Hic Sunt Dracones

Where United States foreign policy is concerned, we are steering into seas whose dragons may be only vaguely visible.
02/18/2017 10:06 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2017

The Hunt-Lenox Globe, built in 1502, carried this phrase, “Here there be dragons,” in an area of uncharted maritime waters. Since then what dragons there be, great whales, or who knows what, have been sighted and cataloged (that is unless you are among those still searching for the Loch Ness Monster.)

Where United States foreign policy is concerned, however, we may be entering an era described by that globe. Based upon proclamations by the new President and some around him, there is reason for concern that post-World War II political, economic, and security alliances may be headed for the dust-bin and we are steering into seas whose dragons may be only vaguely visible.

The South China Sea. Multiple Southeast Asian nations lay claim to maritime territories in the region. They include Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and most notably China, among others. China is constructing makeshift islands on coral reefs to establish territorial claim. We have protested these actions in international organizations and brought naval ships and patrol aircraft into the region. In recent days the new President announced abrogation of the “one China” policy devised by Richard Nixon and followed by every American administration since then. This was a formula for the return to the coldest of cold wars with China, with military confrontation not excluded. In what is becoming a pattern, other officials have contradicted the President and reaffirmed commitment to the one China policy. Nevertheless, this be a dragon requiring attention.

The Baltic States. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are members of NATO. President Trump has declared NATO “obsolete”, thus exposing these small nations to the threat from its neighboring wolf to the East with whom the President has proclaimed unaccounted for friendship. Once again, the new Secretary of Defense, who understands completely the importance of NATO to US and allied security, has walked back from the commander-in-chief’s dismissal of our most important security alliance. Even if, as hoped, the Secretary prevails, members of NATO will wonder at our commitment to their security. An explosive dragon to be watched.

NATO disintegration. Depending on which day of the week, and which official is speaking, we are either going to continue as the central pillar of NATO or we are not. If we are not, expect monumental increases in Defense Department expenditures as well as the rest of the alliance lining up outside the Kremlin to cut the best bargain they can against Russian domination of Europe. The Baltic States represent the first, but not the only, test of whatever new arrangement is being devised in the White House where Russia is concerned. If NATO is abandoned or weakened, we are indeed entering uncharted waters.

Trade Wars. The new administration has abandoned the multi-national Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, thus opening the way for China, not the United States, to fashion trade rules for this vast region. Thus, we have lost leverage to insist on labor and environmental rules required for fairness and climate protection. Whatever collective trade arrangements these ten or so nations devise for themselves, we will not be part of. One would have thought the author of The Art of the Deal would have welcomed the chance to demonstrate his superior negotiating skills in this historic and vast venue upon which we are deeply dependent to create jobs for American workers and lower costs to consumers. What dragon will arise in our absence will hardly be friendly to us, our workers, or our consumers.

We are unquestionably sailing into unfamiliar seas without a compass or a captain with experience in steering the ship of state.

Deficits. No authoritative institution has stepped forward to account for the negative impact on our national budgets caused by promised tax cuts, heavily tilted toward the wealthy, and unspecified major spending increases in military budgets. Indeed, all calculations available show a very large, if not massive, increase in government deficits. Whether the President is the last man standing to believe in the discredited “supply side” myth, one cannot know. But, to date, no one in his Party, which has made so much of ending deficits, has stepped forward to explain how this looming gap will be closed, that is unless you believe the Speaker of the House may not be telling the truth about privatization of Social Security and Medicare. The dragon-slayers of national deficits in the majority Congressional Party have gone strangely silent. But the dragon remains.

Carbon emissions. Lacking memory and a sense of history, at least over inconvenient subjects such as pollution, the Party of Richard Nixon has been trying to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency since he created it. A great step in that direction was taken by the confirmation of a new director of the Agency who hates it. Lacking the political courage to introduce legislation to eliminate the Agency, which would ignite a public fire-storm, this President simply appointed an assassin to attack it from within. Look for career experts in air and water quality, toxic waste cleanup, regulation of toxic chemical production, and much else to resign rather than dismantle decades of progress or be re-assigned to the EPA office in Nome, Alaska. The dragon of carbon in the atmosphere threatens to break out of its cage.

Iran. There is daylight, once again, between the President and more sober members of the security agencies on the question of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the U.S. and Iran. There is no evidence that the President has ever read the agreement or even been seriously briefed on the advantages to us, others in the Middle East, and the world to a major power agreeing not to produce nuclear weapons. There is more at stake. Iran is on our side where ISIS is concerned and is strongly supporting anti-Islamic State forces. Iran’s reformers in government have indicated a desire for closer economic and political ties with the US and the West. It will take no talent or imagination to destroy the basis for a better relationship. Who would benefit from such a policy is totally mystifying. It is the result, like the Affordable Care Act, of being a major accomplishment of the Obama Administration and therefore, by definition, something to be destroyed, cutting off our nose to spite our face. This dragon must be kept in its cage.

North Korea. In the world of dragons, this one is front and center. Let’s forget (if possible) making policy in response to a North Korean missile launch over dinner at a country club. There is possibly no greater test of the new Administration’s sobriety, maturity, and leadership command than this. It is not going to become simpler and it is not going away. Disarray, as at present, in the National Security Council and among senior intelligence officials and agencies, is an invitation to miscalculation with horrendous consequences. Overnight, North Korea could become a greater threat to world stability than ISIS. Rounding up immigrant children will not solve it or make us safer. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

This may not be 1502, but we are unquestionably sailing into unfamiliar seas without a compass, a clear idea where we are headed, or a captain with experience in steering the ship of state. It is not a good time for improvisation, intemperance, off the cuff decision making, or frivolous behavior. Our ship requires navigators. They are called statesmen. We need to find them and quickly.

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