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Virtueless prestige

Has the first year of the Trump administration been a retreat from the global agenda or paradoxically fueled its expansion?

Superficially it resembles a retreat. Former rising star Elizabeth Shackleford recently resigned from the State Department over what she characterized as the administration's failure to promote "US values and interests overseas: advancing democracy ... human rights, and ... a more secure global order for the American people. “With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department’s experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers,” she wrote.

But the policy of evangelizing an enlightened agenda was never without a downside as demonstrated by the US intervention in Libya based on the UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. In his "address to the nation on Libya" justifying the use of military force, Obama argued that what was good for Libya was good for America. Since the upheavals in Libya were then regarded as part of the Arab Spring what better thing to do than topple Khadaffy?

There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security ...

I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms ... because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith -- those ideals -- that are the true measure of American leadership.

Unfortunately it did not work out as planned.  Later the Obama administration assumed a large responsibility for feeding countries wracked by famine through the Global Food Security Act of 2016.  Ironically when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw its support for the program its supporters protested the cancellation would starve the victims of the Arab Spring.

Though the goal of a values-based foreign policy was ostensibly to make the world better by making it like America, in practice that meant making the world like Hollywood and the Beltway. That was not without its problems. When the image of elite virtue collapsed under a spate of scandal made possible by the Internet the old magic declined considerably.  Calamities like Libya and the sudden exposure of American public icons may have undermined Elizabeth Shackleford's quest far more fatally than Donald Trump's Tweets.

The replacement for the status quo ante which may be emerging is what Francis Fukuyama termed adaptive order.  Perhaps the "lack of centralized control is what makes the system more adaptive in the long run. In fact, most biological and social systems are anarchic, a condition that nonetheless permits substantial self-organization. This work is highly suggestive for the social sciences, offering an explanation why central planning has given way to markets. A further implication may be that there can be no deterministic model for the behavior of international systems, and that theorists who have been chasing elegant and highly reductionist models of international relations are doomed to fail."