A U.S. foreign policy of nationalism, of America First, seems reasonable. All nations should be free to seek their national interests. Therefore, nations must be free and sovereign to make their own choices for betterment. Reasonable yes, but it won’t work. Let’s take a look.
Any country’s foreign policy must fit the world that exists, not a world that once existed or one we would like to exist. During the old world of the 19th and 20th centuries, only nations, not individuals, were players on the chess board of the world stage. Then water supplies and fish in the ocean were plentiful. The playing board of the environment on which nations interacted was stable, and pollution was largely limited to the confines of countries. The West colonized the world and ruled it.
Today what a difference! Now a congested world finds crowded nations cheek-to-jowl, and vital resources like water scarce. Does Ethiopia or Egypt get the Nile’s water? Climate change, if not controlled, will cause rising oceans to inundate vast coastal regions. Rising temperatures will blister crops and force massive migrations. Who knows what harm cyber and other terrorists will wreak on the world using new technologies and causing mayhem.
Now both nations and individuals interact with each other from great distances. Unfortunately, today the environmental playing surface itself is in motion, contorted into dangerous and unpredictable shapes. The environment is now fighting back against man’s industrial and population predations. It is just these destructive forces that nationalist nations will grab hold of, seeking to defend themselves from or take advantage of a chaotic and nationalistic world.
Since both nations and individuals can unleash global forces affecting all countries, all countries are subject to disruption. Polluted air does not stay in the home country. Countries that sharply cut their carbon emissions nevertheless receive the climate-distorting CO2 belched forth from other non-cooperating countries. Thus, no country can gain full sovereignty today. No country can on its own choose and control its destiny.
Almost 250 years ago the confusion of 13 colonies operating as if they were sovereign states under the Articles of Confederation almost destroyed our young country. Thirteen currencies, tariffs and exchange rates made state to state commerce a nightmare. Then our new Constitution stripped states of a portion of their state sovereignty to form a nation with a national currency and standardized rules of commerce. This splitting of state sovereignty into two parts – one that stayed with states and one that was transferred to the national level – was vital in making our nation successful.
Imagine the destruction that nations seeking only their own good could thrust on the world with the newly evolving technologies, especially when resource and water scarcity become life-threatening. This is why nations must collaborate in their own self-interest today to keep our global nest clean, peaceful and healthy. A world of nationalism would turn into a world of dog eat dog, as it did in the past two centuries, unless powerful countries abandoned policies of “me first.”
Mass migrations, declining security, food and water shortages – all result from nations acting only in their narrow self-interest. This changes our question from what is good policy for the U.S. into what is good policy for the world including the U.S. A healthy and protected global commons is essential for all nations. Only collaborative actions by nation-states have a chance to attain this goal. Only a concerted effort by most major powers has a chance to protect the global commons. Without an equitable climate and the resources of a healthy commons, no country can thrive.
The U.S. must take the lead in forming a powerful coalition of nations dedicated to creating a Collaborative Sovereignty that would protect the world from nationalistic plundering of earth’s global commons. This would require U.S. leadership with other nations in developing the rules and enforcement policies required. No other country has the power and vision to do this. Most important, there is no good alternative. Benjamin Franklin is right once again: “We shall all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Roy Wehrle of Springfield is a Professor Emeritus at UIS and former diplomat at the Department of State.