The paranoid fantasies of Lou Dobbs

This morning before work I caught Lou Dobbs on CNN International while flipping through the news channels. In the span of the few minutes I watched, he reported on grassroots efforts to fight illegal immigration quashed by the US corporations and the government, US cooperation on policing with “totalitarian” Red China, “the march of the leftists” in Latin America, and the specter of Putin’s menacing new Russia.

Much attention has been focused on his staunch economic populism and anti-globalism. This attention is not misplaced or unwarranted, but just from watching a few minutes of his show I discerned a much broader and much more dangerous worldview than simple economic nationalism.

As the stories mentioned above indicate, Dobbs essentially believes that America is a haven amidst a sea of troubles. The countries of the world are dysfunctional and/or dangerous. Unfair economic competition is only one facet of the dangers posed by the rest of the world. Foreign governments and peoples are hostile to America, and therefore we must retreat within our borders, tend our own garden, and watch the world fall to pieces.

Even if this approach were possible, it would be undesirable. Despite apparent disorder in the short term, the world may be on the brink of true peace and prosperity, as the likelihood of great-power war diminishes and billions of people are pulled out of debilitating poverty by economic liberalization. The US has an interest in using its power to usher this new era into being, and interdependence means that it has little choice in the matter. Thus to view the world as a cavalcade of threats to the American way of life is paranoid to the extreme.

Take his views on China. His report on US cooperation on policing and law enforcement expressed bafflement at the “contradictions” in US China policy. This reporting is gravely misleading, given that as every observer of US-China relations knows, US policy vis-a-vis Beijing has been riddled with contradictions ever since Nixon and Kissinger went to China. “Coopetition” is the watchword of the relationship, as every US administration since 1972 has found in China a potential partner in the management of regional security and, post-1978, a trading partner of ever-growing importance, even as the same administrations saw a looming threat to Taiwan and a brutal oppressor of its own people. But China is changing rapidly, and in unknown ways — it’s impossible to know what it will look like in ten, or even five, years. So to talk of “Red China” like some kind of 1950s newsreel is unhelpful in the extreme. The US should cooperate wherever possible and criticize and cajole only when necessary, but most importantly it must not view China as a kind of unmitigated enemy of America.

In short, America must not succumb to Dobbsian paranoia. The challenge of my generation — indeed of every generation of American leaders — will be to use American power to help usher in a more peaceful, prosperous world, which necessarily means rejecting the fear peddled by Lou Dobbs and his ilk.

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