The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
How will historians judge President Donald Trump’s handling of American foreign policy? Not kindly, writes Margaret MacMillan in this issue’s lead package. After nearly four years of turbulence, the country’s enemies are stronger, its friends are weaker, and the United States itself is increasingly isolated and prostrate.
Richard Haass notes that “Trump inherited an imperfect but valuable system and tried to repeal it without offering a substitute.” The result, he claims, “is a United States and a world that are considerably worse off.” Dragging his party and the executive branch along, the president has reshaped national policy in his own image: focused on short-term advantage, obsessed with money, and uninterested in everything else.
His opponent has pledged to repudiate Trump’s approach if elected, embracing international cooperation and restoring American global leadership. But is that even possible now? Most of the world looks at Washington with horror and pity rather than admiration or respect, and the one thing many of Trump’s domestic supporters and critics agree on is there’s no going back.
“Washington cannot simply return to the comfortable assumptions of the past,” argues Nadia Schadlow, a former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration. Great-power competition is inevitable, and multilateral cooperation is for suckers. Ben Rhodes, who also served as a deputy national security adviser, but in the Obama administration, agrees that the liberal international order is defunct. Rather than try to revive it, he wants Washington to shape a new and better one by checking its privilege, avoiding hypocrisy, and attacking global inequality.
From that perspective, the mass protests against racism that erupted this past spring after the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans represent not just a national reckoning but also a call to arms, as the issue’s second package explains. Keisha Blain shows that the struggle for civil rights in the United States has always been part of a global struggle for human dignity. Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman observe that tense debates over national identity grow even more dangerous when played out against a backdrop of political polarization, economic inequality, and concentrated executive power. Fortunately, Laurence Ralph points out, at least in the case of police reform, there are good international models to follow—although little evidence yet that Americans are prepared to adopt them.
“America is not a lie; it is a disappointment,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington once wrote. “But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” The challenge now is to keep that hope alive.
—Gideon Rose, Editor