The fact is, gentlemen, it seems there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages … which is more important and more advantageous than all other advantages, for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honor, peace, prosperity—in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Undergound
First, I apologize for the Dostoevsky. I mean no assholery, and I ask you to just bear with me for the next few paragraphs while I set this thing up. Because the question the great Russian writer wrestles with in Notes from Underground (which is short enough to actually finish) suddenly matters a great deal to us now. This week, even.
The question he asks is this: What’s a human being’s “most advantageous advantage”? That is, what’s our ace in the hole? Our existential H-bomb? To Dostoevsky, it turns out it’s as simple as “I’m taking my ball and going home.” As simple as saying “I’d prefer not to” to literally everything. As simple as suicide.
In other words, it’s free choice. Our unlimited and unfettered freedom to choose is the advantage “against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.” And when you follow this to its conclusion, it means that at your very weakest moment you still have your hydrogen bomb, your greatest power and one that no one can ever take from you: Your freedom to be irrational, the freedom to act even against your own interests, if that’s what it takes to preserve your independence.
We like to think we’re rational creatures, but we’re not. We don’t want rational choice. “What man wants is simply INDEPENDENT choice,” Dostoevsky says, “whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.”
Actually, who needs Dostoevsky when you’ve got Shel Silverstein? He makes basically the same point:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray thee Lord my soul to keep
But if I die before I wake
I pray thee Lord my toys to break
So none of the other kids can use em.
You see where this is going, right?
Last week Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran deal. If it wasn’t clear by now, that should have done it: This is the weakest America has been in decades, or at least as far as I can remember. I’d argue it’s the weakest we’ve been going all the way back to the Great Depression. We’ve sloughed off our global superpower cape and we’re going back to our job at the Daily Planet, which is now a propagandizing subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcasting. Even if Trump recognizes that we need to take part in the world to stay on the top of the world — which I’m not sure he does — he doesn’t want that. Trump, and the people who put him in power, don’t want rationality. They want independence.
Problem is that we’re so interconnected that the only way we can achieve independence is to break away from everything. And you don’t strengthen a system by pulling out of it, and you can’t make a bad system better if you’re not a part of it.
Trump isn’t an isolationist. He’s a segregationist. Or as Dostoevsky might point out, a suicidal segregationist. He acts with extreme and irrational prejudice, with the destructive desperation of a person too weak and inept to build a system that works in his favor. If this isn’t clear to you yet, let’s just look at one case in point: Iran.
Iran So Far Away
It wasn’t a perfect deal, but it was the product of seven years of negotiations between not just Obama and Iran, but between many leaders from many countries. It was only made possible by some insane sanctions that didn’t just come from the U.S., but from the international community, whom we convinced to work with us. The deal went through the U.N., and somehow we even got Russia and China on board.
But contrary to what Trump says, it wasn’t a good deal for Iran, either. Many Iranians think it was a bad deal for them, and a good deal for us. Our withdrawal, then, will empower the extreme factions in Iran who never trusted the U.S., and will give more weight to their argument that it’s time to break out and build the bomb.
But regardless of where you stand on the deal, segregation doesn’t help. We can’t improve it by pulling out of it. In fact, pulling out of it accomplished the very thing Trump and company were so upset about in the first place: The deal had an expiration date, 2028. Trump bumped that the expiration date up a decade. For some reason.
Well, per Dostoevsky: It was an act of predictable and desperate irrationality from a frustrated and weak man with no other ideas…except to undo stuff Obama did.
Of course, this idea of extreme free choice is fine in theory, especially on an individual level. Romantic even. But when it comes to something like war? My god. It’s insane: Trump has no backup plan here, beyond, of course, reinstating sanctions. (Ironically, that was Obama’s plan.) But sanctions won’t work now for three reasons. First, we’d have to sanction our allies, which will cause problems for global markets and our own economy. Second, Iran won’t want to negotiate with us because they wouldn’t trust Trump to stick to a deal. And third, we’d just be rolling the clock back to 2009, when we used sanctions to bring Iran to the table the first time. Problem here is, it wasn’t our sanctions that got them talking — it was only the combined pressure of sanctions from the most powerful economies in the world that made Iran say uncle.
In other words, Trump just made us weaker. He also just made the sandcastle-stable Middle East even shakier, and we’ll be less equipped to shore it up when the time comes.
The Saturday before Trump dumped the deal, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that a full withdrawal might well destabilize the region and lead to war. The day after Trump pulled out of the agreement, Iranian forces in Syria reportedly launched a rocket attack on Israel’s Golan Heights. Israel responded with strikes they claimed took out most of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria.
This is a big deal because Israel has been pounding Iranian targets in Syria for a long time, having since 2012 reportedly launched more than 100 rocket, missile, and airborne attacks. But until now Iran has never—not once—fired back at Israel. But now the proxy war the two countries have fought for years in the shadow of the Syrian conflict is out in the open, and the timing isn’t coincidental.
As Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, put it to Vanity Fair, “I am sure a part of the reason [the Iranians never responded] is that they don’t want to give the Americans any reason to leave the deal. Now that [the Americans] have done so, I assume that the gloves are off for the Iranians, and it makes mutual military escalation between the Israelis and the Iranians much more likely.”
Compounding the chances of region-wide conflict, the Saudis vowed to start a nuclear weapons program (i.e., buy weapons from the Trump administration) if Iran were to restart its program. And though the Iranian Foreign Minister said that Iran will negotiate with the remaining members of the deal, he also said Iran is prepared to restart its program.
In other words, these incentives could combine to trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Except now we can do exactly nothing to stop it, save taking military action, which an agreement is designed to prevent in the first place. Trump says he wants a deal, which means he’d prefer peace to war. But in irrationally scrapping the deal entirely, he set the table for war.
And now we see another way this weakened the United States:
The fact that we left the deal made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to do anything about military or nuclear escalation short of taking military action ourselves, or materially supporting such action from the Israelis or Saudis. In other words, we’re at the mercy of the interests, will, and whim of other countries. We can’t negotiate a peace because we have no bargaining chips to negotiate with anymore (beyond bombs). Does Trump believe we can starve a mistrustful Iran into accepting a new, more austere deal, while at the same time they’re under new threats from our allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia? Those things oppose each other, and Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia will all just tell us to GTFO. If they want war, we’re now responsible for war.
In the name of appearing tough on Iran, Trump made it impossible to be tough on Iran. We’re at the mercy of hardline governments in Israel and Saudi Arabia who believe—with good reason, thanks to us—that Iran is now likely to restart its nuclear program. They’ll use this as a reason to pre-emptively attack, or acquire their own nukes, which will provoke Iran, etc etc. And the Israelis and Saudis—now with the understanding that we’d be responsible for supporting them, and with no diplomatic recourse available to anyone—would have every incentive to use force. Backed, as they assuredly would be, by the mighty United States military.
A mighty military which, given the scope here, would probably be backed by the mighty U.S. military draft.
Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark noted the same thing, writing that “Israel has several times sought U.S. help, or at least U.S. support and backup in striking Iran’s nuclear program. Under the Obama Administration, the answer was, No. Under President Trump, and with the emerging condominium of interests between the Saudis and the Israelis, the possibility of war between Israel and Iran is rising… President Trump’s actions in quitting the Iran accord would place a large share of the responsibility on the United States, increasing the likelihood that the U.S. would, in fact, support and reinforce Israel.” He added, “I don’t believe that Donald Trump wants war.”
But it doesn’t matter whether Trump wants war. By pulling out of the Iran deal he’s created the basic conditions for one, and he’s neutered our ability to influence those conditions. After all, everyone has their own most advantageous advantage, including Iran and Israel. The Iranians once had incentive to behave because they didn’t want to tank the nuclear accord, but when we tanked it on our own it threw off the regional balance of power. The U.S. understandably doesn’t want to be in charge of war in the Middle East, but we just made it clear that we don’t want to be in charge of peace, either.
That’s troubling, because if not us, someone will take advantage of the opportunity to assume leadership. And that someone will be China.
Trump’s abdication of the Iran deal gives China the opportunity to push us away from Europe in a key region, secure oil and trade, and demonstrate capable leadership. It also gives them the upper hand in any peace negotiations with North Korea, which Trump tried to solve by threatening nuclear war. That didn’t bring Kim Jong Un to the table: The opportunity to partner with China and push us out of East Asia did.
Hopefully it’s becoming clear that the way to stay on top of the world is to work with the world to shape it in our image. To put it in harsh realistic terms, we should be rigging the system, albeit in an ultimately benevolent way. When we remove ourselves, we lose the support of others, which weakens us. More importantly, we also weaken the international system, creating a vacuum another country will exploit with its own leadership and economic model. That country will shape the world to its own benefit—in other words, they will screw us.
If we isolate ourselves diplomatically and economically, the only thing we could do to shut such a challenger down is fight a war. That’s the last resort of countries who are in too weak a position to get what they want any other way.
But there’s good news: The American public doesn’t have the appetite for a war, and despite the newly empowered hawks, I don’t think Congress will lead us into war in the Middle East. We’ll let other people handle it, and in the process quietly give up the crown.
In other words, the end for Trump’s belligerent isolationism will be a whimper, not a bang.
Think we can just turn inward? Well.
We’re Weaker Here, Too
Look what else Trump has pulled out of:
He pulled out of the TPP. He pulled out of the Paris climate accord. He promised to pull out of NAFTA, and likely will find some way to do it. His commitments to international organizations such as NATO and the U.N.—and even to our domestic international relations organization, the State Department—are pretty much in name only. He’s threatened trade wars with who knows how many countries, including our closest trading partners and allies. His commitment to our military, however, is, as I’m sure he imagines, the stuff of poetry. And it’s no coincidence that military action is by definition antagonistic, not cooperative.
It’s the same pattern at home: Trump is rending the fabric of our government and society. He’s dismantling the EPA, shredding social safety nets, chipping away at health care and the public school system. He’s also attacking our own international community by inspiring xenophobia, arresting as many foreign people as he can, and stopping as many from coming here as he can. He’s literally building walls. He has empowered homophobes, white nationalists, Nazis, sovereignists, and “constitutionalists” such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio—people who literally believe that sheriffs can independently override the federal court system. Which is anti-constitutional. And Trump pardoned Arpaio, overriding a federal court himself mere weeks after that court found Arpaio guilty of, yes, violating the constitution.
Trump regularly attacks our own institutions: The intelligence community, congress, political parties, diplomats, the media. He actively undermines our law enforcement leadership while at the same time lionizing the police with a not-exactly-subtle racist (i.e., isolationist and segregationist) subtext.
What about the economy? The tax bill Trump passed will in the short term inspire some hiring, but will ultimately starve the government of revenue and in so doing explode the deficit and increase the national debt. That bill, and other pervasive and perverse pro-corporate policies, will drive deeper the wedge of wealth that has already fractured American society. See the stock market going up? Those profits don’t go to regular Americans. Almost all of it goes to the top.
And sure we’ve got low unemployment, but what about underemployment? That’s a segregating force as well, along class lines. The economy is in a strong phase, but recessions and depressions are unavoidable. By segregating ourselves from the rest of the world we also lose the strength of mutually beneficial partnerships. If and when something goes wrong, we will lose control over the global economy and, after a long and painful recovery, we will be replaced.
Trump, in the span of a year, has transformed the United States into a target.
Is it our fault? Yes. Is it reversible? Who knows. Is it predictable? Yes, as our old friend Fyodor knew:
“I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, A PROPOS of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘I say, gentlemen, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!’ That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers — such is the nature of man.