A major difference between the realist-competitive line and the idealist-cooperative line is the role of institutions
I called Trump an exception, yet there are some who call him an anomaly. Implicit in their characterisation is the assumption, shared by several Sri Lankan commentators as well
Henry Kissinger, under whom the doctrine of realism reached its peak in US foreign policy, consistently criticised the belief that American values should be extended and enforced beyond American borders
The US has been grappling with the problem of how to advance its interests in the world, and throughout much of the 20th century the question boiled down to the debate between the realists and the idealists. Since the late 1970s, and particularly since the collapse of Communism, it seemed that the latter had won: liberal interventionism, which emphasised cooperation, had triumphed over hard realism, which emphasised competition. It would be wrong to distinguish these two from each other so starkly, not least because the proponents of one approach aren’t necessarily opposed to what those of the other have to say, but all the same, US foreign policy has revolved around this division.
There are some scholars, commentators, and analysts here who argue that a Joe Biden presidency won’t be that different from a Donald Trump one, at least as far as Sri Lanka and South Asia are concerned. This argument is made mostly by those on the Left.
The Sinhala nationalist line, on the other hand, is that there is a difference: a section of it prefers Trump as President, claiming that under him the US didn’t go to war, fewer drones were despatched, and the monopoly of financiers in the system was broken. None of this is true. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, on the other hand, are liberal interventionists beholden to campaign finance and lobbying, and so a Biden-Harris ticket is bad news for the country and region, if not the world. At the same time yet another section of the nationalist crowd, leaning to the Left, believes there’s no difference.
This melange of opinion and perspective shouldn’t blind us to the fact that a Biden-Harris presidency will be quite different from a Trump-Pence one. I’m not concerned here with how exactly they differ: that’s been covered many times over. What concerns me instead is how the election brings to the fore that debate between two ways of looking at the world. US foreign policy has been defined by whichever of these two dominated the foreign policy discourse. At times it has been realist, at others idealist. Trump has to be considered an exception here, because he made it a creature of a presidential coterie.
Why do I say this? A major difference between the realist-competitive line and the idealist-cooperative line is the role of institutions. Idealists, who are almost always liberals, prefer to exert US dominance by way of a “liberal” rules-based international order. Institutions play a big part in such an approach. Thus after the collapse of Communism in 1991, the US went to war emphasising the need to establish what Mangala Samaraweera calls “the three pillars of democracy, freedom and human rights.” Quoting the Bush administration, which was hardly liberal, the US would “spread the seeds of democracy.” The Trump administration, which promised “America First”, reversed this and withdrew from several multilateral initiatives: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, the UNHRC, and the WHO.
I called Trump an exception, yet there are some who call him an anomaly. Implicit in their characterisation is the assumption, shared by several Sri Lankan commentators as well, that the multilateral line toed by successive administrations from Clinton onwards was broken by the 45th president. By doing so, the latter is said to have achieved the worst of both worlds, espousing a belligerent line towards unfriendly states, including China, while doing very little to prevent the rise of these unfriendly states, particularly China.
No doubt this is a reversal from post-Cold War US foreign policy. But hardly is it anomalous. It certainly wasn’t unpredictable. As Jessica Matthews argues in a cogent, comprehensive piece in the New York Review of Books (September 2015), “five profound transformations” since the end of the Cold War “have set the conditions that the US wrestles with today.” In brief, these are the shift from diplomatic initiative to military power, the coming of age of globalisation, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the growth of China, and the shift to the East of Russia.
Matthews wrote her article more than a year before Trump’s election, yet it is a prescient piece: US foreign policy, she avers, “is not as sharply defined as it once was.” Owing to the lacuna, Trump could step in and shape it to his will.
Sri Lanka did not face the brunt of the idealist-interventionist line during the Yahapalana years because the man in charge of the White House surrounded himself with an inward looking and aggressive Alt-Right troupe. The paradox of Trump’s presidency has been that while it emphasised militarism, it did so ineffectually. That explains why it didn’t, or rather couldn’t, emulate the success of its predecessors in enforcing regime change in other parts of the world. One recalls what Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, tweeted about the return to power of Evo Morales’ party in Bolivia a year after a US supported coup installed a right-wing evangelist there: “The Trump-Rubio doctrine of Incompetent Imperialism.”
The foreign policy arm of the Yahapalana Government, headed predominantly by those allied with the liberal-interventionist side, could not assert themselves simply because the US was mired in “incompetent imperialism.” Thus after John Kerry, Nisha Biswal, and the grande dame of humanitarian interventionism, Samantha Power, visited the country, we saw a return to the principles of popular sovereignty in Sri Lanka, even as it took sides in the UN against its policy of non-alignment and sponsored a resolution against itself at Geneva. With Biden-Harris, conversely, we could see a restoration of principles that would have been realised in full here, on home soil, had Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Writing three months before Trump’s coming to power, Samantha Power made the case for reality over realism. Henry Kissinger, under whom the doctrine of realism reached its peak in US foreign policy, consistently criticised the belief that American values should be extended and enforced beyond American borders. Effective diplomacy, he wrote, should be achieved “by staying focused on managing the relations between nations” instead of institutions and individuals. Wrong, Power politely dissented: the way other governments treat their citizens matter too, especially to the US. I don’t buy this idealist-interventionist argument, but four years after receding from view, we may well see it re-emerge. Whether or not it bodes well for our government, we shall have to wait and watch.