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 it would seem that the latter had won: liberal idealism, 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 commentators 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 is 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 bankers and financiers, and so a Biden-Harris ticket is bad news for the country. 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 turned in into 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 rules-based international order. Institutions play a big part there.
Thus after the collapse of Communism 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, hardly liberal, the US would “spread the seeds of democracy.” The Trump administration, which won the vote promising “America First”, reversed this and withdrew from several multilateral initiatives.
I called Trump an exception, yet there are some who call him an anomaly. Implicit in their characterisation is the assumption that the multilateral line toed by successive administrations from Bill 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 while doing little to prevent the rise of these unfriendly states.
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 piece in the New York Review of Books (“What Foreign Policy for the US?”, September 24, 2015), “five profound transformations” since the end of the Cold War “have set the conditions that the US wrestles with today.” 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 Russia’s shift to the East. US foreign policy, Matthews avers in her piece, “is not as sharply defined as it once was.” Owing to the lacuna, Trump could step in and shape it to his will.
The paradox of Trump’s presidency has been that while it emphasised militarism, it did so ineffectually. That explains why it didn’t, or 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’s party in Bolivia a year after a US supported coup installed a rightwing evangelist there: “The Trump-Rubio doctrine of Incompetent Imperialism.”
The liberal-idealist arm of the yahapalana government could not assert itself because the US was mired in “incompetent imperialism.” Thus after John Kerry, Nisha Biswal, and Samantha Power visited the country, we saw a return to the principles of popular sovereignty, even as we took sides in the UN against our policy of nonalignment and sponsored a resolution against ourselves at Geneva. With Biden-Harris, conversely, we will probably see a restoration of principles that would have been realised in full in Sri Lanka had Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Writing three months before Trump’s election win, Samantha Power made the case for reality over realism. Henry Kissinger, under whom the doctrine of realism reached its peak, criticised the belief that US values should be extended and enforced beyond US 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 the present Sri Lankan government, we shall have to wait and watch.