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HOYT PURVIS: Blind allegience?

Doctrines, dissent and reality in the Trump years

The Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination dominated much of public and media attention in recent days. We saw a brutal confirmation fight laced with holier-than-thou hypocrisy and strict partisanship.

However, particularly with the mid-term elections drawing closer, other issues and developments deserve notice as they compete for a place on the agenda. As I've noted previously, every day brings new controversies as those of previous days fade.

Earlier last week a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada was announced, but it was relegated to a lower tier of news coverage despite being a major point of emphasis for the Trump administration, with the president referring to the treaty as the "most important ever."

And, in one of the more memorable moments in the history of the United Nations General Assembly, delegates broke out in laughter at President Trump's claim that "in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country." Although that boast would go over well at a Trump rally, it drew a different international reaction.

However, it was another assertion from Trump that caught my attention, although it received little notice. He declared, "We reject the ideology of globalism -- and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism."

Those words may not be completely clear. But their meaning intends to convey the essence of Trump's foreign policy or what might be the "Trump doctrine."

Let's do a little dissection of these terms and consider how they apply to the current state of affairs. Patriotism refers to vigorous support for one's country. But it can mean much more than that, positively and negatively -- healthy or unhealthy patriotism. And patriotism is easily manipulated and played upon by demagogues. Nationalism has been referred to as a demagogue's patriotism. And nationalism rather than patriotism can become an ideology or a substitute for one. It can be viewed as a form of "identity politics" or unhealthy patriotism. Nationalism is not patriotism and true patriotism is not nationalism.

Bedecking a stage with flags at campaign events may be symbolically satisfying, but it's the substance of what politicians do that should count.

It was Samuel Johnson, best known for his history of the English language, who long ago made the famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. His biographer, Boswell, insisted that Johnson was not indicting patriotism in general, only false patriotism. And it is false patriotism that we need to guard against. Hiding behind a flag or vociferously waving a flag doesn't signify patriotism. And proclaiming "America first" without taking international realities or reactions into account is short-sighted.

The trade deal with Mexico and Canada is an example. U.S. "America first" negotiators were negotiating with "Mexico first" and "Canada first" negotiators. The U.S. president's primary concern seemed to be that the earlier NAFTA agreement was a product of previous administrations. Experts see little significant change from that agreement other than a name change, which does, indeed, put America first (USMCA). Many of the changes had already been incorporated into the 12-nation Trans Pacific Pact from which the current administration withdrew.

The Trump administration generally shows disdain for international institutions, at least in its pronouncements. The surprise resignation of Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador raises more questions.

In the 1920s and early '30s, the U.S. pursued an isolationist foreign policy and rejected participation in international organizations, and that helped enable the rise of fascism in Europe. And high tariffs hampered international trade and that was a major factor leading to the Great Depression.

In the post-World War II era it was the U.S. that led the construction of the international order and institutional framework. Today, we live in a globalized world with complex interconnections. That's not an ideology; it's a reality. To deny that and belittle the need for multilateral agreements ignores how economies are deeply entangled globally and how technology accelerates those linkages.

America is not stronger when we go it alone.

Interestingly, 50 years ago Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright reminded the nation that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism, making the point that to criticize one's country can do it a service. It can be a service because it might spur the country to do better and to honor our fundamental principles. This came at a time when those who questioned the growing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war were accused of being unpatriotic.

It is important to remember that patriotism can be manifested in dissent and that blindly following leaders or accepting their false claims or their exaggerated straw-man enemies, can take us down dangerous paths that don't serve our interests.

Commentary on 10/10/2018

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