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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

Book Review: “The Empty Throne” makes a better argument for not having one

I’ve said before there’s a seduc­tive idea that some more com­pe­tent ver­sion of Amer­i­can hege­mo­ny was once in effect and is desir­able to return to.

With­out mean­ing to, what Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lind­say’s book The Emp­ty Throne: Amer­i­ca’s Abdi­ca­tion of Glob­al Lead­er­ship seems to per­sua­sive­ly advo­cate for is how bad of an idea it is for the Unit­ed States to have a throne at all when the per­son in it is as like­ly as not to wield that lead­er­ship destruc­tive­ly.

The Empty Throne by Ivo H Daalder and James M Lindsay

The Emp­ty Throne: Amer­i­ca’s Abdi­ca­tion of Glob­al Lead­er­ship, by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lind­say (Hard­cov­er, Pub­li­cAf­fairs)

As a recap of some of the destruc­tive deci­sions and inep­ti­tudes in the inter­na­tion­al sphere by the Trump cam­paign and admin­is­tra­tion up through July 2018, this is a brief and effec­tive restate­ment of events you prob­a­bly vague­ly already knew but for­got.

Did you know we’re help­ing Sau­di Ara­bia with their nuclear capa­bil­i­ties?

That does­n’t come up in the book, but the admin­is­tra­tion simul­ta­ne­ous­ly tak­ing two dif­fer­ent posi­tions on Qatar which near­ly led to anoth­er Mideast shoot­ing war in 2017 is men­tioned briefly. So is Trump doing his best to blow up the nuclear treaty with Iran. But that’s just one region.

The amount of infor­ma­tion already avail­able regard­ing the ascen­dant, reac­tionary klep­toc­ra­cy in our nation’s cap­i­tal is too bonkers to hold in your mind long term with­out per­ma­nent brain dam­age, and the past few years reg­u­lar­ly feel like a per­sis­tent fugue state any­way.

So it’s more than fair to remind us, in a macro sense, what’s been hap­pen­ing to inter­na­tion­al rela­tions now that Trump is in charge, how open­ly trans­ac­tion­al they’ve become and with­out any veneer of human rights or decen­cy. What audi­ence that reminder is use­ful for, in book form, two years into his pres­i­den­cy, I don’t know.

The Fourth Estate as pop­u­lar­ly con­sumed on tele­vi­sion lacks oxy­gen to more thor­ough­ly cov­er all the myr­i­ad scan­dal-wor­thy events because they need to get to the bot­tom of why Demo­c­ra­t­ic women say naughty words in pub­lic.

It might be use­ful for tele­vi­sion news to stop chas­ing the shiny thing of the minute in order to spend some time each week and day on ret­ro­spec­tion to pro­vide con­text, but I can’t imag­ine what per­son would be inter­est­ed in read­ing this book and learn some­thing tru­ly new ver­sus, “Oh right, that hap­pened.”

Clear­ly, “mem­ber” books deserve to exist, but the oth­er prob­lem is that its focus is on Trumpian Excep­tion­al­ism. That excuse grows increas­ing­ly unfea­si­ble to main­tain by the day. From inau­gu­ra­tion to the midterms, is there any­one who thinks the lead­er­ship from the Sen­ate major­i­ty, let alone the House cau­cus, would have pro­duced more coher­ent, sober for­eign pol­i­cy than what we got?

After the reac­tions of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to reports of Russ­ian elec­tion inter­fer­ence to their ben­e­fit, is there any rea­son to think anoth­er Repub­li­can occu­pant of the White House would, in real terms, pur­sue dif­fer­ent inter­ests?

What are we miss­ing out on except a Pres­i­dent Jeb Bush get­ting his ducks in a row to actu­al­ly invade Venezuela and blow up more stuff in Syr­ia?

Between par­ty affil­i­a­tion and sup­port for Trump, we’re look­ing at maybe 2.5 per­cent of vot­ers who are still Repub­li­can but don’t much care for him and what he’s doing. The GOP estab­lish­ment does­n’t reflect real peo­ple, but the rubes have the keys to the king­dom now. The seri­ous politi­cians who are sup­posed to know bet­ter are too cow­ard­ly to pro­vide any check, even when they ful­ly con­trolled both cham­bers of a co-equal branch of gov­ern­ment rather than just one after the midterms.

The future is North Car­oli­na, Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan. It’s Geor­gia. It’s West Vir­ginia.

The Repub­li­can Par­ty is venal and cor­rupt, incom­pe­tent and com­plic­it, but by hook, crook, and geo­graph­i­cal prov­i­dence, it’s got con­trol of half the coun­try. It can’t fair­ly win a pop­u­lar major­i­ty basi­cal­ly any­where, but it does­n’t have to. With­out some kind of mas­sive reform, that seems to be so for the fore­see­able future.

It’s not an aber­ra­tion that Trump is so pop­u­lar among the Repub­li­can Par­ty and sup­port­ed by their rep­re­sen­ta­tives so slav­ish­ly.

In 2015, Red State’s Erick Erick­son felt that Trump was too boor­ish to invite to a con­ser­v­a­tive con­fer­ence after mak­ing a ref­er­ence to Meg­yn Kel­ly and blood com­ing out of her, but Erick­son also thinks that hav­ing Latin Amer­i­can auto­crats will­ing to tor­ture and kill left­ist oppo­si­tion is good pol­i­cy. The only prob­lem Repub­li­cans have with Trump is that he gives up the game and is rude about it.

I don’t want to sug­gest that the authors — as they out­line how Trump blun­dered out of the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship or made him­self a pari­ah at gath­er­ings with tra­di­tion­al allies — neglect to speak to the dam­age that Amer­i­ca had already done to its image with Viet­nam and espe­cial­ly the inva­sion of Iraq. They do speak to that.

As they wrote in their pre­vi­ous book, Pres­i­dent George W. Bush “relied on the uni­lat­er­al exer­cise of Amer­i­can pow­er rather than on inter­na­tion­al law and insti­tu­tions to get his way” and “depend­ed on ad hoc coali­tions of the will­ing to gain sup­port abroad and ignored per­ma­nent alliances”. But John McCain sang “Bomb Iran” in 2007. The same year, Mitt Rom­ney would­n’t take tac­ti­cal nukes off the table, but who knows what his mean­ing­ful con­vic­tions ever have been.

Since 2000, no pres­i­den­tial elec­tion has exact­ly been a blowout, and there’s been no Repub­li­can can­di­date close to get­ting the nom­i­na­tion who did­n’t see war­mon­ger­ing and flout­ing of inter­na­tion­al opin­ion as a help­ful posi­tion to take.

Yes, you prob­a­bly have for­got­ten some aspects of just how bad Repub­li­can gov­er­nance has been for Amer­i­can lead­er­ship over the past two years.

But the cri­tique I did not find read­ing The Emp­ty Throne and that I was wait­ing for was why Amer­i­can lead­er­ship should be a good idea for any­one in the rest of the world to rely on when every four years our coun­try is a coin­flip away from elect­ing an avatar of the Repub­li­can Par­ty as cur­rent­ly con­sti­tut­ed, will­ing to invade and bomb wher­ev­er they please, dis­re­gard any pri­or agree­ments they don’t care for, and prop up mal­leable despots. If Democ­rats are bet­ter about this — and they are — they cer­tain­ly not blame­less, either. They’re also the best case sce­nario.

One of the book’s taglines is “Amer­i­ca is aban­don­ing the world it made—with dis­as­trous con­se­quences.” For a cer­tain class of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States to be able to get their way most of the time, that may be true, sure.

But if half the sur­gi­cal teams per­form­ing oper­a­tions at a hos­pi­tal are known to be venge­ful, nihilis­tic alco­holics, this is not an argu­ment against any par­tic­u­lar surgery team: it’s why you need to look for a hos­pi­tal that does­n’t con­tin­ue to employ such peo­ple. If con­di­tions of the Amer­i­can throne have dete­ri­o­rat­ed this dra­mat­i­cal­ly, it’s not an argu­ment for a bet­ter monarch: it’s why you need to abol­ish the throne.

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