Commentary: Permanent Interests

May 18, 2018

At Columbia College I teach and study American domestic politics.  I know only enough about foreign policy and international relations to be dangerous.  That said I willingly acknowledge that foreign and domestic policy are inseparably intertwined.  President Trump is betting that foreign policy successes will benefit him politically at home.  More about this in a minute.

I am a child of the Cold War.  It was the defining world conflict for 46 years.  Many proxy wars provided a relief valve so that the U.S. and the Soviet Union never directly fought each other.  Some of the proxy wars are household names – Korea, Vietnam – and others are more obscure like the 1980s wars in Angola and Nicaragua and Afghanistan.  Ninety thousand Americans died in Korea and Vietnam, along with millions of foreign troops and civilians.

And the USSR and U.S. had tens of thousands of missiles aimed at each other.  In 1986 at the peak there were 63,000 nuclear weapons in the world.  The war doctrine then was Mutually Assured Destruction.  But it kept the main adversaries and their proxies from escalating conflicts beyond a nuclear threshold.  Then in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.

A group of us get together for lunch from time to time to solve the world’s problems.  Last week the hot topic was obviously President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran agreement.  One of my lunch companions, riffing on the mutually-assured-destruction theme, said we are now in an era of Mutually Assured Stupidity.

I like that phrase – Mutually Assured Stupidity.  It says a lot about the era of fake news and hacker tweet storms.  Who knows for sure what is true anymore?

Well, in foreign affairs there are some self-evident truths.  We will have to see how Iran responds but it is true that there is a new dynamic in the Middle East.  We will have to see what happens on the Korean peninsula but it is true that there is a new dynamic in East Asia.  We will have to see what happens on the U.S. – Mexico border, but it is true that there is a new dynamic there and elsewhere in Latin America.  We will have to see what happens with the threatened trade wars, but it is true that there is a new dynamic in global trade.

The common denominator of all these foreign policy initiatives – Iran, Korea, the Wall, trade – is they were cornerstones of President Trump’s 2016 campaign.  He is keeping his promises, his base is eating it up, and his approval ratings are on the rise.

How will this all shake out?  Is war more likely?  Have we permanently antagonized adversaries?  Have we permanently alienated allies?  It is hard for Americans to answer these questions because of our short attention spans and perspectives.  We are better off asking Europeans and Asians, whose histories are millennia longer than ours and who are accustomed to saying – because it is true – “this too shall pass.”  Britain’s Lord Palmerston said in the 1800s that “in international relations there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”  If there is any such thing as Mutually Assured Truth, it is that quote.

A final word: Lest you think that the forgoing is a prescription for passivity or inaction, I will quote one more Mutually Assured Truth by another distinguished Brit, the philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.