How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Nobody really knew what to expect when Donald Trump became U.S. president. Would he disrupt the status quo or maintain it? Blow himself up or escape unscathed? One year in, the answer is yes. If you squint, U.S. foreign policy during the Trump era can seem almost normal. But the closer you look, the more you see it being hollowed out, with the forms and structures still in place but the substance and purpose draining away. The best analogy might be to health care—something else the administration came in hell-bent on overhauling, only to find it more difficult than expected. In foreign policy, too, the Trump administration came to power promising a revolution. But the White House has failed to kill the existing approach outright and has grudgingly contented itself with hopes that it will die of neglect anyway. In the board game Diplomacy, the rules state that “if a player leaves the game, or otherwise fails to submit orders,” the player’s country is deemed to be in “civil disorder.” The country’s pieces stand in place, defend themselves if attacked, and let the game proceed around them. That’s basically what’s happening with the United States now. Confronted with this unprecedented situation, Eliot Cohen concedes that to date, the administration’s foreign policy might be considered “a highly erratic, obnoxious version of the Republican normal.” But he argues that this is because the bill for the administration’s unconventional behavior has not yet arrived. Jake Sullivan examines the surprising resilience of the liberal international order, which has managed to take a licking and keep on ticking—so far. Other countries appreciate what the United States created, even if Washington doesn’t. Barry Posen suggests that consciously or not, the Trump administration is following a new grand strategy, one of illiberal hegemony. It has “pared or abandoned many of the pillars of liberal internationalism” but “still seeks to retain the United States’ superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world.” Adam Posen sees the global economy moving forward calmly and steadily, with broad-based growth nally kicking in. But here, too, problems have been deferred, and a prolonged abdication of U.S. leadership will cause real trouble. And Sarah Margon traces the decline of human rights as a concern in this White House, as even the pretense of caring about other countries’ misbehavior has been dropped and the president embraces a new crop of friendly tyrants. Trying to rule the world by dominance rather than persuasion has not worked well in the past, and there is little doubt that if tried again, it will fail again. The rules of Diplomacy note that civil disorder does not have to be permanent: “A player who temporarily fails to submit orders may, of course, resume play if he returns to the game and still has some units left.” What the world will look like when that eventually happens is anybody’s guess.
—Gideon Rose, Editor