“Seventy years of post-war diplomacy ruined” is the consensus establishment view of Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy. And it is true. But Donald Trump is not the first president in postwar America to rattle the iron cage of establishment diplomacy. That honor goes to Harry Truman, who ruined Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of the postwar world when he did what Roosevelt would have never done – drop two nuclear bombs on Japan.
Nor is President Trump the first postwar president to tread in Truman’s footsteps. Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did that before him. And yet, there is clearly something unprecedented in Donald Trump’s foreign policy, something akin to a paradigm shift whose roots track back to Richard Nixon’s modus vivendi with communist China, but whose long arc seems to bend toward our final liberation from the Manichean dualism that has deformed American foreign policy since the day after the bombing of Nagasaki – that is, since the day that America’s cultural elite rejected what Harry Truman had created: a world made in America’s image.
Richard Nixon secretly engineered the Sino-American rapprochement during the darkest days of the Vietnam War. Its purpose was to stifle the vaunted consequences predicted by the domino theory that would have otherwise ensued from America’s military defeat in Vietnam, to which Nixon was resigned. But Nixon also knew that America’s rapprochement with China would dislodge Russia from its vanguard position at the head of an irresistible global revolution. Denied its place of privilege, the Soviet superpower would be revealed for what it was: a standard 19th-century Great Power resting upon a territorial empire that was considerably larger than but otherwise indistinguishable from its pre-communist predecessors. Suddenly, and despite its nuclear arsenal, Soviet Russia would look remarkably like its tsarist predecessor, and its policies would quickly mimic those of the old Russian bear. Soon enough, it would become clear that the sleek Soviet boot crushing the “toiling masses” was designed deep in the tsarist hinterland not for the sake of the Revolution, but for the sake of Mother Russia.
By publicly shaking hands with Chairman Mao in “occupied Peiping,” President Nixon instantly discredited the cruel logic of global bipolarity and its demonic balance of terror upon which the postwar international system was supposedly based. In retrospect, even the actual history of the world since the bombing of Nagasaki seemed to vindicate a global political order based on something other than the stability inadvertently generated by two “MAD” (Mutual Assured Destruction) superpowers toting nuclear weapons cruelly targeted on each other’s civilian populations. That something was America’s unchallenged position as the world’s one and only superpower.
America’s dominance in world affairs was already obvious in the late 1940s, first when the American air bridge neutered the USSR’s ill conceived blockade of West Berlin and then when the Soviets tried and failed to defy the Doctrine of Containment by breaching the American monopoly in the Middle East. In the 1950s, America manifested its complete superiority over the Russians when it continued to exclude them from the oil-rich region even after the Suez War. Finally, the lack of polarity between the two “superpowers” was displayed before the entire world in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The so-called missile gap was never more than a joke by Dr. Strangelove.
But if by playing his China card, Nixon revealed the Cold War to be a colossal house of cards, why didn’t he immediately follow up his China triumph with an even more important one in Europe by flying directly from Beijing to Berlin and ordering the Soviets to “tear down this wall”? And, fifteen years later, when “Mister Gorbachev” did exactly that after Ronald Reagan finally demanded it, why did the myth of bipolarity persist?
Although the Soviet Union quickly disintegrated, America did not unveil any new unipolar international political system. Instead, America blundered through thirty years of strategic anomie, beginning with George Bush, Sr.’s cockamamie scheme to build an American global imperium, which he called the New World Order, winding its way through the trials of triangulation in which China was featured as a second communist superpower and culminating in Barack Obama’s reckless and unforgivable decision to nuclearize the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to make believe that even without a second superpower, the global balance of terror remained in place.
Apparently, the need to maintain the myth of bipolarity was so strong that successive presidents – Republicans and Democrats alike – have refused to forsake it. My question is why.
My answer is that MAD’s mythical pull is hiding inside the historical narrative, albeit never as a political reality, but as a dualistic culture of condominium and conflict between capitalism and Marxism to ensure progress in world affairs.
Let us re-evaluate the world that actually existed at the outset of the postwar years and critically compare it to this Cold War myth. This critique must begin with a clear understanding of the worldview of America’s last pre-Cold War president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the defeat of his fossilized vision of world politics, which resulted from the nuclearization of the world.
By the end of his unprecedented third term, Roosevelt knew he was dying. But he ran and won re-election in 1944 anyway, as a prisoner of his megalomania. Roosevelt was convinced that only he and Joseph Stalin had the necessary authority to construct the postwar world.
On April 1, 1945, the Allies arrived at the Elba River with a clear path to Berlin. Instead of marching forward to victory, they rested for six weeks until the Russians arrived from the east because Roosevelt and Stalin had agreed at Yalta in February that they would liberate Berlin together. Doing so symbolized their joint stewardship over the postwar world. The two great powers’ division of Europe would serve as the model for sharing the rest of the world in the tradition of 19th-century European power politics.
On V.E. Day, Franklin D. Roosevelt was already dead, but his body was not yet cold. For this reason, I suspect, Harry Truman accepted the already agreed upon division of postwar Europe. He had not the time or the loyalty of Roosevelt’s advisers to design and impose different arrangements. But President Truman refused to callously divide the rest of the world with a mass murderer, and by so doing, he liberated the world from the fossilized grip of his predecessor, at least politically.
In August of 1945, Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By so doing, he rendered Russia redundant to the postwar world order. More importantly, by nuclearizing the world, he also destroyed Roosevelt’s 19th-century vision of power politics, consigning what Henry Kissinger famously called “the World Restored” to Europe’s faded past.
Having achieved all of that, why did Harry Truman consent to the phony bipolarity that has plagued us ever since? Because, as an accidental president, Truman could do no more than liberate the nation from the trap of 19th-century real politik intended by his overbearing patrician predecessor. He succeeded in defeating Roosevelt’s political vision, but he had no way to overcome the entrenched culture that Roosevelt represented. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan succumbed to the same forces in their lonely victories over the myth of bipolarity.
But on Nov. 8, 2016, all of that was changed when the ultimate outsider was elected president after challenging not just the mortar of bipolarity’s structure, but its cultural foundation as well, which Hillary Clinton and her basket of supporters so exquisitely represented. So far, President Trump seems determined to challenge the foreign policy establishment at its sacred Manichean alter, willing to risk impeachment because he seems to understand that clearing the swamp requires two victories, one political and the other cultural. Only then will America’s global destiny as the world’s only superpower without imperial ambitions that it actually has been since 1945 become manifest, making the world a safer and better place.