodoxy is normally taken to be the result either of invincible ignorance or a deliberate embrace of evil. In the U.S. and England alike, it has become rare to see old-fashioned Shavian political plays like David Hare’s Skylight (1995) in which the devil (in this case, a Thatcherite businessman in love with an upper-middle-class do-gooder) is given his due. Instead, we get plays whose villains are demoniacal monsters (Tony Kushner’s fictionalized portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America is an example) rather than flawed humans who, like Tom in Skylight, have reached the point of no moral return.
All this being the case, it makes perfect sense that Donald Trump’s election should have come as so disorienting a shock to the American theater community, which took for granted that he was unelectable. No sooner were the votes tallied than theater people took to social media to angrily declare their unalterable resistance to the Trump presidency. Many of them believe both Trump and his supporters to be, in Hillary Clinton’s oft-quoted phrase, members of “the basket of deplorables . . . racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
What kind of theater is emerging from this shared belief? Building the Wall, the first dramatic fruit of the Trump era, is a two-character play set in the visiting room of a Texas prison. It takes place in 2019, by which time President Trump has been impeached after having responded to the detonation of a nuclear weapon in Times Square by declaring nationwide martial law and locking up every foreigner in sight. The bomb, it turns out, was a “false flag” operation planted not by terrorists but by the president’s men. Rick, the play’s principal character, has been imprisoned for doing something so unspeakably awful that he and his interlocutor, a sanctimonious black journalist who is interviewing him for a book, are initially reluctant to talk about it. At the end of an hour or so of increasingly broad hints, we learn that Rick helped the White House set up a Nazi-style death camp for illegal immigrants.
Schenkkan has described Building the Wall as “not a crazy or extreme fantasy,” an inadvertently revealing remark. It is possible to spin involving drama out of raging paranoia, but that requires a certain amount of subtlety, not to mention intelligence—and there is nothing remotely subtle or intelligent about Building the Wall. Rick is a blue-collar cartoon, a regular-guy Texan who claims not to be a racist but voted for Trump because “all our jobs were going to Mexico and China and places like that and then the illegals here taking what jobs are left and nobody gave a damn.” Gloria, his interviewer, is a cartoon of a different kind, a leftsplaining virtue signal in human form who does nothing but emit smug speeches illustrating her own enlightened state: “I mean, at some point in the past we were all immigrants, right, except for Native Americans. And those of us who didn’t have a choice in the matter.” The New York production of Building the Wall closed a month ahead of schedule, having received universally bad reviews (the New York Times described it as “slick and dispiriting”).
The Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, by contrast, received mixed but broadly positive reviews. But it, too, was problematic, albeit on an infinitely higher level of dramatic accomplishment. Here, the fundamental problem was that Eustis had superimposed a gratuitous directorial gloss on Shakespeare’s play. There have been many other high-concept productions of Julius Caesar, starting with Orson Welles’s 1937 modern-dress Broadway staging, which similarly transformed Shakespeare’s play into an it-can-happen-here parable of modern-day fascism. But Eustis’s over-specific decision to turn Caesar into a broad-brush caricature of Trump hijacked the text instead of illuminating it. Rather than allowing the audience to draw its own parallels to the present situation, he pandered to its prejudices. The result was a quintessential example of the theater of concurrence, a staging that undercut its not-inconsiderable virtues by reducing the complexities of the Trump phenomenon to little more than boob-baiting by a populist vulgarian.
Darko Tresjnak committed a venial version of the same sin in his Hartford Stage revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919), which opened around the same time as Building the Wall and Julius Caesar. Written in the wake of World War I, Heartbreak House is a tragicomedy about a group of liberal bohemians who lack the willpower to reconstruct their doomed society along Shaw’s preferred socialist lines. Tresjnak’s lively but essentially traditional staging hewed to Shaw’s text in every way but one: He put a yellow Trump-style wig on Boss Mangan, the bloated, parasitical businessman who is the play’s villain. The effect was not unlike dressing a character in a play in a T-shirt with a four-letter word printed across the chest. The wig triggered a loud laugh on Mangan’s first entrance, but you were forced to keep on looking at it for the next two hours, by which time the joke had long since grown numbingly stale. It was a piece of cheap point-making unworthy of a production that was otherwise distinguished.How might contemporary theater artists engage with the Trump phenomenon in a way that is both politically and artistically serious?
For playwrights, the obvious answer is to follow Shaw’s own example by allowing Trump (or a Trump-like character) to speak for himself in a way that is persuasive, even seductive. Shaw himself did so in Major Barbara (1905), whose central character is an arms manufacturer so engagingly urbane that he persuades his pacifist daughter to give up her position with the Salvation Army and embrace the gospel of high explosives. But the trouble with this approach is that it is hard to imagine a playwright willing to admit that Trump could be persuasive to anyone but the hated booboisie.
Then there is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which transferred to Broadway last March after successful runs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. First performed in the summer of 2015, around the time that Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Sweat is an ensemble drama about a racially diverse group of unemployed steel workers in Reading, the Pennsylvania city that has become synonymous with deindustrialization. Trump is never mentioned in the play, which takes place between 2000 and 2008 and is not “political” in the ordinary sense of the word, since Nottage did not write it to persuade anyone to do anything in particular. Her purpose was simply to show how the people of Reading feel, and try to explain why they feel that way. Tightly structured and free of sermonizing, Sweat is a wholly personal drama whose broader political implications are left unsaid. Instead of putting Trump in the pillory, it takes a searching look at the lives of the people who voted for him, and it portrays them sympathetically, making a genuine good-faith attempt to understand why they chose to embrace Trumpian populism.
Sweat is a model for serious political art—artful political art, if you will. Are more such plays destined to be written about Donald Trump and his angry supporters? Perhaps, if their authors heed the wise words of Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Only the very best artists can make political art with that kind of revelatory power. Shaw and Bertolt Brecht did it, and so has Lynn Nottage. Will Tracy Letts and Beau Willimon follow suit, or will they settle for the pandering crudities of Building the Wall? The answer to that question will tell us much about the future of political theater in the Age of Trump.
1 “Concurring with Arthur Miller” (Commentary, June 2009)