“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” That line from Donald Trump’s long and emphatic speech to the Republican National Convention last Thursday jumped out at me. I think I know what he meant: that he prioritizes America’s national interests above those of the wider world.
If so, most Americans probably agree. I’d be among them. But there are complexities here that are worth unpacking.
For one, globalism is a term the media often use but seldom define. The academic literature strikes me as confusing — or perhaps just confused. From a recent tome on the subject:
“[W]e suggest that different globalisms gain part of their power to the extent that they draw on deeper taken-for-granted and dominant modern notions of time, space, embodiment and so [sic]. Again, this is not to suggest a homogenizing modernism. Older traditional and tribal ontological formations continue to ground the lives of many people and a postmodern layer of temporality-spatiality has recently emerged.
Got that? What’s more, globalism is often used as a synonym for globalization. I’d argue that they are different, that globalization is not a belief system but a process — one that is hardly new. The historian Niall Ferguson has pointed out that the Silk Road facilitated globalization prior to the Christian era.
Essentially, globalization is what happens when technologies and inventions — from steam engines to jet planes, from books to satellites, from telegraph lines to the internet — shrink the distances between places and the peoples who live in those places. In the past, empires — those with their capitals in Europe, to be sure, but also the many powerful Islamic empires that had their capitals in the Middle East — facilitated globalization as well. They spread ideas, practices, beliefs, values, foods, products, laws, languages and much else.
Policies that attempt to stop or even slow globalization are unlikely to succeed, although wars and depressions have been known to have that effect. What is useful is to devise polices to assist Americans whom globalization disadvantages.
An additional twist: To some, globalization means Americanization: McDonald’s hamburgers, Starbuck’s coffee, Hollywood movies and the “almighty dollar” as instruments of American economic and cultural imperialism. The “anti-globalization” protesters who routinely take to the streets outside meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (institutions with which I am not enamored) may be anarchists or nihilists — or just angry. Come November, most probably will not be voting for the anti-globalist Mr. Trump.
Globalism generally appeals to those on the left who disdain nationalism, regarding themselves as “citizens of the world.” They would like nation-states to surrender power and sovereignty to the United Nations and various transnational entities that claim to speak with authority — on what basis it’s unclear — about rights and international law and “fair” economic policies. Globalists want to see “progress” toward “global governance.”
I can’t imagine any conservative calling himself a globalist, but others (including Mr. Trump?) might disagree. Certainly, there are conservatives who are cosmopolitan, who have favorite restaurants in Paris and Istanbul, not to mention friends in both cities with whom they enjoy dining.
That does not imply that they find such notions as global citizenship and global governance anything other than odious. Nor are they favorably disposed toward U.N. bureaucrats who concoct international laws that judges from countries not subject to the rule of law get to interpret.
However, such conservatives are concerned about what dictators are doing both within and beyond their borders. They know that the rulers of Iran, China, Russia and North Korea do not wish America well and are expanding their capabilities to do America harm. They know that it is a mistake to ignore terrorist groups. Our enemies are not hornets that won’t hurt us if we just refrain from poking their nests. Conversely, America’s friends — particularly those willing and able to fight common enemies — deserve support.
Is President Obama a globalist? With Iran’s rulers he concluded the most consequential arms control agreement so far this century. He refused to call it a treaty because to do so would have required him to seek congressional advice and consent. He did, however, ask the U.N. Security Council for its endorsement.
On the other hand, he withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and turned a blind eye to Bashar Assad’s brutality in Syria that same year. Are those not the actions of an isolationist? Or, as a globalist, did he assume that the “international community” would tackle these crises?
Either way, the results have been tragic. They also should be edifying: The Islamic State arose from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been decimated by the “surge.” Mr. Assad, with help from Iran and Russia, has gone on to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children. The region’s ancient Christian and Yazidi communities are facing genocide. Millions of people have been displaced; many have been heading north where they may transform the character of Europe forever.
There must be a better way. I’d argue that Americanism, properly understood, is neither globalist nor isolationist. Rather, it recognizes the need for American engagement and, on significant issues, for American leadership — a commodity for which there is simply no good substitute at present.
To paraphrase a famous epigram, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph globally is for Americans to persuade themselves that what happens abroad doesn’t concern them. I’m not confident that either of the candidates running for president grasps that.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.