Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead praised President Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy as a “significant accomplishment” that “reconciles the instincts of an unconventional president with the views of a more seasoned and conventional national-security team” by turning away from globalism and embracing the “blue water” policy of the British Empire at its height.
Mead described a historical divide in Britain between the “continental strategy,” which is roughly equivalent to what we call “globalism” today, and those who advocated looking out across the “blue water” to seek the Empire’s destiny—in other words, looking in the opposite direction from continental Europe. Blue water strategists envisioned a more independent, more powerful, wealthier Britain free of continental entanglements.
Mead frames Trump’s foreign policy as the blue water answer to decades of continentalism:
In contemporary America, continentalists see the Atlantic world, and the thick institutional web that developed among the Cold War allies, as the template on which a peaceful global society can and should be built. From this perspective, the wisest American foreign policy would work through these international institutions and with Western partners to make the rest of the world look more like NATO and the European Union.
The Trump administration hews closer to the blue-water school. In the time of Pax Britannica, blue-water partisans believed Britain could accumulate great strength and wealth by advancing its interests in the wider world. This would do more to keep the country strong and respected than success in the intricate games of European diplomacy, they believed. A strong and rich Britain could always intervene in European politics if necessary to preserve the balance of power, and a globally dominant Britain would always be respected, even if it failed to make itself loved.
This is the view now driving many of America’s key foreign-policy decisions. The Trump administration sees the Paris climate accord as a potential obstacle to America’s recent exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon resources, which has upended global power politics to America’s advantage. It sees current trade agreements as unfairly privileging commercial and geopolitical rivals like China. Above all, it sees itself embroiled in a geopolitical competition with China that cannot be won by invoking principles of multilateral institution-building and maxims of international law.
He sums up Trump’s pragmatism as “Asia before Europe, realism before liberal internationalism, American prosperity before global solidarity,” and contends it cannot be caricatured as isolationism because Trump’s NSS is very clear about the need to remain engaged with the rest of the world.
Instead, the Trump approach envisions American power as both more useful and more robust than continentalist fictions like the United Nations, the European Union, and even NATO, none of which would count for much without American muscle behind them. Trump sees some long-cherished globalist objectives as important, but he doesn’t have much faith in the ability of globalist institutions to achieve them.
Over at Foreign Policy, Philip Zelikow jumps down Walter Russell Mead’s blue water throat and dismisses his argument as “wrong on so many levels,” beginning with his contention that the blue water strategists of the British Empire were the true “multinational globalists of their day” because they were big believers in global networking and free trade. They presumably liked the idea of British flags fluttering over every major node in their global network.
Zelikow stubbornly insists on equating Trump’s “America First” approach with isolationism, or at least antipathy to the “extreme interdependence” of a global society. That’s an argument guaranteed to annoy Mead and defenders of the America First approach as much as Zelikow’s equation of globalism with imperialism would horrify fashionable globalists raised to view imperialism as mankind’s ultimate sin. If there’s one thing “America First” advocates hate, it’s the lazy argument that blockheaded xenophobic isolationism is the only alternative to post-Cold War globalism.
Leaving the historians to brawl over precisely what blue water strategy meant to British politicians of the 19th Century, there is an interesting point to ponder in Zelikow’s description of how navalists had trouble dealing with “land-based strategic commitments”:
Britain had constantly been involved in continental European politics during the first half of the 19th century. Even in the sunny imperial afternoon of the late 19th century, Mead neglects to mention the omnipresent concerns about containing Russian expansion in southeast Europe and the Balkans, in South Asia, and in East Asia. Nor does he mention that this same period of naval buildup was associated with the scrambles for colonial expansion in Africa and in the Pacific, an extremely grave Far Eastern crisis over the future of China, a disastrous war in South Africa, and finally the reluctant necessity to re-engage even more intensively in continental European politics.
Mead wraps up his piece with the statement that “blue-water strategists in the Trump national-security team believe that it is American power, not multilateral institutions, that keeps the West afloat.” Power versus multilateral institutions?
If this is the dichotomy Mead draws from his glance at British imperial history, then I hope that would-be blue-water strategists will find other sources of instruction. They should at least spend a while contemplating why someone, then or now, might equate blue water with a great power’s prosperity. The prosperity is not in the water.
That doesn’t sound like the argument Mead is trying to make. Trump’s National Security Strategy doesn’t call for the dissolution of multilateral institutions; on the contrary, it explicitly calls for “strengthening even our strongest alliances” in addition to “strengthening our sovereignty.” Those are not viewed as contradictory goals.
In fact, underlying the Trump NSS is concern that over-reliance on America has made vital multilateral institutions dangerously weak. Toughening them up is vitally important, and it won’t be easy or quick.
“Together with our allies, partners, and aspiring partners, the United States will pursue cooperation with reciprocity,” the NSS declares. “Cooperation means sharing responsibilities and burdens. In trade, fair and reciprocal relationships benefit all with equal levels of market access and opportunities for economic growth. An America First National Security Strategy appreciates that America will catalyze conditions to unleash economic success for America and the world.”
That’s the only way to deal with those faraway landlocked situations that would otherwise be vexing for an independent blue water nation. America cannot be everywhere, even though vast expanses of ocean are not as great an obstacle as they used to be. The allies who are on the scene, in trouble spots around the world, must be strong enough to deal with challenges. If they aren’t strong enough, nothing would be more dangerous than to have American independence and power sunk into “continentalist” or “globalist” organisms that give less than they take. Trump’s foreign policy has been a lot more realistic than anything said at the United Nations lately.