Former Trump NSC official Michael Anton speaks out on foreign policy

Michael Anton, a former senior National Security Council official in the Trump administration, is “amazed” by what the administration has achieved in the president’s first term — but warns in a new book that the U.S. could careen into disaster if Donald Trump loses his reelection bid in November.

In his new book, The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, which hit bookshelves last week, Anton argues that this situation has not fundamentally changed — America remains on the brink, and a Trump reelection is the only way to preserve the American way of life.

Although Anton served as the spokesman for Trump’s National Security Council, and left the administration just before former National Security Advisor John Bolton took office, foreign policy is not Anton’s top focus in the book.

However, he writes that the current international world order, with America at its helm, is “a voluntary alliance of neoliberal elites across nations to work together in their own interests.”

According to Anton, Trump’s foreign policy doctrine seeks to fight back against the current structure by rolling back decades of steadily expanding American foreign policy, which dictated that America needed to maintain a presence in every corner of the world.

Trump’s foreign policy has a more narrow focus, centered on defending national security, maintaining America’s economic and trading competitiveness, and maintaining America’s alliance structure, Anton continued.

“It’s a more focused doctrine than what Trumpism replaced. It’s seeing American interest through a more narrow lens,” he told Jewish Insider. “Once you define everything as a priority, nothing is a priority. Once you define everything as an interest, it means nothing is an interest.”

Anton explained that the Trump administration’s approach to the U.S.-Israel relationship fits within such a mold in part because of Israel’s critical position in the U.S.’s security strategy.

“But so many foreign relationships can’t be reduced to dollars and cents,” he added. “America has allies out of shared conviction and shared interests… Some of these alliances that you have are simply because of a natural affinity to democracies that share common values, and so on and so forth, and relationships built up over decades. And you don’t necessarily ask the question, ‘Hey, what am I getting out of this today?’ It’s not a calculation at every step of the way in foreign policy.”

Anton characterized the recent normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as one of a litany of major Trump administration foreign policy accomplishments.

He declined to say whether this move was in the works during his tenure in the White House, but indicated that it fits within the Trump administration’s broader Middle East strategy.

“We knew going in that a big part of Middle East diplomacy would have to be as much normalization as possible between Israel and other states,” Anton said. “We knew also that some of that normalization would take place below the radar. It wouldn’t be formal or it would take a while for it to become formal. But we certainly were seeking to achieve as much formal normalization as possible.”

Anton also boasted that the Trump administration had helped improve the Israeli-Saudi relationship.

“The fact that relations get better and a lot of quiet and not particularly visible cooperation takes place is also an accomplishment, even if you don’t see it and even if there’s no moment where people sit down and shake hands and sign something,” he said, adding that the Trump administration sees improving relationships between Israel and Arab states as a critical step in facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

Anton acknowledged that the Trump administration’s peace proposal is not, and cannot be, a final peace deal, but laid blame on the Palestinians for the lack of progress — criticizing Palestinian leaders for walking away from the negotiating table after the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“What I had hoped for at the time was that it was a demonstration of displeasure… that would last a finite amount of time… and then the Palestinians would come back knowing that that recognition really didn’t change anything,” he said. “I don’t think that they’re helping themselves by staying away and not talking. I don’t see what that gains them.” 

Anton said he does not believe there is anything specific the U.S. can do to incentivize the Palestinians to return to the table, but it can push Arab states to encourage the Palestinians to reengage in negotiations.

In a second term, Anton predicted that Trump would continue to work toward a Middle East peace deal — although he acknowledged that is contingent on the Palestinians returning to the negotiating table. Anton also suggested that the administration would continue to pursue talks with North Korea and focus on the U.S.-China relationship.

Anton’s broader argument in The Stakes — that America is on the brink — echoes his 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” which made waves in political and media spheres. In it, he argued that a Hillary Clinton victory would, essentially, mark the end of America as it has existed, and that a Trump victory was the only possibility to stave off a calamity.

Anton said that, despite four years of a Trump presidency, the U.S. remains in a precipitous situation because of the influence of the federal bureaucracy and other institutional powers like the media, academia and the corporate world. “Every other power center in the country is held by people who oppose the president’s agenda,” he said

And America will find itself on the brink of disaster every four years, Anton continued, “until and unless we can get back to something like a real politics of give and take in this country.”

Jonathan Sacks wants to prevent the failure of liberal democracy

Philosopher, writer, spiritual leader… soothsayer? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has filled many roles, but even he could not predict the timeliness of his latest book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

“A free society is a moral achievement,” Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain, opens. “Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. That is why today liberal democracy is at risk.”

The last portion requires little further elaboration. Any casual glance at the current state of the Western world reveals the fragmentation of a society in an era of rising tensions. But rather than dwell only on describing the existence of these problems — as many recent authors have done — Sacks follows their historical and philosophical origins to understand how what he calls the “moral achievement” of creating a liberal society could become forgotten.

The book, which is released today for American audiences by Basic Book, examines what Sacks terms the “I” of self-interest and the “we” of shared values and responsibility, ultimately providing a pathway for moving from the former to the latter.

In doing so, Sacks provides as good an argument as any for moving forward productively and conscientiously. 

Sacks — who studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, including under the late Roger Scruton — mixes sociology, history, philosophy and theology, all the while writing with a perceptive clarity and underlying warmth that explains his status as one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of today.

Building his argument from the ground up, Sacks starts with the roots of free society in examining the political philosophies that not only informed the creation of modern democracy, but also developed the idea of individuality and personal liberties.

In his chapter “Democracy in Danger,” Sacks contrasts the two most influential definitions of the social contract that defines liberal democracy: Rousseau’s definition of rights as rendered by individuals against the state versus Locke and Hobbes’ definition of rights as a mutual protection from the state. He warns that a growing Anglo-American preference for the former belies the importance of shared responsibility in a democracy, writing that if communities “stop believing in the existence of a significant arena of individual responsibility, we will lose the sense of common morality that finds its natural home in families and communities.”

Sacks further connects this thread to Anglo-American society’s growing sense of separation and loneliness, joining a long list of thinkers — including Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker — in citing the twin processes of social media use and identity politics as driving factors in an epidemic of isolation and fragmentation that has increasingly transformed Western politics.

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Sacks cited the multiculturalism that began in the 1970s and more recent identity politics each as a wave that “fragments and destroys the idea of an overarching culture that turns disconnected individuals and communities into a cohesive society.”

While he reserves no criticism, Sacks treats these movements and their disciples with evident care, describing them as unfortunate products of postmodernism rather than simply the work of ill-intentioned radicals seeking disruption.

“The first country to introduce multiculturalism, and the first to regret it, was the Netherlands.” Sacks writes in his chapter on identity politics. “When asked why they were against it, the Dutch people interviewed said: because they were in favor of tolerance. When asked for their explanation of the difference between the two, they tended to reply that tolerance means ignoring differences; multiculturalism means making an issue of them at every stage.”

In most Western countries, that heightened focus on identity has coalesced into nationalism, the return of which has become especially apparent across Europe. As history shows, the products of such movements ultimately target the foundations of liberal democracy, while including a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hatred.

The way forward, Sacks argues, requires an acceptance of difference alongside a shared cause, more commonly and aptly called patriotism.

In conversation with JI, Sacks cited George Orwell’s differentiation of the two in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” during which the English novelist wrote, “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Patriotism, Sacks argues, is the best means to turn from “I’ to “we.” Inserting a shared commitment and shared values without erasing individuality or identity. Throughout his book, Sacks also refers to this commitment as a “covenant,” a permanent and powerful collaboration that turns individual “I”s seeking personal good into “we”s seeking common good.

Yet many of the examples of success that Sacks cites from the 19th and 20th centuries were precipitated by violence, including the Civil War and World War II.

Jonathan Sacks readily acknowledged this pitfall. “Violence is always a sign of political failure,” he said.”I would hope that wise political leadership will lean in to people suffering early enough to avoid the need for violence”

In his epilogue, Sacks touches on this subject, contrasting the different responses to World War I — which saw few changes and ultimately led to more chaos — and World War II — which saw a reformation of institutions and a commitment to shared values. 

The latter saw a development of national narratives that inculcated a common morality and sense of commitment. 

Now, 75 year later, these narratives are depleted. “Britain, like America, has recently become sort of ashamed of its national narrative,” Sacks remarked, noting that he has spent time working alongside numerous prime ministers in an effort to resurrect a respectable replacement. He cited the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton” as an important example of renewing old values by “[retelling] the national narrative in a thrilling way.”

But broader than hit musicals, Sacks argued that the most effective and immediate move towards reinstating a shared commitment lies in requiring mandatory national military service.

Citing Israel — which he called one of the best examples of a current Western-style democracy with a “we” culture — described national service as “the most sensible socially and financially way of engaging that generation and getting them to feel that this was something other than a black period in their lives.”

But Jonathan Sacks wisely advised that no quick fix exists. 

“You don’t expect quick victories. When it comes to changing the mood, we expect to win a few cycles,” he said. “And then they generate disciples and before you know it, the world has changed. But it changes in very small steps at the beginning.”