More Than Just One Train Wreck

Photo by Tony Alter | CC BY 2.0

On the same day President Trump delivered a solemn address presenting his administration’s report to Congress on the threats to the national security of the United States, an Amtrak train jumped off the tracks on a new route from Seattle, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, killing at least 3 people and injuring about 100 others. While the damage caused by the train wreck cannot be compared to a possible nuclear attack by North Korea or how China and Russia “seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth,” according to the report, there is a relationship between viewing national security as tied to foreign intervention and the failure of domestic policies.

President Trump’s presentation of the required report followed his campaign’s vision of a binary world of us against them. The document argued that “great power competition returned,” specifying that Russia and China “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” In response to these threats, the report said, the government must put “America First” by canceling unfair trade agreements and rebuilding the military.

In the context of the document’s perceived return to great power competition, President Trump announced that “America is in the game, and America is going to win.”

All of this we have heard before. In the president’s eyes, power is based on military might to combat the foreign evil that threatens the United States. While cuts to budget items like the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department have been proposed, the initial military budget envisioned by Trump was to have a 10% increase of $54 billion, a number that dwarfs the entire annual military budget of the United Kingdom, the fifth-largest spending country in the world.

A good definition of power is the ability to get someone or something to do what you want it to do. What has the American military accomplished since the end of World War II? In Vietnam? Iraq? Libya? Afghanistan? The use of military force has been redefined since the end of World War II. Force may be used to attack ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, but it will not eliminate extremism or economic inequalities. The United States has the largest and most powerful army in history, but to what avail? President Trump seems incapable of understanding the subtleties of using any power besides force such as soft power or smart power.

The Washington train wreck is an example of the crumbling U.S. infrastructure. A country that cannot safely run its trains or repair its highways and bridges is in danger of domestic collapse, literally. The wolves of Wall Street may be under the illusion that they run the world, but they cannot easily get to work these days because of subway malfunctions or, for the chauffeured, potholes on the New York highways.

President Trump is determined to thwart foreign aggression against the United States. That is commendable and an obligation for his role as commander-in-chief. However, this does not exclude making sure that the country’s citizens have basic rights such as medical care, clean air, and safe transportation.

While the stock market continues to climb and speculation flourishes, the Washington train derailment is a rude reminder of the decisions being made about the use of power. Budget choices require hard decisions. Overspending on the military takes away valuable resources from domestic problems. Most empires collapse from within. The Soviet Union imploded; it did not explode from outside pressure.

President Trump’s campaign promises about infrastructure repairs creating jobs have not been realized. Bombastic comments about the use of military force against North Korea or Iran may grab the headlines, but they will not fix Amtrak or the West Side Highway.

A national security strategy that does not include domestic threats is an empty shell. It may be that no foreign intervention will be necessary to bring down the American empire; it will crumble from within. The image of the derailed train dangling above the Northwest’s busiest travel corridor is as important, if not more important, than all the videos of North Korea’s missile tests. More than just a passenger train was dangling in mid-air.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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