Secular Stag Out of the Barn & How Trump and Obama Remain Parochial Presidencies

When Lawrence Summers went back to the old keynesian playbook to justify a faltering economy of ultra low interest rates, militant intervention and macro-prudential efforts, he found the canard of secular stagnation a useful term to explain how (why) the U.S. economy was faltering.  The term originated under Alvin Hanen during the 1930’s, this is significant because it helps federal reserve pundits evade responsibility by citing weather or political events as catalysts.  In reality, its a snow job performed by highly credentialed people who can’t accept limitations upon their socialist mien.

So what accounts for a seemingly booming economy in year one of team Trump.  In a word:  credibility.

Even still, both Obama and Trump remain domestic presidencies, although for different reasons.  Differences in temperament and style matter if only to detail the overwhelming power of a television medium in American political life. With a credible presidency like Trump’s, we still have more continuity than change in our foreign policy.

The American habit of actively promoting liberalization abroad was deeply curtailed by both presidencies.  With both men, America had to learn to step back from global responsibilities.  Their strategic thinking was the primacy of the domestic over foreign affairs.  Both are correct to think that war must have a domestic constituency if the country is to marshal resources to counter threats.

For Obama, the costs of leadership were’t bearable.  His ever shifting framework of engagement in Iraq while sustaining a surge in Afghanistan unraveled with emerging contingencies in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, and the Arab Spring.  All this happened before the South China Sea became hot.

What both men had to conquer was a truism that both flenched from:  that military means remains the principal determinant in geopolitics and a favorable balance of power in the contested commons.

We have yet to see how this inward turning reflection away from maintenance of a favorable global order turns out.  By a realist reckoning, we’re in for hard surprises given the state of our alliances, our domestic appetite for engagements abroad and the need to reform our war fighting industrial base.

When Obama stepped back from the benchmark that American dominance meant a continued military supremacy to fight and win two major wars continuously, it wrecked the post war consensus developed by Truman and fortified under Reagan.  This two war standard meant that an Imperium with vital global security interests in Europe, the Near East, East Asia and the Levant meant that we had to field and deliver a guarantee of order, or risk perishing.

The doctrine that we had to be viable in multiple theaters began with the Vinson-Walsh Two Ocean Navy Act of 1940.  It lasted until 2012.

Under Obama, the Vinson-Walsh doctrine meant that America had only to defeat the first aggressor and punish the second. Combining a unilateral drawdown in Mesopotamia and Afghanistan, regardless of conditions on the ground ushered in a hollow pivot to Asia resulting in an American posture that only sought global punitive measures elsewhere.

Our current Defense Secretary and budget has had to live with the consequences since.

Under team Trump, he’s acknowledged the reality that America has near peer competitors and our hollowed out industrial base must be fortified with a new nuclear triad. The old two war templates envisioned by Vinson-Walsh has been updated to reflect rising revisionist powers seeking regional hegemony with global aspirations to shape a contested commons out from Bretton-Woods.

Simply put, restoring the post WWII international order is beyond America’s grasp.

Here’s my judgement on this matter:  the timidity of both Obama and Trump in renouncing a moral ethos that underwrote our exceptionalism has failed to secure the present or shape our immediate future.  In this shortsightedness, both men have walked away from the promise of American life laid out by the founders, fortified by previous presidents and bled by soldiers in fields throughout the planet.

The moral foundations of liberty must be renewed.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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