Stand for Something: Our Place in the World

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Like lots of people my age who follow politics, I love The West Wing. The show encapsulated everything we wanted the political process to be during the turbulent years of the George W. Bush administration, which liberals thought was the deepest possible level of hell. One of the things the show did so well was explain why policies or actions that we might not like were important. Whether that was the result of political reality, expediency or just because it was the right thing to do. This week I learned, from real news, just how fragile America’s place in the world is.

As Americans, we take a lot for granted when it comes to international relations. America’s status as a leader on the world stage and the influence of our culture is collectively called soft power. It’s diplomacy. It’s a way to get our way without having to threaten other countries. It’s the influence of blue jeans, Harley Davidson, red Solo cups (seriously) and more. You might not think that America’s soft power affects you every day, but it does. And the best way to feel it is to travel to another country.

There’s a reason you can get by speaking English in most of the developed world. It’s not a remnant of the British Empire, but the legacy of America’s leadership during and after World War II. I’m a chemist by training. It used to be that to get a PhD in chemistry in the United States, you had to be fluent in German — because that’s where all the great chemists were, and that’s where all the most important work was published. Now, all the best scientists in nearly every discipline are American, and so the lingua franca of science has become English.

In the leadup to the 2016 election, one of the reasons establishment figures in the Democratic party told us it would be a disaster, if President Trump were elected, was because of the damage it would do to “Our Place in the World.” We would lose respect on the world stage. Like lots of people, I took the warning seriously but not literally. I was wrong.

The G7 is meeting this week. This is a group consisting of the 7 largest developed economies in the world with shared goals. It’s a lot of the usual suspects but it’s not just big economies — China isn’t a member because many of it’s goals are antithetical to the other members. Russia used to be a member, back when it was called the G8, but then they invaded Crimea and got kicked out. I want to say that it isn’t hard for the United States to stay a member of the G7, but that’s a reflexive reaction honed from growing up under generally competent presidents. That reaction is wrong.

After the recent imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on our allies, they are justifiably angry. So angry that they are seriously considering whether or not the United States belongs in the G7 anymore. From the New York Times:

“The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be,” [French President Emmanuel] Macron said Thursday in an especially acerbic tweet. “Because these 6 countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.”

It’s worth pointing out the target of their anger. Yes, they’re angry at President Trump. But that’s the proximate cause and not the source of their anger. If they thought that this was a brief period of irresponsible behavior, they might be willing to tolerate it in the same way we tolerated Silvio Berlusconi, because we knew he wasn’t a reflection of the Italian people. The real source of our allies’ anger is the realization that our government has failed to check President Trump’s behavior.

Congressional Republicans have decided that they would rather put party before country and are going to try to stay on Donny’s Wild Ride because they’re afraid of losing primary elections to extremists. And that reflects who our allies are actually angry with: Us. The American people.

It is because for 30 years, we have tolerated and enabled the Republican Party’s reality-denying shenanigans. We have failed to force them to confront the problems of climate change, nuclear proliferation, supply side economics and more. Too many Republican politicians are more worried about getting re-elected than doing right by their constituents.

This anger will come home to roost in Longmont too. Want to know how? Think of it this way: our grandparents were respected members of the world community. They gave selflessly, they acted responsibly, and the world loved them for it. Their kids, on the other hand, are pretty big screw-ups. They throw loud parties, trash the neighborhood and won’t take responsibility for their actions. If they were your neighbors, you wouldn’t want to talk to them either.

This anger is going to make it harder for American businesses to sell goods and services on the world stage. It’ll make travel harder when no one speaks your language (maybe they’ll learn Mandarin instead). Americans will become consumers of foreign fashions, foreign movies, and soon foreign technologies.

And the next thing you know, other countries will think of us the way we think of Russia.

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