How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Consistency has never been U.S. President Donald Trump’s strong suit. Every week seems to bring another foreign policy reversal. But, in the swirl, at least one theme has remained constant: America, to paraphrase the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect around the globe. To be sure, Trump was not elected primarily because Americans worry about their nation’s standing abroad. But many citizens do share his belief that foreigners once respected the United States and no longer do.
That belief, however, rests on a romanticized and mythical past in which nations around the world listened and dutifully did America’s bidding when the United States spoke. It pictures a world that was once the United States’ sandbox, whose contents America could, and did, mold and remold at its pleasure. And it dreams that an America restored to its rightful greatness will inspire such respect again.
Such nostalgia is not only wrong, it is also deeply dangerous.
Trump is not the only champion of such nostalgic nationalism, but he is the most famous, and he has articulated this vision with unusual consistency throughout the campaign and into the presidency. According to his storyline, the United States suffered one “humiliation” after another in recent years because the United States’ rivals have little regard for it. Iran: “they have total disrespect for our country.” Russia: “Putin laughs at our leaders, and takes them to the cleaners again and again.” China: “by letting them take advantage of us economically, we have lost all of their respect.” But the underlying cause, Trump and like-minded thinkers assert, is that the nation’s leaders have given their foreign counterparts no reason to respect them. Rather than “proudly defend America at every single turn,” they have gone on needless “apology tours” and “bow[ed] to foreign powers.” They have negotiated weak trade deals that have failed “to fight for our families.” They have embarked on “politically correct wars” and, tying America’s soldiers’ arms behind their backs, have not fought to win.
As proof of this disrespect, Trump occasionally points to supposed breaches of diplomatic protocol, but he much more commonly cites an extensive litany of alleged consequences. They range from the deeply problematic (a bad nuclear deal with Iran, equally bad trade agreements, Russian “defiance,” China’s “economic assault on American jobs and wealth,” Chinese cyber-espionage, North Korea’s nuclear progress, festering civil wars, the Islamic State) to the irritating (aggressive Iranian patrols in the Persian Gulf) to the petty (not hosting the Olympics). So long is Trump’s list that is hard to think of things that he does not believe are products of disrespect, born of his predecessors’ weakness.
For Trump, there is a silver bullet for the United States’ ills. “We must make America respected again. And we must make America great again,” he declared in April 2016 at the National Press Club. “If we do that, perhaps this century can be the most peaceful and prosperous the world has ever known.” For Trump, cultivating respect is primarily about projecting strength and toughness. Respect, in his view, is synonymous with fear.
At the heart of Trump’s narrative is nostalgia for a time when the world conformed to America’s desires. “When I was young,” Trump reflected to the assembled crowd at the CIA in January, “we were always winning things in this country.” A vital word in Trump’s foreign affairs rhetoric is “again.” He promises not progress toward an unprecedented future, but the revival of a glorious past. This nostalgia makes his dark portrait of the present tolerable. It is his foreign policy narrative’s key pivot.
Beyond Trump, nostalgic nationalism has become conventional wisdom in Republican circles. During the 2016 campaign, New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie asserted that “this country is not respected around the world anymore.” Florida senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio similarly insisted that U.S. President Barack Obama “destroyed our military, our allies no longer trust us, and our adversaries no longer respect us.” Echoing Trump, Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, asked at the Republican National Convention, “Is our military stronger? Is America still respected? Over and over again, Obama and Hillary [Clinton] apologized for America and allowed jihadists to spread like wildfire.”
And it isn’t just Republican elites. Over the last decade, Americans of all parties have increasingly come to believe that foreigners’ respect for the United States has declined. As of April 2016, the Pew Research Center found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents endorsed this view.
Nationalism and nostalgia often go hand in hand. The nationalist is not interested in history for its own sake. He or she constructs a past to serve the needs of the present and a particular version of the future. Trump’s allusions to history are true to nationalist form.
Contrary to his nationalist nostalgia, however, over the last 60 years, the United States has met with resistance aplenty, from allies and adversaries alike, and displays of U.S. power have often been counterproductive. Consider the apex of U.S. power, in the 1950s. The United States began the decade in an enervating, deeply unpopular, and shockingly destructive stalemate of a war in Korea. Rather than nurture respect for American power and wisdom, that demonstration of strength made allies anxious about Washington’s penchant for militarism. It also marked the start of a prolonged period of Soviet probing. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles reveled in bluster and brinkmanship—Trump likely would have appreciated Dulles’ public persona—but that hardly made either the Chinese or Soviets toe the line. The Cold War properly understood, in which no rules governed superpower competition, raged in the 1950s even though hard-liners were dominant in the U.S. government. Meanwhile, Dulles’ threat of “massive retaliation” deeply worried allies who feared American escalation as much as, if not more than, their powerful patron’s abandonment.
If toughness yields respect and compliance, then the United States should have been most respected in the 1960s—when it faced down the Soviet bear in Cuba (or so the missile crisis was narrated at the time) and when it sent over 2.5 million troops to South Vietnam to try to prevent that nation from falling to communism. But few would dispute that the decade in fact marked a near nadir of respect for the United States. The war in Vietnam tarnished America’s reputation in the post-colonial world, where it was seen as an aggressor, and the United States had little influence over the nonaligned movement in the Third World. European allies demonstrated increasing independence, highlighted by public criticism of the Vietnam War, France’s departure from the NATO military command in 1966, and Germany’s turn to Ostpolitik. During this decade, the Europeans seemed increasingly disinclined to accommodate the United States economically as well, and that led to the U.S. dollar going off the gold standard in 1971.
Today’s nationalists hail U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s “moral courage” in confronting the Soviet Union, cast him as the epitome of U.S resolve, and credit him with compelling the Soviets to end the Cold War. But, from Central America to the Middle East, Reagan’s uncompromising stance did not produce concessions from U.S. foes but rather inspired violent resistance to both U.S. and U.S.-backed forces. Renewed Cold War in his first term caused tensions with European allies, and the nuclear disarmament movement defined U.S.-European relations. As for the end of the Cold War, it was Reagan’s eventual flexibility, not his unyielding toughness, that helped bring it to a conclusion: he recognized, before his advisers and contrary to their supposed wisdom, that Mikhail Gorbachev was a different Soviet leader who was pursuing a strategic, not merely a tactical, shift in Soviet policy.
Finally, President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 War on Terror and subsequent war in Iraq—seemingly the zenith of U.S. determination—did not garner global respect for the United States, usher in a more hospitable world order, or dissuade resistance. Just the opposite. Between 2002 and 2007, U.S. favorability ratings fell precipitously in 26 of 33 countries, according to the Pew Research Center. U.S. relations with other major powers, allies and rivals alike, were deeply strained. The U.S. military was stretched thin and stressed. As a result of his administration’s aggressive policies, America’s position in the world was unquestionably worse when Bush left office than it had been when he arrived.
Well before Obama and Clinton put their stamp on U.S. foreign policy, then, the United States had regularly failed to impose its will on the world. Contrary to the nationalist account, resistance has not generally been the result of America’s leaders being weak-kneed and lily-livered. In fact, U.S. toughness has often served foreign leaders’ purposes, as they have found political profit in casting themselves in the role of defender of their nation against the United States and its imperialist pretensions.
Nationalist mythologizing suggests that regular shows of U.S. military strength will cow adversaries and allies alike into submission. It implies that America can be great again only if others finally acknowledge its superiority. Yet it is the American penchant for intervention, whether sustained by deep-seated belief in American exceptionalism or by Trump’s unexceptional nationalism, which has fostered the very resistance that so upsets the current president.
One might take solace in the fact that, despite its pugnacious and sometimes revolutionary tone, the Trump administration’s concrete policies have largely been restrained when it comes to military force. On most key issues, he has continued the Obama administration’s centrist approach. But Trump’s adherence to the nationalist narrative remains worrisome for two reasons. First, the large gap between policy and narrative is not permanently sustainable. As I have argued elsewhere, the largest questions of national security normally require public resources or draw public attention, and leaders are therefore compelled to legitimate, or publicly justify, their policies in this domain. For this reason, historians have found that the divergence between the U.S. government’s public rhetoric and the administration’s private discussions on foreign policy has usually been small. Trump will look for opportunities to close the gap, perhaps notably during times of (presidentially manufactured) crisis, and his establishment-minded advisers could in those moments prove less influential. Second, even if the administration’s policies buck the historical trend and remain largely at odds with the president’s rhetoric, foreign policy is mostly about talk. Either U.S. diplomats will be working overtime for the next four years soothing ruffled feathers, or foreign leaders will simply learn to ignore the president: neither is good news for U.S. foreign policy or global stability.
It is inevitable that the world will resist America’s desires. It is not inevitable that other nations will display disdain for the United States and its leading officials. If Trump wants others to respect his country, he needs to start by adopting a very different narrative—acknowledging that the world is not America’s to shape and casting others as equals and partners in a world order that yields mutual benefits. Denying other countries what they understand to be their legitimate rights provokes anger and invites aggression. Granting them esteem from the start is more likely to lead to reciprocity, trust, and compromise.
That’s how America can get respect—and how America’s deal-maker-in-chief can get to yes.