Barely a word was heard about America’s fading claims to global leadership, or its wars and operations around the globe.
Not one. Not one reporter from the main White House press corps asked President Donald Trump during his day-after-midterm-elections press conference a single hard question about national security or the state of global affairs. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops are at war or involved in violent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Niger, Mali, and beyond. Russian warplanes are nearly kissing the wings of American aircraft. Iranian vessels are harassing U.S. warships. Special operators are killing impoverished terrorists across North Africa. North Korea still has nuclear weapons.
Why? This country couldn’t care less.
At least, that’s what you’d think, this week. The U.S. midterm elections were a referendum on many things: on Trump’s behavior, on his record, on the new liberals, on all the standard Democrat-vs.-Republican stock issues. And they were exciting. The nation’s post-Trump political awakening has been inspiring on both sides of the aisle. Liberals are rising up and organizing for women’s issues, gun control, multiculturalism and all things not Trump. Conservatives are rallying to save what they believe in, as best as they can define it, despite Trump. Trump backers are living their best life. There’s a fight for the nation’s soul underway that is so visceral, so pervasive, so violent and divisive that it is beginning to be reminiscent of the great historical schisms of our history, from the Constitutional Convention to the Civil Rights era.
But there’s one thing hardly anybody on TV is talking about right now: American leadership abroad. Everything is domestic. Everything is internal. Everything is aimed at each other. Everything is what Trump wants it to be.
I spent the weekend before Election Day in London with my son, visiting friends, stopping by the NBC News bureau, an Arsenal game, and touring the sights. When you travel abroad these days, you get asked about Trump and the state of American politics. But you also get asked about American world leadership, and what to expect next. I was asked in the pub, in Parliament, in the NBC studio. Because the U.K. is having its own similar moment, in Brexit. But as always, European countries are acutely aware of the international implications of any upheaval. In the U.S, outside national security circles, there is nearly none. The angst ends at the border.
Inside the national security community, there is a sense that today’s changes are shaping humanity’s very future. There are fears that 20th-century-style dictatorships could emerge, buoyed by their own angry electorates. There are calls for a complete realignment of the international system, one equal to the great organizing moments for the West that followed the world wars. Trump and populists call for new, revised, or destroyed international organizations to reflect a wider burden sharing. Inherent to that is a decline of American power and influence (and expense) in exchange for the rise of the same from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Some call for keeping the U.S. fighting in all corners of the earth, and some call for pulling U.S. troops home from great swaths of the earth’s surface, leaving terrorist homelands to their regional vices. There is a sense that America, once the closest thing to an end-of-history shining city on the hill, is now rapidly losing its standing. And among the traditional internationalists of America’s national security elite, there is a sense that America is about to lose it all.
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But we didn’t hear about any of this in the run-up to the midterms. I watched hours of coverage on Election Night and the day after. I heard a lot of talk about the country’s divisions. Are Americans racist or not? Are Americans women-hating misogynists or not? Are Republicans right, or are Democrats wrong? I heard about pre-existing conditions and Obamacare. I heard about immigration. I heard a lot about border politics and Trump’s pre-election stunt that has sent thousands of body armor-clad troops to the Mexico border and his claim they would shoot rock-throwing migrants. And I heard the revelation that most of those troops were going to be maintenance workers and propagandists, and the top U.S. general’s belated admission that in fact no Americans troops would be shooting at anyone anywhere near the U.S. border.
But outside those circles and their immediate press, I heard next to nothing about America’s world leadership, the state of the globe, and its place in it. I heard nothing about how any of these candidates are going to keep or return America to being the indispensable and singular leader of the free and democratic world. I heard nothing about this summer’s angst over NATO, over Europe’s unified pack-dog ascendancy to check down the government of Donald Trump. I heard nothing about how Democrats taking back the House helps or hurts America’s chances against things like China’s unflinching rise, Afghanistan’s future, or the Middle East. I heard nothing about the future of the Iran deal, the Geneva peace process for Syria, the INF Treaty with Russia, the calls to completely reimagine the international system. I heard nothing about America’s military build-up and the calls from services for massive expansions, other than Trump’s Space Force, which remains more punch line than policy.
I heard hardly anything of the U.S. military’s countless interventions encircling the globe.
The good news for national security watchers is that the incoming House freshmen include record numbers of veterans and a few built-in national security leaders, perhaps most notably in Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin, who flipped a conservative Michigan district to blue. Under Obama, Slotkin occupied what is arguably the third-highest ranking civilian policy job in the Pentagon: assistant defense secretary for international security affairs. Before that, she did three tours in Iraq as a policy analyst for CIA and briefed President George W. Bush. The woman is a qualified internationalist.
In a September profile, the Washington Post’s longtime national security reporter Greg Jaffe noted that Slotkin learned in her foreign policy days to start with the easy issues when trying to negotiate new relationships. So she listens. The issues she hears about are neighbors hating each other, the vitriol in politics, and about outsiders getting free rides with our tax dollars.
If America’s divisiveness is the easy issue, what will it take for anyone to get down the list to the harder ones like the security of the border, or even harder, what lies beyond it: America’s global leadership for the next 100 years?
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