Insanity at the Helm: Are We Steering the Wrong Way to the Future?

The last two weeks have seen a great deal of heavy breathing and crying. I summarized much of it in last week’s blog. The climax in this week’s news was probably Thursday’s testimonies of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford; the aftermath is still unfolding. As expected, without further investigation it was reduced to a “he said, she said” situation and devolved into an ugly mix of facts and politics. We shall see if the new FBI investigation changes anything. Whatever the final result, the US and the world will survive the presidency of Donald Trump and the effects of Judge Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. The greater existential threat worldwide has to do with what happened two days earlier: President Trump gave his speech to the UN General Assembly, summarizing his administration’s philosophy as to the relationship between the US and the world.

Before getting into his speech, we need some background. Greg Myre gave an interesting perspective on this mindset last year on NPR: “‘America First’: From Charles Lindbergh to President Trump.” For those of you not familiar with Charles Lindbergh, he was an American hero whose 1927 flight from New York to Paris was the first ever solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He moved to England in the late 1930s. In 1941, he returned to the US to advocate against our country getting involved in the war in Europe. He was the leading voice of the America First Committee, which fought to isolate the US from the war. Contrary to some opinions, he was not a Nazi sympathizer; he just didn’t believe that the US, or anybody else, could save England from the Nazi juggernaut. Shortly after his return to the States, however, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Suddenly, not joining the war was no longer an option for the US. After that, Lindbergh actually joined the fight against Japan. Before the Pearl Harbor attack, Lindbergh and his followers were isolationists. According to Mr. Myre, that term does not apply to President Trump. He quotes Trump’s inauguration speech:

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” Trump said at his inaugural on Jan. 20.

Mr. Myre instead defines the president’s philosophy in the following way:

Trump is more commonly described as a unilateralist — someone who thinks the U.S. can be engaged around the world, but on its own terms, unconstrained by alliances or multinational groups like the United Nations.

The world was a different place during Lindbergh’s time. Table 1 shows some of the indicators.

Table 1 – Yardsticks for the global transition

Indicators Then Now
Population 2.4*109 (1945) 7.5*109 (2017)
GDP/Capita (1990 US$) $2030 (1945) $5950 (2017)
Global life expectancy 44 (1945) 71 (2017)
Urbanization (% of population) 28% (1950) 55% (2017)
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (ppmv) 310 (1945) 409 (2018)
Energy use (kg oil equivalent per capita) 1336 (1971) 1921 (2014)

In modern times, globalization isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. We face global dangers that can be mitigated only through cooperative global efforts. These dangers include nuclear holocaust, climate change, pandemics, and massive refugee crises.

Many of our economic activities are global and critically depend on links in the chains that are located in different countries.

Unilateralism is not only a philosophy under this administration; it’s a policy. Below are the international partnerships and agreements from which the US is withdrawing or has expressed an intention to do so, as of January 2016:

  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran treaty)
    • Iran denuclearization for reversal of economic sanctions
    • Signatories: Russia, China, France, Germany, and England
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership
    • Trade agreement
    • Parties: Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia, Brunei, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand
  • Paris Climate Accord
    • Parties & Signatories: all the countries in the world
  • UN Commission on Human Rights
    • UN organization
  • Threats to leave or break:
    • NAFTA (Canada and Mexico) *a new agreement was finalized on Sunday, September 30th; crisis averted!
    • WTO (World Trade Organization)
    • G-7
    • International Criminal Court

This list comprises a significant fraction of our global infrastructure.

Below are the relevant paragraphs from President Trump’s most recent UN speech:

America chooses independence and cooperation over global government, each must pursue its own customs. The U.S. won’t tell you how to live, work, or worship. We ask you to honor our sovereignty in return. My highest honor is to represent the U.S. abroad. I forged strong alliances with the leaders of many nations.

… So the U.S. took the only possible course, withdrew from the human rights council, and we will not return till reform is enacted. And will not give recognition to the International Criminal Court. The ICC has no legitimacy and no authority. It claims universal jurisdiction while violating due process, violating justice, we will never surrender to this unaccountable global bureaucracy. We reject globalism and embrace patriotism, around the world responsible nations must resist the threats to sovereignty. In America we believe strongly in energy security for ourselves and our allies.

… Illegal immigration finances criminal networks, and the flow of deadly drugs. It produces a vicious circle of crime and poverty. Only by upholding national borders, can we break the cycle, we recognize the right of every nation to have own immigration policy according to its national interest. This must be respected. US will not participate in the new Global compact of migration, it is a global body unaccountable to our own people. People should build more hopeful future in the own country. Make their countries great again.

… The U.N. is the world’s largest giver of foreign aid. But few aid is given to us, that’s why we are looking into our assistance. We will examine what is working and not working and whether countries that receive our dollars and protection have our interest at heart. Only to those who are our friends we will continue.  We expect countries to pay a fair share for their own defense. The UN must become more effective and accountable. The UN has unlimited potential. As part of reform efforts we said we won’t pay more than 25 percent of peacekeeping budget, sharing in this large burden.

… We believe in the majesty of freedom and dignity of individual, self-government and rule of law, culture built on strong families, fierce independence. We celebrate our heroes, love our country. Inside this great chamber each patriot feels the same powerful love for his own nation, the same loyalty to your homeland. Passion has inspired reform and revolution, sacrifice, scientific breakthrough and magnificent works of art. We must not erase it, but embrace it, draw on its wisdom, find a way to make our nations greater, the regions safer, and the world better. To unleash potential of our people, sovereignty and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom succeeds. We must protect sovereignty and independence above all. When we do we will find new avenues for cooperation unfolding before us, new ways of peace making, new purpose, and new spirit flourishing more around us. Making this a more beautiful world. Let us choose the future of patriotism, let us come here to stand for our people and for their nations, forever strong, sovereign, just, thankful for the grace and the glory of God, God bless the nations of the globe.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton summarized the philosophy in his own speech to the Federalist Society:

This Administration will fight back to protect American constitutionalism, our sovereignty, and our citizens. No committee of foreign nations will tell us how to govern ourselves and defend our freedom. We will stand up for the U.S. Constitution abroad, just as we do at home. And, as always, in every decision we make, we will put the interests of the American People FIRST.

In Polish we call such a philosophy, “Zosia samosia.” The phrase refers to someone independent who doesn’t need (or want) help or assistance from anybody. It’s usually used to describe a spoiled kid. This is a dangerous attitude for the most powerful nation in the world to espouse.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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