Donald Trump’s rise fundamentally changed how Max Boot sees the world.
Before the mogul’s election, Boot was the kind of right-wing apparatchik who decried Brown v. Board of Education as an attack on the Constitution, and derided all dissent from neoconservative foreign policy as mindless isolationism. Today, Boot is the kind of very serious thinker who says that the conservative movement was wrong to oppose civil rights — and derides all dissent from neoconservative foreign policy as mindless isolationism.
The #NeverTrump apostate performs that latter task in a Washington Post column titled “The Democrats need a new foreign policy — one that doesn’t sound like Trumpism of the left.” In said piece, Boot observes that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders oppose some aspects of U.S. foreign policy that Donald Trump once pretended to oppose — and concludes that this means the far-left’s geopolitical vision is largely indistinguishable from the president’s.
Boot’s Exhibit A: Elizabeth Warren claims that America’s trade policies have advanced the interests of monied elites while hurting the working class — while many of America’s foreign policies have squandered precious resources on misbegotten wars that destabilized the Middle East:
President Trump has launched trade wars and undermined our allies while kowtowing to tyrants. And the Democrats? They don’t have much of a foreign policy, and when the party’s progressives propound one, the results sound like Trumpism of the left.
Here, for example, is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) writing in Foreign Affairs: “While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected. Efforts to promote the United States’ own security have soaked up huge resources and destabilized entire regions, and meanwhile, U.S. technological dominance has quietly eroded … To fight back, we need to pursue international economic policies that benefit all Americans, not merely an elite few.”
How is this different from what Trump says? The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is as ready to abandon free trade as the Trumpified GOP — and as willing to criticize money spent for nation-building abroad as a giveaway to foreigners that would better be directed toward domestic needs.
Boot never engages with the substance of Warren’s claims. He does not produce evidence demonstrating that the major trade agreements of the past three decades prioritized the interests of all Americans above those of economic elites. He does not explain why Warren is wrong to believe that, under a different policy regime, globalization could work better for ordinary Americans. Instead, he simply asserts that the status-quo rules governing global commerce are synonymous with “free trade” — and thus, that anyone who criticizes those rules is a mindless protectionist, and thus, is just like Trump. Ironically, in its demagogic dishonesty, Boot’s argument is itself rather Trumpian!
In the very essay Boot cites, Warren makes her support for globalized trade quite clear; in fact, one of her critiques of Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA is that it is too protective of America’s pharmaceutical industry. By expanding patent protections for U.S. drugmakers both the new NAFTA and (the dearly departed) Trans-Pacific Partnership actually restricted free trade in prescription medicines. In many cases, modern free-trade agreements are less about “freeing” trade than legislating how the gains of trade will be distributed, and what legal rights investors, consumers, and workers will enjoy in the global economy (for example, the debate over TPP was, in part, a debate over whether investors should have the right to sue countries that implement regulations they don’t like in a global super-court run by corporate lawyers). By conjuring a fictional choice between “free trade” and “protectionism,” centrist pundits like Boot suppress debate over what America’s priorities in trade negotiations should be.
Don’t believe me? Here is how Warren summarizes her vision for trade in the essay that Boot cites:
Donald Trump campaigned against [a] rigged system. But after two years in office, it is clear that his economic policies are beyond inept; they are deliberately rigged in favor of his family and his wealthy friends. His renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement raises drug prices for consumers while doing little to stem the flow of good jobs going to other countries. His tariffs have hit farming communities hard and driven trading partners into the arms of U.S. competitors …
To make sure that globalization benefits middle-class Americans, trade negotiations should be used to curtail the power of multinational monopolies and crack down on tax havens. Workers should be meaningfully represented at the negotiating table, and the resulting agreements should be used to raise and enforce labor standards. Washington should also work with like-minded allies to hold countries that cheat to account.
Boot’s appraisal of progressive foreign-policy thinking is no more honest or incisive. After insinuating that Warren wishes to cut aid to foreigners (rather than to cut spending on Pentagon pork and preemptive wars), Boot complains that Warren fails to explain how she “can stand up to authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia while cutting defense spending.”
But this is flatly untrue. In her essay, Warren observes that the U.S. is spending more in real dollars on its annual military budget today than it did under Ronald Reagan. She then suggests that this excessive military spending is coming at the expense of investment in effective diplomacy and cybersecurity:
Some challenges, such as cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation, require much more than a strong military to combat. And other dangers, such as climate change and the spread of infectious diseases, cannot be solved through military action at all. The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense in the 2018–19 fiscal year alone. That is more in real terms than was spent under President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War and more than all the rest of the country’s discretionary budget put together. But even as Washington spends more and more, U.S. military leaders point out that funding a muscular military without robust diplomacy, economic statecraft, support for civil society, and development assistance only hamstrings American national power and undercuts any military gains.
Boot never explains why the U.S. needs a $700 billion military budget to effectively stand up to authoritarian regimes. And it is not clear why the burden of proof on that score should rest with the politician arguing that this historically large budget can be pared back some — especially when one remembers that the Pentagon recently copped to losing track of $800 million.
Among Boot’s other arguments against “Trumpism of the left”: People who criticize America’s regime-change wars in the Middle East are irresponsible because “ungoverned areas” breed terrorism and crime. As he writes:
“Far too often,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said at Westminster College in September, “American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm.” Trump, too, wants to scale back foreign interventions. He is pulling out of Syria and drawing down in Afghanistan. Neither Democrats nor Republicans will make a principled argument for nation-building conducted by small numbers of soldiers, diplomats and aid workers: namely, that it is far cheaper to help foreign governments control their own territory than to deal with the terrorism, crime and disease that flourish in ungoverned areas.
One can coherently argue that progressives are unduly blithe about the consequences of abruptly withdrawing U.S. troops from misbegotten interventions. But one can’t coherently argue that anyone who says, “American military power has produced unintended consequences” is foolish because failed states are dangerous. (The dangers inherent to failed states are precisely why American intervention has produced incalculable harm in the Middle East.)
Finally, Boot suggests that, if it is wrong for Donald Trump to blame Robert Mueller for America’s bad relations with Russia, then surely it is also wrong for Bernie Sanders to say that America’s decision to overthrow Iran’s democracy — and install a brutal dictator — played some role in empowering anti-American forces in that country.
Like Trump, who blames bad relations with Russia on former president Barack Obama and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the progressives sound as though many of the world’s problems are made in America — rather than in Moscow, Tehran or Beijing. Sanders even included in his Westminster speech a long list of U.S. misdeeds, such as the overthrow of the shah of Iran and of Salvador Allende in Chile.
Again, Boot never bothers to explain why it is wrong to believe that the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh’s government contributed to the world’s current problems, nor why it was wrong for Sanders to acknowledge U.S. misdeeds in a speech on U.S. foreign policy. Instead, he presents the fact that Sanders’s claim shares a syntactical structure with something Donald Trump once said as dispositive evidence that the former’s foreign policy is unserious, if not malevolent.
In sum, Max Boot deploys bald-faced misrepresentations of his opponents’ arguments, empty slogans with no concrete meaning, and appeals to American chauvinism to stigmatize all dissent from his own ill-considered intuitions.
The foreign-policy Establishment needs better public intellectuals — ones whose worldview doesn’t sound like Trumpism of the center.