Donald Trump returned recently from his twelve-day Asian trip, delighted to have been generally wined, dined, and humored, while the Chinese were gleefully stepping up—without his apparent notice—to eat America’s lunch. It was yet another critical area of the world, together with Europe and the Middle East, where America’s former power and influence was in clear retreat.
Empires can go swiftly; ask the British and the French, who still controlled nearly 40% of the globe at the end of World War II, on paper at least, only to lose their own empires essentially in twenty years. It was not long before that Henry Luce crowed in Time Magazine that the twentieth century would belong to America; it was little more than twenty years ago that Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, declared the United States to be the world’s “indispensable” nation.
The world has been dispensing with us pretty well since then—and, in the past year, Donald Trump has been dispensing pretty rapidly with the world, a concept he seems not to understand very well.
Things looked very differently in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union began to come apart, the historian Francis Fukuyama proclaimed an ‘end to history.’ For Fukuyama, the eclipse of the USSR meant the political and ideological triumph of American-style liberal capitalism. Two hundred years after the French Revolution had proclaimed liberty, equality, and fraternity as the goals of a just society, liberty meant the freedom to clip coupons, equality was for losers, and fraternity was a bankers’ luncheon. Finance would unobstructedly rule the world, and the United States, through its own central bank and international arms such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, would rule finance. The face of American power was a blandly smiling Texan with courtly manners, a soft voice, and an iron fist, James A. Baker, who as George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State quietly set out to make the political arrangements necessary to ensure that America would have no competitor to its interests.
Baker is quiet in retirement now. Fukuyama has changed his mind about history being over. And the United States, far from leading the world or even simply looking after its interests with some degree of efficiency, appears a failing experiment whose representatives, as at the world climate summit in November, encounter not merely dissent but ridicule.
It’s as though the bottom had dropped out of the elevator just as it was reaching the top floor. What happened?
America was already the world’s leading industrial power in 1900, and had set its sights on dominating the Pacific. World War I made it the world’s largest creditor nation. World War II left it not only the only combatant virtually unscathed by the greatest war in history, but almost the sole economy standing: in 1945, it produced two-thirds of the entire world’s goods and services. Henry Luce looked not only like a good prophet, but a relatively modest one. Who else’s century could it be?
America could not sit alone on its pile of wealth; without trading partners, its economy would necessarily contract. Restarting the economies of its allies and also its erstwhile enemies, Germany and Japan, was essential to its own prosperity. Picking up the pieces of the British and French empires was likewise critical to maintaining access to essential raw materials, and to forestalling the influence of its one military if not economic rival, the Soviet Union. The sudden triumph of Communist revolution in China would lead it into two major wars, neither successful, the Sino-American War of 1950-53 (misnomered the Korean War), and the Vietnam War a decade and a half later. By the time the latter ended, in 1975, America’s economic supremacy was no longer unchallenged, and the long retreat of the middle class on which its prosperity and stability was notionally based had begun. Nor was it able to dictate the terms of its access to the resource on which its economy chiefly depended, oil. Instead, petrodollars began to flow outward from American consumers to the sheikdoms of the Middle East, whose rulers not only undertook to reshape American policy but to buy American assets. Not very long after, a renascent China began to enter world capital and trade markets with energy, sophistication, and a plan for the long haul.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, important as it was, was only a temporary footnote in these events. The American economy was still the world’s largest, although its dominance was no longer unchallenged; America’s military was still formidable, although it not won a major war in nearly fifty years. Baker did act to take advantage of the disarray of the post-Communist Russian Federation, beginning the long march that in little more than twenty years had not merely annexed most of Eastern Europe to the European Union and NATO, but had thrust itself into the former Russian heartland of Ukraine. Less successful was the attempt to cement a military presence in Saudi Arabia, critical to the Bush family’s own oil fortunes, by dumping an erstwhile ally and Saudi rival, Saddam Hussein. That step was to prove fatal to America’s position in the Middle East, involving it in failed (and ongoing) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and opening the gates to a new regional hegemon, Iran.
At the same time, America’s infrastructure was allowed to deteriorate as successive administrations neglected the repair and modernization of its transportation and energy grids, and a retreat from the modest reforms of the New Deal as well as a progressive shift in the national tax burden from large corporations, a deliberate inflation in housing costs, and the commodification of higher education exacerbated inequality, reducing much of the postwar middle class to a debtor population that would be devastated by the financial meltdown of 2008. The result was an increasingly dysfunctional politics, that, with a gerrymandered electoral system, drove enough of the country into the arms of a pseudo-populist demagogue to install as president the most shockingly incompetent personage to occupy high office in any modern state.
Donald Trump is not the harbinger of America’s decline; he is the product of it. Only a nation in decline could have produced such a figure, and he is not only incapable of administering an empire but even conceiving it. It is tempting to say, good riddance, for we have been poor at the job except in exporting our cutthroat brand of capitalism. A prudent withdrawal from our failed and improvident wars, such as Barack Obama apparently conceived but failed to implement, would have enabled us to concentrate on urgent problems at home: inequality, infrastructure, energy transition. Trump, having cast an initially skeptical eye on them, has fallen into eager lockstep with the military-industrial complex, and, with the exception of Syria, where he conceded influence to his best buddy Vladimir Putin, he has proved more hawkish than even Hillary Clinton might have been: in fact, no administration in our history has placed itself so willingly in thrall to the military.
Trump sees the world not in terms of regions and alliances, but of individual nations, and these he sees as corporate competitors, preferably led by dynamic authoritarians with whom he can strike one-on-one deals. This has severely weakened our central alliance with the European Union, and led its hegemon, Germany, to wonder aloud whether it must now go its separate way politically and militarily. That in turn is an invitation to a resurgent Russia to play its hand in Europe. In the meantime, our bewildered allies in the Far East, Japan and South Korea, both wary of China, have found themselves looking to their own defenses as well, and terrified by Trump’s nuclear finger-wagging with North Korea—as have the rest of us. The Trans-Pacific trade partnership abandoned by Obama has been repudiated by Trump, who thinks that side deals can replace multilateral associations. Again, I shed no tears for the TPP, with its facilitation of steamroller capitalism. But Trump has no alternative that would constitute a trade policy of any sort; again, we are dealing with a de facto isolationism without purpose or plan.
America is too big, and under Trump too bullying, to ignore. But that’s not what makes an empire, or a constructive international role of any sort. We are alone in the chaos we have made. It is an odd way for a great power to close out its run, like a staggering Shakespearean hero sowing ruin across Act V before the final curtain. Trump, of course, will pass, but the damage he has done already in less than a single year will not be reversed: it is not an aberration, but an acceleration of a decline already underway.
Trump means something else, too: the rise of political authoritarianism. He may be a particularly boorish and inept example of it, but, emerging in the supposed bastion of liberal democracy, he is a harbinger here too of the kind of ‘leadership’—in Russia and China, in Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Philippines—that the world is likely to see more of as climate disaster and refugee populations wash over the globe. If we think any of the values that made the American political experiment worth undertaking more than two hundred years ago are worth saving, we’d better start bailing fast.