The Empty Throne by Ivo H Daalder and James M Lindsay

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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