Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 18 April 2024


 The Republicans are not good at nationalism Janan Ganesh · 17 Apr 2024

The moral case for passing the Ukraine aid bill that remains stuck in the US Congress is compelling. But the selfish case, the one rooted in cold American interest, is no weaker.

In Ukraine, the US has shown that it can tie down Russia’s military, one of the largest in the world, for more than two years with donations from its own arsenal. As an exhibition of American power, there has been nothing like it since the first Gulf war, and while that came at the cost of US life, support for Ukraine entails none.

Now, imagine observing all this in one of the many countries that are hedging between the US and China. Your previous memories of the US were the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan and the failure to achieve a peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. At the start of 2022, the advantages of being in the American orbit were far from obvious. Since then, though?

Even if a US lawmaker cares not a whit about Russia and is monomaniacal about the “real” threat of China, the strategic value in helping Ukraine should be obvious to them. The aid isn’t a distraction from Asia. It is an advertisement to wavering countries there of the uses of US patronage. Against this, the America First argument is that a dollar spent on Ukraine is a dollar not spent on countering China. A child with an abacus might approach geostrategy with more nuance. The notion of positive-sum — that a show of strength in one part of the world can attract friends, even if just friends of convenience, in quite another — gets no shrift.

This is characteristic of the Republican right. Their problem isn’t, or isn’t just, a lack of conscience. They aren’t even all that good at nationalism. The extent to which this is a movement of fools, rather than knaves, gets lost in all the moral criticism it receives.

Consider its line on trade. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have tied Malaysia and other US-China “swing states” into a US-anchored commercial zone. He blocked new appointments to the World Trade Organization’s appellate bench — the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes — which all but neutered that institution. He is now contemplating a general tariff on imports. Biden isn’t David Ricardo either, of course. But what he denies other nations in market access he at least makes up for as a predictable security partner. America First Republicans propose to withhold both these things. Their pitch to countries calculatedly wavering between the US and China — that is, their pitch to other nationalists — is what?

China wants few things more than the end of the US-built economic order. It has set up bodies, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to that end. It knows that trade helped America bind other nations to itself (the clue was in the name “Washington Consensus”) without the whole to-do of a formal empire. So why would some Republicans do China’s work for it? Because what they like, I sense, is the performance of nationalism. When it comes to the actual construal of the national interest, they are erratic, or even bored.

“If we have to leave Europe exposed, so be it.” That is the former Trump official Elbridge Colby, demanding a focus on Asia. Senator Josh Hawley wants the US to signal, in the event of a conflict between Russia and a Nato state, that it would “withhold forces”. None of us are Metternich here, but I doubt it is clever to say this stuff out loud. There are people in the chancelleries of Asia who are able to read English. Seeing Republicans behave with such caprice towards longtime European allies mightn’t inspire confidence in Taiwan, which the US doesn’t even recognise as a state, or Vietnam, with which the US was at war within living memory. “Rest assured, we are breaking old treaty commitments for you!” isn’t the clinching argument in Asia that some Republicans assume.

If Congress doesn’t pass the Ukraine bill, old (and unfair) tropes about American perfidy will return. No staying power. Not a government to set your watch by. It will persuade you to give up your nuclear deterrent in one generation, then stint on your defence in the next. From there, it isn’t a big mental step to suspecting that a more autocratic superpower patron can, whatever its own faults, at least be planned around. Some on the Republican right profess not to care about Ukraine. But the US position in Asia obsesses them like nothing else. If the link between the one and the other needs spelling out to them, we shouldn’t flatter these people as “nationalists”.

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