With the “America First” emphasis in his truculent inaugural address, Donald Trump has signaled that a radical reorientation of American foreign policy may be in the offing. For more than 70 years, the United States has been the world’s leading champion of free trade, democracy, and international institutions, particularly in Europe and East Asia. But for how much longer?
In his interview last week with the Times of London and the German newspaper Bild, Trump called NATO “obsolete,” promoted the breakup of the European Union and suggested that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of one of America’s most important allies, is no more trustworthy than Russia’s anti-American dictator, Vladimir Putin. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump sent the dollar tumbling after he said he favored a weaker dollar so as to reduce the trade deficit, abandoning our traditional policy.
Trump’s other pronouncements and, even more strongly, his protectionist personnel picks, indicate that he may be gearing up for a trade war against nations such as China and Mexico that he views as unfair competitors. “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” he claimed in his inaugural address, turning the lessons of the 1930s on their head.
Thus, coming after eight years of President Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy, we may finally be seeing the long-predicted breakup of the Pax Americana — not because of external pressures but because of an internal decision that the burden of global leadership is no longer worth shouldering.
Putin is licking his chops, heaping praise on Trump and preparing to do “great” deals with the new president that will allow Russia to escape the sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine. But the Russian strongman will never be a reliable American partner in endeavors such as fighting Islamic State; he is pursuing his own agenda of trying to reassemble the empire that Russia lost in 1991.
European leaders, by contrast, are palpably nervous, wondering how to cope with a post-American world. Merkel says, “I think we Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” but there is little reason to think the fractious and disjointed European Union can get its act together to replace the role played for decades by the United States as the guarantor of international order.
Germany, while the strongest country on the continent, remains shackled by its post-World War II pacifism and isolationism. The United Kingdom is distracted by its negotiations to leave the EU. France is led by a deeply unpopular president (François Hollande has an approval rating of roughly 4%) who is likely to be replaced either by a pro-Russia extreme right-winger (Marine Le Pen) or a pro-Russia mainstream conservative (François Fillon). No other country in Europe is even capable of vying for leadership.
In East Asia, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has been trying to take up some of the slack with a round of visits to nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam, attempting to rally them to stand up to Chinese aggression. But Japan, like Germany, has not fully escaped its postwar shackles, and its attempts to exert influence will probably be resisted not just by China but also by South Korea.
China senses the opportunity, and it is not being shy about its desire to fill the vacuum that America may leave behind. While warning of the consequences of American-launched trade wars, Chinese President Xi Jinping is positioning himself as a born-again champion of a rules-based international order. His attempt to remake China’s image is hardly convincing, given that Beijing routinely flouts international law by claiming much of the South China Sea for itself, engaging in massive intellectual property theft and blocking its own population from getting unfettered access to the Internet. That Xi would even try such a feat of rebranding is an indicator of how markedly the coming Trump presidency is shaking up long-held international assumptions.
Unfortunately we are about to discover that no other country, whether friend or foe, is capable of filling the role played by the United States in the post-1945 international system. If we put down the burden of leadership, no one else will pick it up. Rather than a bipolar or tripolar world, with Russia and China emerging as American equals in the project of maintaining global order, we are likely to see a chaotic, multipolar landscape, with various states and even nonstate actors such as Islamic State vying to accrue for themselves power that had once been exercised by the United States.
We’ve seen such a world before, in the pre-1914 period, and it wasn’t pretty. World War I finally erupted over the assassination of an Austrian archduke in 1914, but there were plenty of now-forgotten diplomatic crises in the preceding years — the Samoan Crisis of 1887-1889 involving Britain, Germany and the United States; the two Moroccan Crises of 1905-1906 involving Britain, France and Germany; the Dogger Bank Incident of 1904 involving Britain and Russia — which could have resulted in open hostilities. And that was in the days when the most powerful weapon on Earth was a naval gun capable of hurling a high-explosive shell a few miles. Imagine the dangers inherent in today’s world, given the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
The United States, still the world’s richest state, has the most to lose from the collapse of international order. Let’s hope President Trump realizes that before it’s too late to undo the damage that his rhetoric is already causing.
Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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