BOOK REVIEW: “The Empty Throne” makes a better argument for not having one

I’ve said before there’s a seductive idea that some more competent version of American hegemony was once in effect and is desirable to return to.

Without meaning to, what Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay book The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership seems to persuasively advocate for is how bad of an idea it is for the United States to have a throne at all when the person in it is as likely as not to wield that leadership destructively.

As a recap of some of the destructive decisions and ineptitudes in the international sphere by the Trump campaign and administration up through July 2018, this is a brief and effective restatement of events you probably vaguely already knew but forgot.

Did you know we’re helping Saudi Arabia with their nuclear capabilities? That doesn’t come up in the book, but the administration simultaneously taking two different positions on Qatar which nearly led to another Mideast shooting war in 2017 is mentioned briefly. So is Trump doing his best to blow up the nuclear treaty with Iran. But that’s just one region.

The amount of information already available regarding the ascendant, reactionary kleptocracy in our nation’s capital is too bonkers to hold in your mind long term without permanent brain damage, and the past few years regularly feel like a persistent fugue state anyway.

So it’s more than fair to remind us, in a macro sense, what’s been happening to international relations now that Trump is in charge, how openly transactional they’ve become and without any veneer of human rights or decency. What audience that reminder is useful for, in book form, two years into his presidency, I don’t know.

The Fourth Estate as popularly consumed on television lacks oxygen to more thoroughly cover all the myriad scandal-worthy events because they need to get to the bottom of why Democratic women say naughty words in public.

It might be useful for television news to stop chasing the shiny thing of the minute in order to spend some time each week and day on retrospection to provide context, but I can’t imagine what person would be interested in reading this book and learn something truly new versus, “Oh right, that happened.”

Clearly, ” ‘member” books deserve to exist, but the other problem is that its focus is on Trumpian Exceptionalism. That excuse grows increasingly unfeasible to maintain by the day. From inauguration to the midterms, is there anyone who thinks the leadership from the Senate majority, let alone the House caucus, would have produced more coherent, sober foreign policy than what we got?

After the reactions of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan to reports of Russian election interference to their benefit, is there any reason to think another GOP occupant of the White House would, in real terms, pursue different interests?

What are we missing out on except a President Jeb Bush getting his ducks in a row to actually invade Venezuela and blow up more stuff in Syria?

Between party affiliation and support for Trump, we’re looking at maybe 2.5 percent of voters who are still Republican but don’t much care for him and what he’s doing. The GOP establishment doesn’t reflect real people, but the rubes have the keys to the kingdom now. The serious politicians who are supposed to know better are too cowardly to provide any check, even when they fully controlled both chambers of a co-equal branch of government rather than just one after the midterms. The future is North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan. It’s Georgia. It’s West Virginia.

The Republican Party is venal and corrupt, incompetent and complicit, but by hook, crook, and geographical providence, it’s got control of half the country. It can’t fairly win a popular majority basically anywhere, but it doesn’t have to. Without some kind of massive reform, that seems to be so for the foreseeable future.

It’s not an aberration that Trump is so popular among the Republican Party and supported by their representatives so slavishly. In 2015, Red State’s Erick Erickson felt that Trump was too boorish to invite to a conservative conference after making a reference to Megyn Kelly and blood coming out of her, but Erickson also thinks that having Latin American autocrats willing to torture and kill leftist opposition is good policy. The only problem Republicans have with Trump is that he gives up the game and is rude about it.

I don’t want to suggest that the authors—as they outline how Trump blundered out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or made himself a pariah at gatherings with traditional allies—neglect to speak to the damage that America had already done to its image with Vietnam and especially the invasion of Iraq. They do speak to that.

As they wrote in their previous book, President George W. Bush “relied on the unilateral exercise of American power rather than on international law and institutions to get his way” and “depended on ad hoc coalitions of the willing to gain support abroad and ignored permanent alliances”. But John McCain sang “Bomb Iran” in 2007. The same year, Mitt Romney wouldn’t take tactical nukes off the table, but who knows what his meaningful convictions ever have been.

Since 2000, no presidential election has exactly been a blowout, and there’s been no Republican candidate close to getting the nomination who didn’t see warmongering and flouting of international opinion as a helpful position to take.

Yes, you probably have forgotten some aspects of just how bad Republican governance has been for American leadership over the past two years.

But the critique I did not find reading The Empty Throne and that I was waiting for was why American leadership should be a good idea for anyone in the rest of the world to rely on when every four years our country is a coinflip away from electing an avatar of the Republican Party as currently constituted, willing to invade and bomb wherever they please, disregard any prior agreements they don’t care for, and prop up malleable despots. If Democrats are better about this—and they are—they certainly not blameless, either. They’re also the best case scenario.

One of the book’s taglines is “America is abandoning the world it made—with disastrous consequences.” For a certain class of people in the United States to be able to get their way most of the time, that may be true, sure.

But if half the surgical teams performing operations at a hospital are known to be vengeful, nihilistic alcoholics, this is not an argument against any particular surgery team: it’s why you need to look for a hospital that doesn’t continue to employ such people.

If conditions of the American throne have deteriorated this dramatically, it’s not an argument for a better monarch: it’s why you need to abolish the throne.

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