The End of American Leadership

Trump at the G7 summit. (Credit: Reuters)

I’m usually skeptical of claims about American decline. For the most part, I think these arguments are overblown or overhyped, and the underlying facts of American dominance remain. The American era, which is arguably approaching its centenary and has reshaped the world like none before it, continues relatively unabated. And while dominance is not the same as leadership, this second quality has also been fairly constant throughout the past, say, seventy years.

But, I have to admit, my belief in American leadership was rocked by a one-two punch this week. First came Trump’s disastrous trip to the NATO summit in Brussels (followed by a similarly disappointing G7 summit) in which he failed to commit fully to the alliance and criticized (and was criticized by) Germany, Europe’s most important power. Angela Merkel flat out said that America was not as reliable as it once was. The importance of the NATO and European relationships to American leadership is almost self-explanatory, and I won’t go over it again here.

The second blow against American leadership landed today, and it’s even more self-inflicted than the first. To carry the metaphor forward, if you were watching this fight in a ring you might have serious suspicions it was fixed — Donald Trump seems determined to throw it.

Trump has apparently decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, according to an Axios report. The treaty, the first ever comprehensive climate agreement, marks the most important development of a global strategy aimed at fighting climate change to date. The US initiative to finalize the deal was one of Obama’s most important achievements. More generally, the US succeeded at Paris in two of its most important foreign policy goals of the past three decades: convincing developing powers like India and China to take on climate responsibilities, but also persuading them to play within the institutional rules set out by the United States and its allies. This second achievement should not be overlooked, as it may come to be seen as a key moment in the development of a rising China’s relationship to the US and to the world.

We should be cautious, however, in interpreting the news of Trump’s decision. It has yet to be fully confirmed by the White House, and officials, according to the New York Times, have indicated that specific language has not been determined. Why Trump would draw out this decision is unclear. It could be a negotiating tactic, similar to his stunt with NAFTA in April. It could be an attempt to distract from the ongoing Russia investigation, that this week threatened to envelop Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Or it could be the result of internal struggles within the administration, which have received a fair bit of coverage.

Still, the fact that Paris is even close to the shredder represents a failure of American leadership and a lack of commitment to global efforts.

You don’t need me to tell you why this is bad, though I will. First, America itself is indispensable to any successful climate change effort. Second, the retreat of American leadership is inherently destabilizing. Finally, let it be said that American leadership is pretty darn good. You might argue against hegemony in general or American hegemony in particular, and I’d agree with you on a lot, but there have been much worse great powers than the States. I’d even venture so far as to say that American leadership is a net-positive (a controversial opinion, at times).

There is still one counterargument to the leadership decline narrative available to Trump supporters. Although Trump has promised to cut foreign aid and diplomatic spending, the military continues to play a primary role in America’s global strategy, as it stands. The coalition fight against ISIS, led by the United States, continues unabated. Trump has been gleeful in sending carrier groups every which way during points of crisis. The military budget will likely increase next year by over $50 billion. The forward deployment of US troops, therefore, is unlikely to end any time soon.

Add that fact to the recent talk about an Israeli-Palestinian deal (wishful, unserious thinking) and you’ve got what amounts to a weak case for continued American leadership under Trump. Unfortunately, proponents of this argument are falling into a logical trap. While American global presence is still high in an absolute sense, its leadership in the world is indisputably falling relative to its role in the past.

Luckily, all is not lost. The same volatility of the American foreign policy structure that allowed Trump to spurn American leadership will also allow his successors (or even Trump himself) to reinvigorate it. With relative ease, NATO can be re-embraced, the climate change agreement re-signed. With a little effort and political will, the States can reassert itself on the global stage. The whiplash effect of a polarized American democracy works both ways.

Damage has still been done. While climbing out this hole is possible, it would be easier if the hole was a little less deep, the sides a little less slippery. America’s reputation has suffered mightily, with more ruin done to it recently than as the result of any event in the Obama presidency. What remains to be seen now is whether Trump will be forced to re-engage, either by a rebellious Congress or by political necessity.

Barring that, the task will fall to his successor to salvage America’s image and place in the world.




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