Ronald Reagan viewed America as a “shining city upon a hill.” His vision saw America holding the torch of liberty for the world to see – a shining example of the power and prosperity that can flow from freedom, liberty, and democracy. That our power comes from our freedom, not despite it, and that our power will be used to protect and project the truth to world, along with our democratic values.
You might call this a “right makes might” worldview. A worldview that has grown and flourished in the years following World War 2, its basic assumption is that America is powerful because its institutions – freedom, democracy, capitalism – are right and just.
Compare this to the worldview shared between autocrats like Vladimir Putin and the alt-right, who see the world as a proverbial game board where those with the power to do so have not only the right to bully the others, but the moral obligation. Those who share this worldview believe that a nation should project whatever power it has on the world stage, and that this strategy, when followed by all nations, brings about peace and prosperity.
The problem with this is that it isn’t new. This nationalistic, might-makes-right strategy, has already been tested. And it failed miserably. What inevitably happens when many powerful nations believe they have more sovereignty over less powerful nations is conflict – and after industrialization, conflict is more costly than it is worth. The world has benefited tremendously from what was envisioned by Woodrow Wilson and has evolved since 1945 – a globe of interconnected, cooperating nations that work together for the common good. Through this cooperation, nations can achieve together what they cannot do alone.
This was the basic premise of the Paris Agreement. A nonbinding voluntary “gentleman’s agreement” that laid the framework for all nations to make a conscious effort at reducing carbon emissions for the benefit of all. The success of this agreement, being nonbinding, relied on the most powerful countries to lead the way.
America was supposed to be one of the leaders. Leading the world into a 21st century energy economy would have been another opportunity for the United States to prove that it is still “a shining city upon a hill,” an example for the rest of the world to look up to and emulate. Instead, the president Thursday rolled back that leadership, leaving the world to look for a new leader – a new “shining city upon a hill,” which now looks like it could be Europe, or China, or whoever may step into the leadership void. It was a powerful signal to the world that we don’t care about you any more, and that you are on your own.
Even more than this however, Trump’s foreign policy reflects a pivot away from what has treated the world very well in the years since World War 2. Abandoning global cooperation, abandoning leadership by example in an attempt to bully the rest of the world in a might-makes-right approach to foreign policy is already beginning to backfire. We are alienating the allies that have helped us push for democracy, freedom, and capitalism throughout the world, against the forces of totalitarianism and communism. This isn’t some left-wing “sissy” view of the world. This used to be bipartisan, shared by Republican and Democrat leaders alike.
Evan McMullin, the conservative independent presidential candidate in 2016, had this to say about it, “We left this model behind after the great world wars and have benefited from a lack of their return since. Our system since has been rules-based in which all nations, no matter how weak or powerful, have the same claim to sovereignty and justice. The ‘might makes right’ philosophy, whether in foreign or domestic affairs, is an assault on truth. It presupposes that there is neither right nor wrong, but only political or military power. Where political or military power determine what is ‘right,’ there is no truth because power is dynamic and changes hands regularly. Where there is no truth, there is neither liberty nor equality, thus the reason authoritarians adopt populism so readily. There is truth!”
Reagan knew this, he knew the power of leading by example, of truth, of supporting and cooperating with our strongest allies. Why are conservatives abandoning the philosophies of their heroes, the same heroes whose name they still cite as examples of what is possible with conservative leadership?