For better or worse, the US has led the world. Trump threatens to change thatby Martin Woollacott / November 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined his vision of the future in 1944, shortly before winning his fourth presidential term, he committed the United States to “a long and arduous task, which will challenge our patience, our intelligence, [and] our imagination.” His listeners at the Foreign Policy Association meeting in the Waldorf Hotel in New York that wet and windy October day heard him call for “the building of a world fellowship,” which would require the sustained attention of “a seasoned and mature people.”
He returned to the theme in his inauguration speech in January 1945: America’s own best interests could only be pursued by the creation of a stable world order. The global and the national were not opposed: they were intertwined. Roosevelt’s conscious aim, as Joseph Lelyveld’s new book on the president’s last months, His Final Battle, shows, was to bring into being an international body which would succeed where the League of Nations had failed. He died on his way to attend the founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco. The UN would prove to be less effective than he had hoped. But he had nevertheless set the template within which America, and the world, have functioned ever since, by his consolidation of an American tradition of international engagement.
Seventy two years later, with Donald Trump on his way to the White House, the issue is whether Roosevelt’s “arduous task,” which in one way or another has been taken up by every president since, will be set aside. By guile, skill and sheer charisma Roosevelt had outflanked the isolationists with their “America First” banners who—until the very eve of Pearl Harbor—set the political tone. The isolationist current did not of course go away after the war, surfacing again and again, but it never prevailed for long. But now we have to ask: has the Rooseveltian era of engagement with the world, for good and ill, finally ended?
Trump is passionate about American primacy but seemingly interested in American global leadership only in the narrow sense of demanding respect. He has throughout his campaign cast the US as a victim of the international system—which America historically played such a large part in creating—rather than as its beneficiary. Trump’s America is a country pushed around by its antagonists and its allies alike, invaded by immigrants, held to trade agreements which help foreigners and impoverish its own citizens, duped by Iran, taken for granted by its European partners, and forced into overseas interventions in the Middle East for which it is then blamed. His underlying argument is that the internationalism represented by Roosevelt and prefigured by Woodrow Wilson, has now gone too far—that it no longer serves America, and must be rolled back. As with Brexit, the issue is whether a system which has been built up, layer by complex layer, over many decades, can be partially unpicked without suffering irretrievable damage.