The Price of Silence

November 3, 2019

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Uncomfortable silence may sometimes be a preferable armistice to a war of words that can never be won. When conversing with those willing to embrace wanton self-destruction as the guiding principle of public policy, relying on rational arguments only leads to unnecessary acrimony. There is little that the art of democratic persuasion can accomplish when the national self-interest has already given way to the primal defense of personal emotions, and vested interests inimical to the public good. As a matter of self-preservation, silence and distancing may be preferable to openly engaging those whose opinions are not amenable to open democratic discourse. 


Only when the price of silence becomes unbearable will this false armistice imposed by civility and professional etiquette come to an end. Silence is not an appropriate response to someone who devalues our words, lest laconic reticence be misinterpreted as indifference, acquiescence or complicity. Unable to avoid this unnecessary acrimony, amid the histrionic polarization of the current political climate, uncomfortable silence no longer minimizes the personal consternation that only imprudent political discussions can bring about. The inevitable war of words then resumes its course because uncomfortable silence is no longer a viable alternative to democratic engagement. Silence must be broken and improved upon, at last.

 

What was once a principled silent opposition must now be openly professed. The Trump administration has been recklessly dismantling the international liberal world order that guaranteed peace and prosperity for the last 75 years. Instead of embracing the wisdom that past generations bequeathed to the institutions they created after the Second World War, President Trump decided to obliterate that which was entrusted him to protect. But to understand how we arrived at this point, it pays to consider what came before. The more one studies and understands the past, the more one takes an active interest in the present: there is nothing like the history of international politics to explain the status quo. If only the current administration was humble enough to learn from Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D.  Roosevelt, wanton self-destruction would never be embraced as a guiding principle of public policy. What took so many to build, takes only but a few to destroy, one of the many lessons of war. 

 

When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson´s primary goal was not only to win the war, but also to win the peace. Attending the Versailles Peace Conference, he set out to redesign the international system according to 14 points that promised to revolutionize international affairs. Whereas before nations had relied on secretive, treacherous alliances that invariably led to generalized warfare, the American President proposed an entirely different approach. Wilson believed in open, democratic, public diplomacy conducted before the entire world in the open forum provided by the League of Nations, an international organization created to enshrine the principles of collective security and peaceful settlement of disputes, as a necessary means to avoid another war. 

 

Nations would form an international community and come together to guarantee the collective security of the group, maintaining peace through open international cooperation, not individual, secretive alliances subject to whimsical formation and dissolution. This peaceful international world order would settle differences amicably through public diplomacy, dialogue and international cooperation. In a world unimpeded by economic barriers, free trade would bind together every nation, making war much less likely. Freely negotiated and verifiable arms control treaties would avert drastic military buildups, reducing the development of weapon systems to the bare minimum consistent with national security. Decadent colonial empires would respect the principle of national self-determination as a universal right, ending decades, if not centuries, of colonial oppression. All nations would enjoy freedom of navigation over international waters, providing secure shipping lanes for international commerce and maritime transportation.The piracy of an anarchic international system would finally give way to an ordered international community of nations bound by diplomacy, shared interests and international law. 

 

Woodrow Wilson´s vision for a new peaceful international world order was humanity´s best hope of avoiding another world war, if only the republican opposition in Congress shared the same view. Amazingly enough, thanks to rabid opposition in the Senate, the United States would never ratify the treaty of Versailles, nor would it join the League of Nations, adopting an isolationist stance for the next twenty years. While the United States turned its back on the international system after the First World War, fascism rose to power in Italy and Germany, imperial militarism overtook Japan, and Stalin asserted his dominion over the expansionist Soviet Union. Rising protectionism did little to minimize the myriad deleterious effects of the Great Depression, having been one of the contributing factors to political and economic instability affecting world markets. When Italy invaded Abyssinia, and Japan invaded Manchuria, the League of Nations was powerless to prevent war. Hitler eventually annexed Austria, dismembered Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland unopposed. America had won the war, only to lose the peace. The seeds of the Second World War had been sown in 1919. 

 

Twenty years later, President Roosevelt realized that the United States could not make the same mistake again. Active engagement in international affairs was not a democratic option, but a historical imposition. Once the Axis Powers were defeated, a new international system would be designed, the only question is who would lead the effort. If the past served as any indication of what the future would bring, isolationism was a mistake that the United States could not afford to make again. Roosevelt resurrected Woodrow Wilson´s dream of a liberal international world order in the form of the Atlantic Charter, a document issued by the United States and Great Britain months before Pearl Harbor, outlining a new international system based on democratic dialogue, collective security and international cooperation, as the only means of guaranteeing world peace and prosperity. Months before officially entering the war, the United States was already planning for peace. This is just as well, the world had never witnessed the level of mass destruction unleashed by the Second World War, claiming more than 70 million lives, in addition to millions more lost in the inter war period with the rise of fascism and communism.  


This is how the liberal international world order we know today came into being. Not even Roosevelt´s untimely death undermined the creation and development of the international liberal system, all future presidents, from Truman onwards, had a shared commitment to its development and protection. Instead of turning its back on the international system once again, the United States and its allies created an international world order based on dialogue, international cooperation and shared global governance under American leadership. At the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the United States and delegates from 44 nations set out to propose the new rules of the international monetary system, creating the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the international systems of currencies pegged to the dollar. At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference that same year, an international organization called the United Nations was planned to succeed the now defunct League of Nations. In 1945, at the San Francisco Conference, the United Nations was finally created having 51 original member nations, a headquarter in New York, an International Court of Justice, a Secretariat, a General Assembly and a Security Council to safeguard future generations from the scourge of war. In 1947, the Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe, safeguarding the world from the resurgence of fascism and the spread of communism beyond the Iron Curtain. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was reached that same year, promoting free trade by lowering and eliminating tariffs and quotas. GATT would later give rise to the World Trade Organization in 1994. Regional military alliances such as NATO were forged to protect allied countries from attack by expansionistic totalitarian foes such as the Soviet Union. In 1948, the UN General Assembly issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights setting out, for the first time, a series of human rights to be universally acknowledged and protected.  

  
Whatever criticisms are levelled at this liberal international world order, it was humanity´s best hope of addressing its problems through international cooperation, avoiding or mitigating the effects of war. Although future generations were not spared from the scourge of war, as the UN Charter originally promised, even when dialogue and international cooperation could not avoid armed conflict, it mitigated its nefarious effects. From its 51 original member countries, the United Nations would grow to house 193 member nations from all regions of the world. While the General Assembly served as a parliament, where every nation had equal say in world affairs, the Security Council settled matters related to war and peace taking into account the unavoidable power disparities of the world, granting veto power to its five permanent members, victorious in the Second World War. 

 

Despite helping guarantee peace and prosperity for 75 years, this international liberal world order has now come under the attack of the President of the United States himself. In Donald Trump´s view, the best interests of the United States were neglected for much too long, and the time has come to make America great again. In his inaugural speech, "carnage" was the word he used to describe the state of the country that he received from his predecessor. The lauded system of global governance based on international cooperation was only a liberal subterfuge for allowing other countries to take advantage of the United States´ well-meaning largesse. Trump has a zero sum view of international relations where one party always wins and another always loses. Applying a transactional approach to international politics, diplomacy is reduced to a series of business deals whose political benefits may be hard to measure, but apparent financial benefits are always emphasized. International cooperation gives way to unilateral action, the might of the United States coercing bitter rivals or adversaries into compliance through force, intimidation, retribution or tough bilateral negotiations. Little importance is awarded to international organizations, perceived as an unwanted limitation on unilateral American power. Multilateral international cooperation is set aside in favor of bilateral negotiations where greater power disparities can coerce the other party into accepting the most financially favorable terms possible for the United Sates, regardless of other less quantifiable benefits, or perhaps even despite them.  

 

Contrary to the customary respect the United States awarded its allies and the international system, the Trump administration has made a long list of unilateral policy decisions, based on this isolationist “America First” worldview, that undermined global governance. For example, President Trump unilaterally annulled the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, promising to renegotiate a new deal that would permanently prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, compelling compliance through economic sanctions or the use of force if necessary. After denouncing climate change as a liberal hoax, he abandoned the Paris Climate Accord of 2015, horrifying the entire international community. Openly favoring protectionism in place of free trade, he abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, a free trade agreement signed by 12 Pacific Rim countries, accounting for 40% of global trade. He also forced Mexico and Canada to renegotiate NAFTA, obstructed the appellate system of the World Trade Organization, and even threatened to leave the organization entirely. Trump started a trade war with a rising China that will cost the global economy 700 billion dollars, according to IMF estimates. He questioned NATO´s protracted existence for being overly expensive and supposedly obsolete despite the war in Crimea. Trump shamelessly obstructed the normal functioning of the United Nations by withholding America´s contribution to its annual budget. He declared that close military allies such as Japan should pay more for protection or perhaps even develop their own nuclear deterrent, becoming less reliant on the security provided by American troops and nuclear umbrella. Finally, he never came across a single nuclear arms control treaty he actually liked, abandoning the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, threatening to rescind the Open Skies Treaty, and refusing to renew the New Start treaty. These are only but a few examples of unilateral policies that illustrate Trump´s blatant disregard for the element of international cooperation that helped guarantee peace and prosperity for the past 75 years.

 

It is almost beginning to look like Trump actually prefers the piracy of an anarchic international system where might makes right, to an ordered international community of nations bound by diplomacy, shared interest and international law. Whereas before the United States was seen as the guarantor of the international liberal world order, it now wants to be seen as its outlier challenger, for no logically discernible reason other than an entirely misperceived view of its own national interest in economic, political or military terms. If Trump´s nativist isolationism bears any resemblance to that of republicans during Woodrow Wilson´s time, it is not difficult to understand why the United States won World War I, proposed the creation of the League of Nations, only to later refuse to ratify the treaty of Versailles, and turn its back on the international system for twenty years.   

 

A nation recklessly disregarding its own history runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes of the past, costly as they were. The last time the United States turned it back on the international system, pursuing two decades of nativist isolationism, the world experienced a great depression, crippling protectionism, the rise of expansionistic totalitarianism, and a second even more destructive world war. And make no mistake, America was never politely asked to participate in the war, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor without any prior warning, and Germany declared war on America without any outright provocation. Although total war is much less likely today, as the inter war years have shown: power vacuums are meant to be filled. More importantly, believing that every problem has a military solution is perhaps the greatest tragedy of having the most powerful military in the world. Problems such as nuclear proliferation, climate change, terrorism and forced migration, all require collective action to be effectively resolved. Look no further than Afghanistan and Iraq for examples of complex policy quandaries that cannot be resolved solely in military terms.

 

The most intractable problems of our time can only be effectively addressed through international cooperation and collective action. Global governance requires us to build bridges, not hide behind walls. A much greater respect for the international liberal world order is desperately needed, not unilateral nativist isolationism. Both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt proved as much in their times. Improving upon silence sometimes requires only that we remind others of a shared past, so that current problems are addressed by first acknowledging the long history behind them. The price of silence cannot be aptly described in words, or easily quantified in numbers, when the consequences of indifference, acquiescence or complicity are simply too disastrous to bear. This false armistice imposed by civility and professional etiquette comes to an end because silence is not an appropriate response to someone who devalues our words, lest laconic reticence be entirely misinterpreted and our values misrepresented. Silence must be broken and improved upon, at last.

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