The Implications of “The World is Not a Global Community”

| May 2017
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“The world is not a ‘global community.'”

Last year, in attempting to discern the ethical and philosophical bases of candidate Donald Trump’s approach to world affairs, the first point I made was this: “There is no such thing as an international community. The “buck” stops with the nation-state and the nation-state decides what commitments it will assume in the global arena.” This week, two senior members of the Trump administration’s national security team, the National Security Advisory H.R. McMaster and the chair of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, penned an essay in the Wall Street Journal where they confirmed that this is indeed the philosophical and ethical approach that is shaping their approach to foreign policy. As if lifting text from last year’s analysis, they write:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

This is not just meaningless verbiage or splitting of terminological hairs. When someone uses the term “international community” or “global community,” there are a set of assumptions in place: that the states which form part of this community share common values, interests, or standards; and that there are objectives which transcend the individual nations and to which states must be prepared to sacrifice some immediate benefit to achieve a common good. In turn, these assumptions can shape concrete policy choices–and in fact were part of the justifications cited by the previous Obama administration in entering into the Paris climate change accords, from which the current administration is now considering a U.S. withdrawal.

These comments suggest that while the Trump team accepts that there is an international system, it does not rise to the level of a community–a theme that has often been echoed by Chinese strategic thinkers. It also suggests that there are in fact no binding standards–political, ethical, or moral–standing above the nation-state. It further reinforces that the ethical approach being used by the administration–which I first described in a blog post during the 2016 presidential campaign–“is defined in mercantilistic and utilitarian terms: treaties, alliances, and obligations are useful only to the extent they bring immediate and observable value to the participants—and can be rejected if they no longer generate profit. Moreover, no state can have obligations imposed on it that it does not freely consent to.”

There is a secondary set of concerns. If there is no global community, is there also no trans-Atlantic / Euro-Atlantic community as well–an association of Western states bound together both by common security and political institutions (although, with the apparent demise of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, not to be connected in a common economic community) as well as acceptance of a series of shared values? Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, seems to have concluded after her meetings with President Trump (both at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization conclave and at the G-7 in Italy) that this may become a distinct possibility, with her call for Europeans (sans Americans and Britons) “to wage our own fight for our future.”

In Washington and New York, elites have taken for granted the durability of both the “global” and the “trans-Atlantic” communities, even as a growing number of Americans questioned their utility and value. I closed last year’s piece with this observation: “[I]n this election, American voters will have the opportunity to choose between two very different approaches to foreign affairs, based on different ethical assumptions.” This op-ed suggests that this assessment has proven to be correct.

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