The Dangerous Stupidity of American Unilateralism

American unilateralism and exceptionalism led to 62 needless deaths on May 14, 2018. Around 62 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops on that day.

The United States is partially to blame because the clashes were triggered by a meaningless yet dangerous publicity stunt staged by an American politician President Donald J. Trump (R-New York). The stunt was the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which infuriated many poor and desperate Palestinians.

The embassy itself is meaningless symbolism and a waste of American tax money. Yet people are dying and being injured because of it. Quartz estimated the death toll on 14 May; the day of the embassy opening ceremony, at 62 Palestinians – fortunately no Israeli soldiers were killed in the clashes.

Palestinians are dying because of American politics

The ultimate cause of the deaths was American exceptionalism; the belief that the United States can ignore the rest of world and do whatever it pleases. That leads to unilateralism a foreign policy in which the United States does whatever it wants and ignores the consequences to other countries.

Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, a stupid action rejected by every president since Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) is unilateralism because almost every other nation in the world opposes it. Worst of all, the move was made for the benefit of a small segment of American’s evangelical Christian voting bloc.

To see kind of moronic minority that Trump is pandering here read this excellent Vox piece about brain-dead pseudo-Baptist pastor Robert Jefferies. Jefferies apparently believes in the obscure; stupid and decidedly unchristian and unbiblical millennial heresy that God mandated the creation of Israel and the embassy move in order to usher in the Last Days and the Second Coming.

There is no indication that Trump takes this nonsense seriously, but he needs the votes of the tiny minority that does. So he panders to those fools by moving the embassy to Jerusalem – right in time for the 2018 midterm Congressional elections in which Republicans appear to be headed to defeat in a number close races.

Evangelical Christians make up around 17% of the American population but 81% of them voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election. The Donald was repaying those people with a symbolic action that is very bad for Israel. The hope is that they will repeat that performance in December.

The embassy stupidity might ultimately put America and Americans in danger from terrorism simply to buy a few votes. Many more Americans will pay the price with a higher tax bill necessitated by the increased military and security spending needed to protect America from that terrorism.

Some young Americans in uniform might end up paying the ultimate price fighting Islamic terrorists enraged by Trump’s action on the battlefield. The Israeli people will pay the price of more terrorist attacks, and military actions.

Unilateralism is the problem Not Trump

Trump’s actions are reprehensible but he is far from alone. Almost every American political leader of the past 30 years shares some blame for the mess in Israel and the catastrophe in the Middle East.

Congress has far more guilt than Trump because it could have simply refused to pay for the building of the new embassy. My guess is that the Donald would have jumped for joy had he heard there was no money for the embassy move enabling him to forget about the issue.

Yet the monstrosity got financed because Republican members of Congress need the votes of evangelical Christians. Democratic members of Congress need to be criticized for not seriously trying to stop the embassy funding. Congressional Democrats just had no problem throttling another piece of legislation they hated; the Farm Bill, so they could have easily killed the embassy project.

The Age of Unilateralism

Beyond Congress, Trump’s predecessors and their enablers in the media need to be singled out. Unilateralism has been America’s foreign policy for the past 26 years since the end of the Cold War. We live in what might be called “The Age of Unilateralism.

President Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) was the first modern unilateralist; he completely ignored foreign policy and refused to take any stands on it good or bad. Clinton’s foreign policy consisted of “do nothing but stage lots of photo ops with foreign leaders wearing funny hats to fool the voters into thinking you are doing something.”

George W. Bush (R-Texas) adopted the policy of aggressive knee-jerk response to foreign threats or problems. Bush had no real policy but he responded aggressively to the crisis of the week and paid lip service to the idea of an American crusade for democracy around the world. The worst aspect of Bush’s foreign policy was unlimited military action against specific countries.

Barrack Obama (D-Illinois) gave us a watered-down unilateralism marked by the occasional speech in foreign countries and a lot of backroom diplomacy. Disturbingly, Obama intensified many of Bush’s military actions and dropped the pretense that America should do anything overseas other than killing its enemies.

The worst part of the age of unilateralism is that the American establishment, media, business, and voters went along with it. Largely because casualties were light, taxes were low, and September 11, gave the White House carte blanche for unlimited military action.

There also many people that profit from unilateralism ranging from State Department bureaucrats to defense contractors to the military, security, and intelligence bureaucracies. All of whom have little incentive to seek alternatives to unilateralism, and many of whom profit directly or indirectly from the conflicts it creates.

The Danger from Unilateralism

History proves that unilateralism is an extremely dangerous policy. A major cause of World War I was Imperial Germany’s increasingly unilateralist foreign policy which was driven by exceptionalism. The Germans felt they were exempt from international standards, and entitled to use military force to solve their problems.

Japanese unilateralism and exceptionalism were among the major causes of World War II. The Japanese military felt free to do whatever it wanted and attack any other country which led to Pearl Harbor and ultimately Hiroshima. It was the failure of the world’s powers to stop Japanese aggression in China that inspired the terrible trio of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin to embark upon their own unilateralist adventures, paving the way for World War II.

The Cold War broke out because of Soviet exceptionalism; the Russian Communists believed their ideology exempted them from international standards. The leaders in the Kremlin felt they could ignore other nations and engage in dangerous military adventures all over the world. That nearly led to World War III during the Cuban missile crisis.

There are some serious differences between American unilateralism and its predecessors. There is no ideology or imperialist agenda behind American unilateralism only arrogance and short-sightedness. Nor is America interested in conquest or empire building.

Unilateralism in a number of countries including Russia and Britain is a growing threat to peace in today’s world. The greatest danger is China which has a long history of unilateralism that is far more arrogant and imperialistic than anything the United States has ever attempted.

The worst threat from American unilateralism is that it encourages similar behavior in other countries. The Chinese, who are now growing as rich and as powerful as Americans, think they now free to act like Americans; or worse act like 18th Century Chinese imperialists.

The last time, China was the world’s largest and richest country; under the Qinq Dynasty in the 18th Century, it was the most unilateralist power in human history. A prime example of Qing arrogance was the Qianglong Emperor; who refused to talk to British diplomat George Macartney because Macartney would not grovel or kowtow before him in 1793.

Fifty-seven years later, the Xianfeng Emperor might have wished his predecessor had shown a little humility. That Emperor fled Beijing after invading British troops looted and burned some of his palaces.

Ending the Age of Unilateralism

The good news is that there is little or no popular support for unilateralism in America or elsewhere. For all his bluster, Trump was elected on a policy of scaling back American commitments and military involvements. That means the Donald is likely to get more peaceful and diplomatic as the 2020 elections approach.

The problem is that the American establishment on both sides of the aisle is committed to unilateralism and blinded by arrogant exceptionalism. Republican foreign policy discussions are dominated by neoconservatives bankrolled by defense contractors.

The Democratic foreign policy is a mishmash of special interests, Wilsonian crusades for “human rights,” and mindless faith in “diplomacy.” Democrats would simply move money from the bloated Defense Department bureaucracy to the bloated State Department bureaucracy; which is even less effective at dealing with world problems than the Pentagon.

There are of course good alternatives to unilateralism including the United Nations, international law, and multilateral arrangements. These alternatives are ignored because there are few ways for Americans to make money from them. The UN is the best hope, but it has mismanaged and badly neglected.

UN peacekeeping; which can be a highly effective alternative to military intervention, is sloppy, unorganized, and unprofessional, The American Conservative’s Ross March noted. Peacekeeping is a mess despite the spending of $7 billion a year; around $1.5 billion of which is contributed by American taxpayers.

One problem is that the current peacekeeping forces are often made up of poorly trained, badly equipped, and underpaid Third World soldiers. A far greater dilemma is that there is no good organization or leadership for peacekeeping. There is no real peacekeeping command or formal training for peacekeepers.

That is tragic because effective UN Peacekeeping would be the best way to end the conflicts in Palestine, Syria and Ukraine. It would also be an excellent alternative to the massive US military presence in Korea and expensive NATO deployments.

An obvious solution here would be for the United States to take the lead in organizing a fulltime professional UN Peacekeeping Organization. Something that President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) supported back in 1945. Such a structure might commit nations like China to peacekeeping and multilateralism and protect American sovereignty and interests in a world with a weaker United States.

Another answer is for the US to step back and let other nations like China or India take the lead in sorting out the messes in Ukraine, Israel, and Syria. I imagine Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu would start behaving themselves and obeying international law if there were Chinese peacekeepers in Syria and Ukraine.  That of course will require a multilateral foreign policy which will require new thinking in Washington D.C.

Such a paradigm shift will only occur when popular opposition to the unilateralist foreign policy develops in the United States. That seems unlikely because of the low price average Americans pay for unilateralism. Given present-day American political realities I imagine we will be stuck with the unilateralist foreign policy and the death toll it racks up for the foreseeable future.