What makes a great president? For many observers of American presidents, it is character. In my civilian life, I reviewed restaurants for The Detroit Metro Times. In that capacity, I observed people eating and drinking, activities that sometimes reveal character.
Category: Policy Roundtables
The 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the tenth such event, will be held from 27 April to 22 May in New York. One of the most important and controversial pillars of the global nuclear order will be evaluated there. The NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Its ratification was a milestone in nuclear history and gradually developed into a centerpiece of the liberal international order. The NPT was the first joint international arms control treaty signed by the Soviet Union and the United States. With it, the Soviet government led by Leonid Brezhnev turned definitively away from demanding a complete ban on nuclear weapons, which had informed Soviet nuclear policy between 1946 and the mid-1960s. The NPT encompassed a threefold strategy that aimed first at preventing further proliferation, second at reducing existing arsenals, and third at the promotion of non-military nuclear technology under the condition of compliance with a safeguards system based on inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In the ongoing saga of contemporary populism, France’s Yellow Vest movement has sounded something like the other shoe dropping. In 2016, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election shattered prevailing political orthodoxies by mobilizing populations around a potent cocktail of xenophobia, protectionism, and sovereignism. Forces with a family resemblance to these movements are calling the shots in Italy, Hungary, and Poland. Yet while France had for years been a major breeding ground of far-right ideas, it seemed, in its May 2017 presidential election, to dodge the populist bullet: Emmanuel Macron’s triumph over Marine Le Pen was widely touted as a victory of hope, tolerance, and internationalism over fear, hate, and nationalist retrenchment.Continue reading
A growing but not pleasurable sport has taken hold among people who know and care about American political history. It is trying to guess which deceased leader is spinning fastest in her or his grave over the presidency of Donald Trump.
The idea of a liberal rules-based international order has taken a beating lately, not just from the Trump presidency but also in the pages of academic and policy publications. The administration in Washington argues that the liberal order in the post-Cold War world no longer serves U.S. interests. While this argument deserves scrutiny in light of China’s spectacular rise within the order, academic writing has instead focused more on the fact that notions of the liberal order are simply “myth” and “nostalgia.” Critics allege that the liberal international rules-based order was never truly liberal, international, rules-based, or orderly. In this vein, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections is not a cause but rather a symptom of the longer-term decline in the various pillars of the order: capitalism, multilateralism, and democracy.
The presidency of Donald Trump is the strangest act in American history; unprecedented in form, in style an endless sequence of improvisations and malapropisms. But in substance there is continuity, probably much more than is customarily recognized. It is hard to recognize the continuity, amid the daily meltdowns (and biennial shutdowns), but it exists. In large measure Trump has been a Republican president, carrying out a Republican agenda. His attack on the regulatory agencies follows a Republican script. His call for a prodigious boost to military spending, combined with sharp cuts in taxes, has been the Republican program since the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. His climate skepticism corresponds with that of Republican leaders in Congress. On trade and immigration, Trump has departed most radically from Bush Republicanism, but even in that regard Trump’s policies harken back to older traditions in the Grand Old Party. He is different in character and temperament from every Republican predecessor as president, yet has attached himself to much of the traditional Republican program.
While campaigning for President in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump never missed an opportunity to attack the major foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, European Union, China, and Russia in June 2015 that halted Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Criticizing the deal had been popular among Obama’s detractors, but Trump’s denunciations were particularly vociferous. “My number one priority,” he declared, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He called it a “terrible” deal, one negotiated “in desperation,” which he vowed to rip up as soon as he took office. Iran came up, again and again, as yet another area where the Obama Administration had surrendered U.S. interests and initiative.
The U.S. government’s across-the-board hardening in pushing back against a range of Chinese challenges to American interests emerged erratically after the start of the Trump administration in 2017 but it has demonstrated remarkable momentum over the past year.
Since the start of the twentieth century, when the White House first became “a full-time propaganda machine,” the president’s relationship with the media has been in a state of constant flux. The underlying cause has been the media’s technological evolution, from its newspaper and magazine roots to the radio and television era, and finally to the modern landscape of cable broadcasting and the internet. With the addition of each new media form, presidents have faced fresh challenges related to coordination, speed, and packaging. But the more innovative among them—William McKinley in the newspaper age, Franklin D. Roosevelt in the radio era, and John F. Kennedy with the advent of television—managed to devise new ways of dealing with the altered landscape, which their successors then copied.
Popular support for extremist parties is on the rise in liberal democracies today. In both new and well-established liberal democratic states, extremists are gaining government appointments and seats in legislative assemblies. As they gain power, they are better situated to enact their illiberal and antidemocratic goals into law and even alter their constitutions. The Fidesz Party of Hungary and the Law and Justice Party of Poland exemplify this trend. Both parties have used their democratic mandate to dismantle fundamental features of liberal constitutionalism and entrench their rule. Most recently, Fidesz stated it will use its supermajority in parliament to amend the constitution to read that “The protection of Hungary’s self-identity and its Christian culture is the duty of all state organizations”—threatening religious liberty and minorities’ rights. The Law and Justice Party just passed a law that enabled it to purge judges who are critical of the party from the courts, including the Supreme Court—undermining the balance of powers. Wherever extremists have gained control, they have adopted these sorts of tactics to realize their political goals. Broadly speaking, these tactics include weakening checks by the judiciary and administration on the legislative and executive branches by purging opposition judges and officials and replacing them with loyalists; consolidating power by altering election laws and amending the constitution to favor parliament and the executive; bullying and silencing the opposition within the legislature; weakening the rights that enable civil society to challenge and check the legislative and executive branches; and, finally, stoking racist, xenophobic, and anti-pluralist sentiments to mobilize their electoral base.