How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The 2016 election was hardly the first time that the U.S. political system alarmed many of the United States’ partners broad. After the election of 1832, the British complained that the United States was governed by “demagogues and non-entities,” and versions of that grievance have been repeated regularly by allied leaders since. Yet this time is different. During the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States’ friends have, for the first time, begun to hedge their bets in clear and consequential ways. A second term for Trump would accelerate such moves, with the result of transforming the international order for good.
Even before the start of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, support for the United States had plummeted to historic lows. Over the past six months, Washington has shown both indifference to the magnitude of suffering among its own citizens and sharp-elbowed selfishness in its approach to global cooperation on vaccines, medical supplies, and more—decimating support for both U.S. leadership of a mutually beneficial international order and global aspiration to the American way of life.
If Trump is reelected, his “America first” foreign policy will have been validated, and the result will be an America snarling into decline. The admiration for the United States that reduces the cost of everything it tries to achieve in the world will evaporate, and other countries will move on, shaping a new order to protect themselves from a self-seeking, often hostile United States. Washington will find that it has squandered an international order that was built to enhance its security and sustain its prosperity and instead faces a world without the institutions, alliances, and goodwill that have long bolstered U.S. interests. The president and the Republican leaders who support him will have to take responsibility for what they have wrought: a new order that excludes the United States.
Projecting forward from the Trump foreign policy decisions of the last four years makes clear the damage that could be done in a second term—and what that damage will mean for U.S. leadership. Convincing countries to align their policies with those of the United States will become more difficult because the United States will no longer represent common ideals. Allies will not want to station U.S. military forces in their countries or join coalition operations with the United States. Pardoning war criminals and vituperating against the International Criminal Court—as Trump has done over his first term and will likely continue doing over a second term—will make it less likely that other powers see the U.S. military as a force that uses violence lawfully.
The Trump administration’s self-seeking approach to foreign policy, if repeated, will push other powers to forge new alliances that keep the United States out. Under a second Trump administration, the United States will likely withdraw troops from Europe. It will continue demanding extortionate payments from South Korea and Japan for stationing U.S. troops and, since neither will concede, withdraw troops from both countries, embrittling security commitments. Meanwhile, North Korea will continue to stockpile nuclear weapons, and South Korea will inch toward conciliation with the North. Japan will become a major military power and pull the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam into closer cooperation. These new security alliances may not embrace U.S. interests, thus shaping a new order.
The United States will go from leading an international order to being unmoored from it.
In the Middle East, Washington will write off the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and leave Syria to President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality. Perhaps Russia and Iran would dispute each other’s influence in the region. But it is more likely that the vacuum the United States leaves behind will have room for the ambitions of both. Meanwhile, no U.S. allies will trust Washington’s security guarantees, instead hedging against the United States’ abandonment or conceding to intimidation. Middle-power cooperation, once a promising means to strengthen the rules-based international order, will prove inadequate without the underwriting of U.S. support.
The fundamental miscalculation by the Trump administration is to assume the United States is so powerful that it doesn’t need to compromise. Under a second Trump administration, Washington would withdraw from international organizations, vacate alliances, fail to negotiate treaties limiting threats, and accelerate its use of punitive sanctions. Extending sanctions to France, Germany, and the United Kingdom and intending to snap back penalties on Iran for an international agreement the United States withdrew from will exhaust European patience. As economic ties fray, the EU will work with China and Russia to create alternative payment structures to the dollar and increase efforts to set regulatory standards affecting U.S. companies. These changes will put more sand in the gears of U.S. investment, manufacturing, and trade, isolating the United States from sources of prosperity. Excluded from these new economic structures, the United States will go from leading an international order to being unmoored from it.
This post-American order is not hypothetical. Leading indicators have already come into view, and the United States’ adversaries and closest allies are acting to diminish its hegemony and create a new order at its expense. China created a “petro yuan” to price oil in a currency other than dollars. Meanwhile, India and Russia have developed a payment method to skirt the dollar zone, as have the United States’ European allies. When the United States balked at joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Australia, Canada, and Japan brought the agreement into force without it.
Republicans backing Trump will have to reckon with a new post-American international order that shuts out the United States—the direct consequence of continuing policies already enacted or implementing policies likely to be enacted if the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy is validated by Trump’s reelection. But if Republicans decline to support the president in numbers sufficient for his reelection, Republican politicians and foreign-policy makers will have the opportunity to push for an alternate approach—one that acknowledges the Trump administration’s successes while shearing away its self-defeating tendencies.
That would mean strengthening U.S. alliances that have deteriorated under the Trump administration. To forestall the trend toward creating institutions that work against U.S. interests, the United States needs to start doing things with allies, not to them. Barring the current leader of the Republican Party, both Republicans and Democrats broadly agree on the value of U.S. alliances. Republicans in Congress have legislated against troop withdrawals from allied countries, supported NATO against presidential threats, and funded cooperative defense initiatives. Going forward, Republicans should push to strengthen the United States’ alliances, especially with its North American partners. The United States is missing many opportunities to consolidate North American cooperation in energy development and distribution, workforce management, and the creation of supply chains independent from China.
A new approach will require rethinking relationships not only with allies but also with adversaries such as China. The Trump administration was right to continue the shift acknowledging China’s refusal to become a responsible stakeholder. That shift, however, began in the George W. Bush administration, when the Pentagon determined it needed 50 percent of naval forces in the Pacific, and continued with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” Republicans should smooth out the erratic veers of Trump administration policy regarding China and push for a cooperative strategy that builds a common front with allies, achieving the economy of scale needed to push China to play by the rules.
Republicans backing Trump will have to reckon with a new post-American international order.
To protect the U.S.-led order, policymakers should also reconsider the current approach to so-called forever wars. The basic strategy for both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last three U.S. administrations has been to develop the ability of the Afghani and Iraqi governments to manage threats. These wars are creating the stability that will diminish the prospect of future wars in the region. Most Republicans understand the need to sustain these commitments and reject the appeal to abandon the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Though policymakers have not been expending the political capital to sustain public support for these relatively low-cost ways of achieving U.S. objectives, they must do so going forward to regain public support.
In the Middle East, the Trump administration was right that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would not ignite blowback. It rightly assessed that Arab states were less committed to Palestinian concerns than they professed to be. Whether or not the Trump administration anticipated it, shared concern among Gulf Arab states and Israel about Iran and about U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East fostered the thaw of icy relations in the region. Furthering that cooperation into greater support for Jordan, which is buckling under the weight of Syrian refugees and stateless Palestinians, and a common approach to Syria would diminish the need for U.S. military involvement.
Preventing a post-American international order will also require a new trade policy. Tariff wars are costing U.S. producers their markets and consumers higher prices. Americans appreciate that trade is generally advantageous; the problem is that trade creates markets and benefits consumers broadly, but the costs of expanded trade fall on specific sectors. To rebuild support for trade, Republicans need to develop trade-adjustment policies that maintain open markets while buffering transitions for American workers.
Opportunities abound for constructing a Republican foreign policy that restores the luster of the United States’ example and the strength that comes from cooperation. But it will require Republicans repudiating Trump at the ballot box to avert the dark and dangerous course his policies are following. If Republicans do not wrench foreign policy out of the “America first” course Trump and his supporters have put the United States on, this country will find itself not just alone but facing an international order buffering itself from U.S. influence and indifferent to U.S. interests.
The Painful Task of Rebuilding Trust in American Leadership Can Begin