How to Fix America's Broken Imperial Foreign Policy After Trump

Jeffrey Sachs has a vision of how the world can work based on alliances and international law.

Oct 11 2018, 5:06pm

Donald Trump in Tokyo in 2017. Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Amid the chaotic, whim-based foreign policy of the Trump administration, a growing number of writers and thinkers are asking what the left-wing, anti-Trump foreign policy is, exactly. When Trumpism burns itself out, what will the world look like? Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs has presented one vision in his new book, A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism.

Sachs, whose decades of work has earned him seats on several United Nations committees, including a place advising UN Secretary-General António Guterres, proudly calls himself an internationalist: someone who believes in the potential and necessity of global cooperation. That profile gives his opinions weight; he’s one of the leading voices speaking out against American exceptionalism. The exceptionalist ideology, which predates Donald Trump, "argues that the United States should continue to aim for global dominance, maintained by unrivaled US military superiority," writes Sachs.

There’s no hope of moving the US in an internationalist direction under Trump. "It's our task to prepare a foreign policy for the post-Trump future," Sachs writes near the end of his book, "and to prevent irreparable harms in the meantime."

I recently talked to Sachs about the difference between internationalism and exceptionalism, the last century's history of American interaction with the rest of the world, and immigration. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:

VICE: Can you explain what American exceptionalism is and how that idea relates to the Trump presidency?
Jeffrey Sachs: What I mean by American exceptionalism is the belief that America is on top; it's been called the indispensable country, the city on the hill, and many other grandiose ideas. What it really means is that the US should make the rules to the extent that there are rules—and if we don't like the rules, we're going to operate in our interest against the rules. That has been the exceptionalist approach for decades: Sometimes following the rules but often deciding we'll act on our own. It's getting worse and it's not working.

Trump is aggravating this terribly. He's making enemies of the United States all over the world. What he's basically saying is, as he said at the United Nations, he doesn't want global governance, as he called it, because we have a right to do what we want. What he really means, because he doesn't understand cooperation and rules properly, is that he's going to act as he's going to act and no one is going to tell him what to do. I'm arguing in this book that this is extraordinarily dangerous and we're going to really, really mess things up if we follow that road.

You point out that Trump's behavior is not an aberration, but rather the way that the US has historically treated the international community. Isn't the fact that the Security Council exists part of exceptionalism for some nations and not others as well?
The setup of the UN is, at the one side, all countries should be represented in the General Assembly, but the Security Council was set up after World War II so that the victors, so-called, would be permanent members. Of course, a lot has changed since 1945!

Five of the 15 seats are held permanently by the United States, now Russia instead of the Soviet Union, China, the UK, and France. They have a veto, which means the Security Council cannot take active decisions if even one of the five disagrees. So this is an asymmetry in the world system and it's an asymmetry that was built in also with the proviso that you can't change that unless all five of the permanent members agree to that.

You argue that today, under Trump, the US is using its veto more often and increasingly isolating itself on the world stage.
What we're seeing now is a lot of 14 to one decisions against the United States, because the US is using its veto a lot. Most recently, the US has basically absented itself from a worldwide consensus toward the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has also pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, or announced the intention to—under the rules, that would happen in 2020.

The US is more and more saying, "We don't care what you think! We're just gonna do it!" That's what Trump said when he came to the UN, that's what sovereignty is, we do what we want, no one's going to tell the United States what to do.

We're going to be in a more dangerous world very, very soon. We have lots of treaties which are trying to set a framework that makes it safe for everybody, like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or like this Paris climate agreement, which is part of another treaty called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But more and more, the United States isn't even signing onto these, saying, "We don't even want to be part of what all the rest of the world is agreeing to."

And again, this is a pattern.
As you noted, I made the point that although we sometimes follow the rules, we have been known to lash out or to secretly overthrow other governments, against the UN Charter, for decades.

That's been presidents of both parties. One has to remember that President Obama signed an order to the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to overthrow the government of Syria. That didn't turn out too well, 10 million refugees and 500,000 lives later. He decided to join in with France and the UK to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi using NATO. These are examples of unilateral actions by a small number of countries taking the law into their own hands. Or no law—taking action contrary to international law. These actions have ended up disastrously time and again.

Take the Iraq War, the greatest disaster of modern times, when, on false pretenses—one could say on a mistake about weapons of mass destruction, but I would say false pretenses—the United States decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And we unleashed what has been 15 years of profound instability, terrorism, refugee movements you name it, because of the US saying to the Security Council, "We don't care what you think. You say, 'Don't do it,' we're going to do it anyway."

We did, and it's been a disaster.

Near the end of the book, you have a policy prescription for migration crises, "[adjusting] global policies to enshrine the freedom to migrate while also enabling societies to limit migration to moderate and manageable rates." Most countries would argue that's what they're already doing, whether or not that's true. How do you answer that?
Migration is the hot-button issue. Obviously it's the issue that Trump used more than any other in order to get elected by slamming migrants, promising to throw people out, and closing the country on the pretext of terrorism and many other things. In Europe, there is the same divide.

The right and the populists are saying close the doors, the left is saying don't do that. I'm saying it's gotta be something a little bit different. We can't have completely open borders, a billion people would show up. I don't think any person would agree to that for 100 pretty obvious reasons. That's true in Europe and in the US. We have to limit migration because of the vast inequalities in the world. But we have to do other things as well.

Such as?
First, we have to make sure that other places remain hospitable. You have to care about why there's migration. You have to stop global poverty, care about the climate change that's leading to mass numbers of environmental refugees. You have to stop these wars which are leading to the mass refugee movement.

The difference between the populist right and myself, to begin with, is that you have to have responsibility for the outside world. You can realize that people would like to stay in their homes but it's impossible for them to stay in their homes and raise their children right now because of US-led wars, because of growing climate change, because of extreme poverty that the rich countries are ignoring or exacerbating.

On the other hand, I'd say to the left that we have to have limits. You have to recognize you can't have open borders, you have to have properly monitored borders. You have to limit migration because it is a fact that right now mass numbers of people would move if the borders were open. Fiscally, socially, for many other reasons, that is not desirable for the United States or for Europe.

How should readers come to this book—what are you hoping people get out of your work here?
Well, first we have to make sure we don't do anything really disastrous—Trump is really unstable—so no new wars, no war with Iran, no craziness. Nothing crazy with Trump in the White House. We've got to make sure his impulsiveness doesn't spill over into anything awful.

This book should be read and understood not just as a criticism of Trump, but as a critique of the Obama administration, of many administrations going back. We've made so many mistakes. This is really to say we need a different, non-grandiose view of the world and to say we need to understand how great the gains to cooperation are and how vital they are.

In an age where we have to work together to fight climate change—for example, to face the destruction of the rainforest and biodiversity, to work together to face water crises, a shift to renewable energy—this book should be read not only by foes of Trump but to reconsider what became, to an extent, a mainstream unilateralism. The UN is for the common interest, including the US interest.

We need to build a multilateral, law-based system—not as a naive idea but as a practical idea. It's good for the United States and good for the world, now and in the years ahead.

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