How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In the end, 2018 was not the year of U.S. foreign policy apocalypse. Normally, this would not be a cause for celebration. But given the anxiety about President Donald Trump and what his administration might do—pull out of NATO, start a war with Iran or North Korea—it was something to be grateful for. In fact, Trump’s first two years in office have been marked by a surprising degree of stability. The president has proved himself to be what many critics have long accused him of being: belligerent, bullying, impatient, irresponsible, intellectually lazy, short-tempered, and self-obsessed. Remarkably, however, those shortcomings have not yet translated into obvious disaster.
But the surface-level calm of the last two years should not distract from a building crisis of U.S. foreign policy, of which Trump is both a symptom and a cause. The president has outlined a deeply misguided foreign policy vision that is distrustful of U.S. allies, scornful of international institutions, and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order that the United States has sustained for nearly eight decades. The real tragedy, however, is not that the president has brought this flawed vision to the fore; it is that his is merely one mangled interpretation of what is rapidly emerging as a new consensus on the left and the right: that the United States should accept a more modest role in world affairs.
One can and should hope that the forces that have constrained Trump so far will continue to limit the damage of his remaining years in office, but the push for a U.S. retreat from the world did not begin with the president and will not end with his exit. The crisis of the United States’ post–Cold War foreign policy has been a long time in the making, and it will last beyond Trump.
Although the worst has not come to pass, the president’s foreign policy has been curious and in some ways disturbing. On trade, his administration blew up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), only to replace it with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which includes somewhat better terms for American dairy farmers but mostly mirrors the original deal. What is more serious, Trump began a steadily mounting trade war with China while intensifying U.S. complaints about intellectual property theft, all in the context of increasingly aggressive interactions between Chinese forces and U.S. warships in the South China Sea. Such moves are risky, but they have not yet come back to bite him.
Trump’s diplomacy with U.S. rivals has been similarly erratic, but here, too, the damage so far has been limited. On North Korea, Trump dialed back his initial threats to unleash “fire and fury” and abruptly shifted toward placating the regime. He suspended U.S.–South Korean joint military exercises, met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and declared at a September 2018 rally that he and Kim “fell in love.” (These actions do not appear to have had any real effect on the North Korean nuclear program, however.) On Iran, Trump reversed the Obama administration’s more accommodating policy, pulling out of the nuclear deal with the country in May 2018 and hitting Tehran with a barrage of financial sanctions throughout the summer and fall. And on Russia, the government has continued with a confrontational policy despite the president’s friendly rhetoric.
U.S. relations with some allies, especially those in Europe, have at times been strained, but those with others have continued unimpaired. The United States has grown closer to India and strengthened relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not be happier with the Trump administration, which moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, cut funding to Palestinian charities, and looked the other way as Israel denied entry to young Americans affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. And Japan, whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has developed a friendly personal relationship with Trump, has managed, for now, to avoid the president’s wrath.
The United States’ wars have also continued. U.S. campaigns against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and Islamist movements in Africa carry on apace, with little change from the Obama administration. In April 2018, when asked what he wanted to do with U.S. troops in Syria, Trump said, “I want to get out,” but then he reversed course, and today over 2,000 U.S. soldiers remain in the country, with an eye toward countering Iranian influence.
There is an idea behind Trump’s foreign policy (“America first”) but not a concept of geopolitics—a plan or set of priorities based on calculation and reflection. Under his leadership, the United States has picked fights not only with China and Russia but also with allies such as Canada, Mexico, and the EU. His hopes of denuclearizing North Korea and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict strike most observers as quixotic. His policy seems driven by sporadic fits of belligerence or enthusiasm, unrelated to any coherent set of objectives or methods for achieving them. Yet on many questions of substance, the Trump administration, erratic though it is, has kept U.S. foreign policy more or less intact.
What explains this continuity? Part of the reason is that Trump seems to have a short attention span, little understanding of how the federal government works, and a tendency to get distracted by domestic political fights. Insider accounts of the administration should be taken with a grain of salt, but they paint a consistent picture. In an anonymous New York Times op-ed, one insider described being told by a “top official” that “there is literally no telling whether [Trump] might change his mind from one minute to the next.” It is unsurprising that a man who by some accounts gets most of his news from television cannot get a grip on the vast complexity of the U.S. government.
The Times op-ed points to a second, undeniable fact: Trump faces unprecedented opposition from within his own administration. This opposition has only grown as Trump has replaced his initial cadre of advisers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are both more familiar with Washington than their predecessors and more adept at telling the president what he wants to hear. Both hold views of foreign policy that are not wildly distant from those of establishment Republicans; they just take care not to rub them in Trump’s face. Here, they are following the lead of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has avoided the White House, declined to contradict the president, and quietly fought for status quo positions on everything from troop levels in the Middle East to the U.S. commitment to NATO. The administration’s internal conflicts are most visible in its Russia policy: Trump lavishes praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin and then more or less goes along with the hard line pushed by his subordinates.
Another explanation for the administration’s continuity with past administrations is that foreign leaders, like Trump’s officials, have learned to manipulate the president. For example, Polish President Andrzej Duda proposed establishing a permanent U.S. base on Polish soil and naming it “Fort Trump”—an appealing suggestion for a U.S. president who, misgivings about NATO aside, likes to plaster his name on buildings. French President Emmanuel Macron has impressed Trump by inviting him to the sorts of military parades he would like to throw in the United States. And North Korea’s Kim has flattered Trump by writing him warm personal letters. Female leaders, on the other hand—including British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—have had trouble connecting with a president who has made a cult out of his own pugnacious but unmartial masculinity.
Trump has also benefited from the continuing recovery of the U.S. economy, which has defused much of the anxiety that his trade wars might have otherwise provoked. The months and months of a booming stock market, low unemployment, and consistent growth have not only deflected attention from Trump’s erratic behavior on the world stage; they have also given the president leverage. It was always possible that a sufficiently aggressive U.S. president could bully Canada and Mexico into renegotiating NAFTA, given the relative sizes of the three economies. Doing so was much easier given the United States’ current prosperity.
There is an idea behind Trump’s foreign policy but not a concept of geopolitics.
Finally, Trump himself may not get enough credit for his tactical circumspection. He is, in certain respects, risk averse. He has been hesitant to use military force and has expressed his desire to pull out of not just Syria but Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Although he reportedly toyed with the idea of a military intervention in Venezuela, he was quickly talked out of it. He clearly does not want a war on the Korean Peninsula; if anything, he wants to be the president who finally ends the Korean War. As a real estate developer whose business career was built on heavy borrowing—effectively making others carry his risk—Trump has evaded genuine hazards throughout his life, which may also explain his failure to visit U.S. troops in war zones.
The short-term damage of Trump’s first two years has, thankfully and against all odds, been less than what many feared. In the long term, however, his malign influence will not be escaped so easily. For one thing, his antics and rhetoric have undermined U.S. credibility. According to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, which polled respondents in 25 countries, the international public places more faith not only in Macron and Merkel relative to Trump but also in Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. To a stunning degree, the Trump administration has diminished the sense of U.S. constancy that has been indispensable to the postwar liberal order. The effects of that lost credibility are intangible for now, but they will become manifest in the event of a crisis—when, for instance, U.S. allies do not answer a call for help or, worse, when they choose to appease or accommodate rival powers such as China and Russia.
Other dangers loom. If U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia ends with a credible accusation against the president or one of his family members, it will mean a domestic political crisis with spillover effects on foreign policy. There are also the sheer uncertainties of the world—terrorist attacks, military escalations, nuclear tests, and the like. Such incidents have surprised presidents in the past, and they might surprise this one, too. Trump’s past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Yet even if the Trump administration is not hit with an international crisis or a devastating domestic scandal, Trump’s presidency does not bode well for the future of U.S. foreign policy—for reasons having less to do with his concrete actions than with what he represents. Behind the day-to-day chaos of the administration lies a more or less unified vision. Trump summarized this worldview succinctly in his September 2018 speech to the UN General Assembly, when he called on the world to “choose a future of patriotism, prosperity, and pride.” Patriotism he opposed to global governance, prosperity to bad deals that cheat the United States, and national pride to universalistic visions of humanity.
What’s most dangerous about Trump’s worldview is not its incoherent or erratic elements but its coherent and consistent ones—the appeal of which is not limited to the president and his right-wing populist supporters. Indeed, in many respects, his worldview is not all that different from that of his predecessor: Trump believes, as Barack Obama did, that most U.S. interventions abroad have been costly and stupid and that the United States should focus on nation building at home. Although the Obama administration had a gentler touch than the current one, its emphasis on “leading from behind” allowed the present disaster in Syria to unfold. It also practiced its own form of retrenchment, evident in its decision to delay securing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal until after it was already too late.
This suggests that Trump’s emphasis on putting “America first” is not simply the mistake of a foreign policy rookie but an expression of something deeper and more consequential: a permanent shift, among American leaders, away from the dominant postwar conception of U.S. foreign policy. In other hands, and with a more intelligent articulation, Trump’s foreign policy vision would amount to a doctrine—one in which the United States is merely one great power among others. In this view, Washington should pursue its own interests, stand for freedom chiefly at home and only intermittently abroad, and reject as a matter of principle the international organizations that previous generations of U.S. leaders so carefully built.
Trump is unlikely to change his views while in office; indeed, he seems positively incapable of doing so. That means, at best, that the United States can expect either two or six more years of fecklessness, in which the country is erratic, unfocused, economically aggressive, and indifferent to the international norms and institutions that it helped create. That’s not nearly as bad as the chimera of a nuclear war conjured up by some of the president’s early critics. But it is scary enough.
The more disturbing sign for the future, however, is that although Trump has made nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy worse, he is not the sole cause of the United States’ increasingly erratic, shortsighted, and selfish behavior. He has merely accelerated a trend—that of Washington’s retreat from its global responsibilities—that was already developing by the time he took office and that will outlast him. Indeed, this trend is only likely to continue, since its roots lie not in passing political events but in the extinction of the living memory of World War II, a world-historical event that revolutionized U.S. foreign policy and shaped its course for most of the twentieth century.
The generation of American statesmen that shaped the postwar order had learned some hard lessons from the war. They learned from their experience with imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and, later, the Soviet Union that it was incumbent on free nations to stand up to ideologies and governments hostile to individual freedom. They learned from the Great Depression and the economic nationalism of the 1930s that beggar-thy-neighbor policies and a focus on state advantage, rather than systemic rules, could create the conditions for totalitarian ideologies to flourish. And they learned from the geopolitical chaos of the interwar years that in order to secure peace, the United States would have to step up and guarantee it through a U.S.-led set of permanent alliances and international institutions. These might not always favor U.S. policies, but American leaders recognized that they would, in the long run, favor U.S. interests.
That generation learned the right lessons, as the peace and prosperity of the last 70 years attest. Yet in truth, the foreign policy they created was alien to the United States’ pre-1940s traditions, which saw the country as primarily a commercial power with little interest in global power politics, save as a means of protecting itself and preserving its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. Breaking free of those traditions required the lived experiences of those who had witnessed the poverty of the Depression and the destruction of the war years firsthand. Today, however, those lessons are no longer living truths; they are dead dogmas, as the philosopher John Stuart Mill might have put it. Most U.S. foreign policy elites have forgotten how to make the argument for a global order that has existed for longer than most of them have been alive; many have forgotten that they needed to argue for it at all. So when Trump came along shouting, “Make America great again!” and demanding to know why maintaining the global order was worth Washington’s time and effort, elites were at a loss for how to respond.
Above all, the generation that came of age during and immediately after World War II had a visceral awareness of just how terrible the world could become if the United States chose not to lead. They learned this the hard way, in a war that cost the United States over 400,000 dead and other countries millions more. Their passing, and the fading of the subsequent generation that they directly molded, is the most consequential fact of all for the future of U.S. foreign policy.
An omen of this change came on August 25, 2018, when Arizona Senator John McCain died at the age of 81. Born in 1936 to a naval officer who would go on to serve with distinction in World War II, McCain was a man shaped by the experiences of his parents’ generation, which led him not only to advocate American engagement in the world but also to tirelessly represent the United States abroad. There are no votes to be won by visiting crisis zones or simply tending to alliance relationships, but McCain was indefatigable in doing those things. He has no successor in either party. Nor are there any contemporary politicians as unambiguously committed to bipartisanship in foreign policy.
Inertia is a powerful force, especially when it comes to institutions. And for the moment, it continues to constrain Trump’s efforts to remake the international system along more nationalist, self-interested lines. But once he is gone, there will be no snapping back to the consensus of the 1990s or the early years of this century, which was sustained by men and women with personal memories of what the world looked like without U.S. leadership. Indeed, the erratic “America first” of today’s populist right may well be replaced in 2020 or 2024 by a no less erratic “America first” of the populist left. This tendency is already visible in figures such as Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a populist Democrat who met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in January 2017 and who later cast doubt on Assad’s responsibility for his regime’s chemical attacks against Syrian civilians—all under the guise of anti-interventionism.
Eventually, both may be replaced by an “America first” of the exhausted middle. This version might be marked by more moderation and a greater amount of handwringing than its left- and right-wing cousins, but its chief characteristic would be a return to the mindset of the late 1930s. The United States would engage economically with the world but react with indifference to massacres or even genocide; withdraw psychologically, if not formally, from international institutions; and convince itself that other countries could not affect its liberties or interests as long as its military remained strong.
This last belief, in particular, will be proved untrue. To some extent, foreign interference in the U.S. political process has already proved it untrue. But it will be proved untrue in other, possibly more violent ways, too, as foreign countries come to believe that they can use force in aggressive or vicious ways without provoking an American response. This has happened before when the United States has failed to lead, and the results were not happy ones. Unfortunately, those who remember those unhappy results will soon be gone. It is to be hoped, but not to be expected, that the hard lessons they learned will not go along with them.