Donald Trump vs. Harry Truman

Over the last few months, I've applied to a couple of opportunities to engage more with national security and foreign policy issues. My friend Marshall Kosloff knows as much about U.S. foreign policy as just about anyone I know, so I've had a few conversations with him on these subjects recently. It's got me thinking more and more about America's role in the world. Below is an essay I wrote after a conversation with Marshall. 

I remember in 2012 when I found out that then-candidate Mitt Romney had said that Russia was, “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” I laughed. At our College Democrats meeting that week, we made jokes about. Did he really say that? Seriously? This was Romney being Romney, Republicans being Republicans – unnecessarily bellicose. It reminded me of then-candidate John McCain in 2008 saying we could be in Iraq for 10,000 years. It seemed ridiculous on its face, but it was also scary coming from a candidate for President of the United States.

A lot has changed in the last five years. 

We now know that Russia engaged in a massive operation to influence the outcome of our election, an astounding attack on U.S. sovereignty. The notion that somehow all those Facebook and Twitter advertisements had no impact on any voters is laughable; if that’s true, then no company or candidate should ever purchase an advertisement on social media again. Of course they mattered. What we don’t know – yet – is if the Russian efforts were aided by American citizens. If Bob Mueller has his way, we’ll know eventually.

But we also know that Russia’s actions on the global stage are contrary to American interests and American values. The invasion of Ukraine. Supporting the Assad regime in Syria. Sinister meddling in Montenegro. Their close ties to Iran. Mitt Romney’s analysis doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. I was naïve, and I think many Democrats were, too. 

I’m concerned that the “Russia issue” is becoming more and more partisan in American politics because the “Russia issue” is starting to just mean Russian attacks on our own democracy by influencing our election. That’s a big deal – worthy of investigation, prosecution, and sanctions. It cannot be tolerated. But while that’s all happening, with Donald Trump’s favorable comments about Vladimir Putin, Republican approval of both Russia and Putin is on the rise. And we’re forgetting that this is about more than one election.

Democrats are so focused on the election narrative, with its hyper-partisan impact, that I worry we’re missing the bigger picture – which is that Russia is a legitimate threat to world peace and the post-World War II order. 

With President Trump’s threats to pull out of NATO, insults to Angela Merkel, and undermining of international treaties, trade deals, and institutions – there is a troublesome movement in American politics toward isolationism. I worry that some on the left share that tendency toward international disengagement. If Trump has his way, and America literally and metaphorically walls itself off from the world, there will be a massive leadership vacuum on the global stage. 

Who do we think will fill that void? I’m sure Putin has one idea.

This is a critical moment in American history. Our identity is at stake; we are deciding who we are as a country. Are we Donald Trump’s America – isolationist, fearful, jealous, paranoid, and indifferent to tragedy? Or are we Harry Truman’s America? A strong, internationalist nation with robust global engagement and an active leadership role in global institutions; a superpower that makes us – and the rest of the world – safer through economic development and engagement. 

That’s an easy choice for me. 

We need to get to the bottom of Russian interference in our election – regardless of where the truth takes us. But we also can’t take our eye off the ball. The “Russia issue” should not be partisan, and it shouldn’t be synonymous for just Russian interference in our election. The real “Russia issue” is a lot bigger than that – it’s about who will lead the world in the 21st Century.

When all is said and done, and this chapter of American history is over, I hope that Harry Truman would recognize America – his America, not Donald Trump’s.