For better or worse, the US has led the world. Trump threatens to change thatby / 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.
It is true that the international system, particularly in its economic guise, has reached a point where some kind of rowing back, some pause for reflection and reorientation, has become inevitable in many countries. But is Trump, with his crude formulation of the problems, the man to do it? Because he is now the President-Elect and not merely a contender, an intense process of recalibration has begun, as the world tries to take his measure as the American leader rather than as a showman on the campaign road. This is how the world reassures itself in such situations. We can expect to see the elements of continuity discussed, the rhetoric discounted, the steadying effect of advisers and of institutions—the State Department and the Pentagon—stressed. In this way, what many see as a disastrous choice becomes, at least for a deniable while, an acceptable solution.
President Trump will begin his term labouring under disadvantages abroad because of what we know of his geopolitical views, and what we can guess about his temperament under pressure. The US economy, and the world economy, will suffer, many experts believe, because even if he dilutes the policies he has advocated, uncertainty will undermine the markets and the currency. The vast and still incomplete system of trade and environmental agreements which the world has been painfully building up for so many years will be disrupted, at worst, or not taken forward, at best.
These rules are certainly imperfect—they have contributed to the increasing unhappiness of citizens which is propelling radical political change in many countries—but they are all we have. They need reformulating, not tearing up.
Rarely, if ever, can a man have arrived in high office having insulted so many nations in the process. Trump has alienated Latin America and, particularly, Mexico and Central America. He will not build a wall, something which would require all the concrete he is separately proposing to pour into the refurbishment of America’s physical infrastructure. He may not even build a fence: in fact it is possible that he will instead mend his fences with Mexico in negotiations about regulating migration, declaring that a wall is no longer needed because the two countries understand one another so well. But the memory of the barefaced racism of his statements about Latino immigrants will not easily fade.
He has repeatedly tarred Muslims with the terrorist brush. If President Barack Obama, in his Cairo speech in 2009, was too anxious to please and to avoid controversy, Trump has taken the opposite line. Because some Muslims are terrorists, it seems, all Muslims should be prevented from entering the US. Undoubtedly there will be some curbs on Muslim immigrants. But that will not end terrorist acts, and may, by adding another layer of enmity to the relationship between America and the Muslim world, even be productive of more terrorism. It cannot remotely be claimed that Obama’s policies in the Middle East have been a success: even if Islamic State is now suffering some reverses, the region is in a worse state than ever before. But Trump may set about unravelling the few partial successes, like the nuclear deal with Iran. He, as well as other Republicans, have relentlessly pressed the argument that Iran has actually been helped in the pursuit of nuclear weapons by the deal, ignoring the counter argument that it is the general if limited improvement in relations with the west that contains Iranian nuclear ambitions rather than the technical constraints. Against that, his closeness to Vladimir Putin and his reluctance to intervene against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, in which, it is true, he merely follows Obama, lines him up with Tehran.
It says something when the only foreign country where Trump is seriously popular is Russia. He has been harsh in his remarks about China, apparently feeling no affinity for Beijing’s authoritarian leader. But his courting of President Putin reflects the attraction he feels for a no-nonsense, get-things-done man in what he imagines is his own mould. Never mind that the Russian leader, (admittedly with some provocation) cast aside the settlement that ended the Cold War when he intervened in Ukraine and annexed Crimea. That demonstrates Trump’s relative lack of interest in the security of Europe. And of course it also reflects President Putin’s view that Trump is a leader he will be able to manipulate over Ukraine and the Middle East.
Trump has already left damage in his wake in the Far East. Apart from his prickly attitude to China, he has castigated Japan for unfair trade practices and for free riding on US defence spending. He has unsettled Asian allies by suggesting that it might be no bad thing if Japan and South Korea acquired nuclear weapons, anathema both in terms of America’s general policy on proliferation and the long-established US security umbrella in the Far East. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” may have never really happened but what Trump appears to be offering—how seriously is another question—is a pivot away from Asia.
Europe has its own special anxieties. It is true that Trump’s rants about the Europeans not paying their way in Nato do not in substance go much further than previous presidents have gone. But Nato is a fragile construct, resting in reality not on statistics about divisions and combat squadrons but on the perception that America would be ready to risk war if Russia threatened further interventions in Eastern Europe. The new president could—may already have—upset that perception.
What is Trump’s true mettle? We know he is inexperienced, thoughtless and vain, if also single-minded and shrewd in the sense of knowing and exploiting his political opportunities. But is there something more? What is very clear is that he will soon be severely tested. Friends and enemies of the US alike will want to see how far they can push him, how far they can get him to change his mind, and how far they can use him. Will the continuities of policy towards the world prevail, or are we on the point of a decisive break with them?
A distinguished American ambassador once said that the US was like the leading ship in a naval convoy. It had to follow a predictable course so that the others could set their own course by her, even if they sometimes decided not to follow. The big, indeed the yawning, question about Trump’s presidency is whether the US is still on such a course.