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Why Tragedy Matters in U.S. Foreign Policy

Why Tragedy Matters in U.S. Foreign Policy

In The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order, Hal Brands and Charles Edel argue that for the United States to succeed in a world of unrelenting challenges, its leaders should be measured by their sense of tragedy.

The ancient Greeks believed, as Brands and Edel explain, that “the past served as a source of both terror and inspiration,” so they were able to use their arts and intellectual discourse to “cultivate a political culture that was both sober and optimistic.” Yet one wonders whether this is possible today—in a world of social media mobs, Facebook feeds, screaming cable chyrons, countdown clocks, and everything depicted as “breaking news” or another episode in some reality show—and in which fewer and fewer future policymakers (and citizens) are learning history, let alone educational institutions teaching it.

Given this, one may be tempted to conclude that the only way to regain the tragic sensibility is to become intimately familiar with tragedy again; that the outlook for the United States in the world can only improve after it has hit rock bottom and suffered a bit. A few years ago, one of our most astute tragic strategic thinkers and a frequent contributor to these pages, Robert D. Kaplan, observed that while the current policy elite may be exceptionally credentialed, their relative experience of physical and financial security undermines their understanding of tragedy. “They may have suffered as individuals but not as a group to the extent of previous generations,” Kaplan wrote, “which accounts for their trouble in thinking tragically.”

While it is true that the current generation has not experienced a cataclysm on the scale of the two World Wars or the Great Depression, or anything like the carnage of the Civil War or the mayhem of the Revolutionary era, or even the political tumult and social unrest of the Vietnam/Watergate era, there is no shortage of reminders that tragedy exists. As for recent experience, one hopes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which look more tragic by the day), the 2008 financial crisis, the epidemic of gun violence and the reopened wounds of racial injustice might be enough.

WHILE THESE imbroglios combined to help elect Donald Trump as president, the implications of the Trump era might enable us to take the final tragic step towards a kind of renewal. We must debate the wisdom of America’s military interventions abroad, the division of labor between the United States and its allies, the utility of certain international institutions and the fairness of the global trading system. The problem is not these questions themselves, but the way Trump asks and how he answers them—or at least as much as his epically disjointed administration is able to do so.

Trump understands only one thing about tragedy—how to exploit it for his own selfish and cynical purposes. “What about me?” has always been his lodestar. Unlike his greatest predecessors—from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama—Trump evidently has no personal experience with tragedy. He has even less desire or capacity to learn about it. Therefore, it is foolish to ever expect him to lead in a way that reflects the tragic sensibility. Yet we can—and must—have higher expectations for ourselves.

For the United States to succeed in a world of such unrelenting challenges, its leaders should be measured by their sense of tragedy. They need, as Eisenhower advised nearly six decades ago in his farewell address, to have humility and take nothing for granted. They require the confidence to combine ambition with restraint. And they must remain keenly aware of the fact that, as that patron saint of tragic thinking, Reinhold Niebuhr, once observed, all great nations are “caught in a web of history in which many desires, hopes, wills and ambitions, other than their own, are operative.”

Whatever the ultimate destiny of the Trump era, it will not end well. So, in this sense, perhaps future historians will record that we needed Trump to remember that tragedy still exists—and to reaffirm the importance of embracing the tragic sensibility.

Derek Chollet is Executive Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense. His next book is about the shared foreign policy legacy of Dwight Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama.