Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, there has been widespread discussion about the decline of the United States’ position in the world. Trump’s victory, manifold members of the US foreign policy establishment have argued, has engendered the decline of US “world leadership” and the “liberal international order” that, they affirm, fostered peace and prosperity in the seven decades after World War II’s end. Embedded in these criticisms is the anxiety that Trump’s strategy of “America First” has surrendered the United States’ claim to moral global leadership. As Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor, wrote in The New York Times in December 2017:
In Mr. Trump’s estimation, we live in a world where America wins only at others’ expense. There is no common good, no international community, no universal values, only American values. America is no longer “a global force for good,” as in President Obama’s last strategy, or a “shining city on a hill,” as in President Reagan’s vision.
To observers like Rice, Trump’s presidency has augured the end of the era in which non-Americans (supposedly) respected the United States as a force fighting for the global good.
*** And it is true that Trump is widely distrusted throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, only 32 per cent of those polled believe Trump will “do the right thing regarding world affairs;” in France and Germany that number falls to 20 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively; in Mexico, it’s only 8 per cent. Trump is also among the least trusted of world leaders, with 64 per cent of people polled in over 30 countries expressing “no confidence” in the president.
But, fortunately for advocates of “world leadership” like Susan Rice, American hegemony has very little to do with trust and espoused values and far more to do with actual and potential martial capabilities. The United States is by far the world’s dominant military power and will likely remain so for years to come. It is this material might—not “soft power,” not the export of US culture, and not global faith in US leaders—that is the base upon which US hegemony rests.
As such, despite the hit that the United States’ public image has taken in the era of Trump, contemporary talk of American decline is far overblown. Though Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau might mock Trump for his unpredictability (as they did in an early December meeting at Buckingham Palace), neither the United Kingdom, nor France, nor Canada has the power or will to break with the United States on any major issue. In the final analysis, Trump’s presidency reveals that the United States can be led by a despised fool, and that this simply doesn’t matter very much for America’s global position.
This is a serious problem for leftists and liberals alike. Even if one believed that the United States acted as a force for good and stability during the Cold War—which is doubtful, especially when one considers the disastrous effects of US intervention in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, and elsewhere—it is abundantly clear from the last two decades of meddling in the Middle East that the world can’t afford to be dominated by Americans. The question then becomes how to challenge US global “leadership”—or what might more accurately be termed US empire. The only way to develop a satisfactory answer to this query is to confront the sheer power of the United States head on. Simply put, pretending that the nation is in decline will do little but provide succour to those who want to maintain an unchallenged American hegemony.
*** So, what are the facts of US power? Today, the United States operates approximately 800 military bases around the world, orders of magnitude more than potential peer competitors like China, which presently has one overseas base in Djibouti, and Russia, which has about twenty-one. This “pointillist empire,” in which power is spread out in specks across the globe, enables the nation to dominate vast regions by, essentially, placing them under the constant threat of US intervention. Beyond these bases, the United States has in recent years deployed its Special Operations Forces to the majority of the world’s countries; in 2017, for example, US special forces operated in 149 foreign nations.
The United States also continues to spend an absurd amount on its military, especially when one considers that the nation is surrounded by two giant moats and weak allies that cannot hope to threaten its existence. In mid-December, the US Congress approved a federal defense budget that will expend $738 billion in 2020 (about $20 billion more than in 2019), $40 million of which will go toward creating a sixth armed service, the Space Force. With these funds, the United States will be able to dominate not only the earth, but outer space itself, giving new definition to the concept of “global” leadership.
Furthermore, American defense appropriations dwarf those of other countries. In fiscal year 2018, the United States spent $649 billion on the military, more than the next seven countries—China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany—which spent a total of $609 billion, combined. And, despite widespread criticism of Trump’s strategic idiocy, these resources are used much in the same way that they always have been: to shore up American military primacy. As this suggests, there is little material difference between Trump’s “America First” strategy and Obama’s notion that the United States must serve as “a global force for good”: both visions are committed to maintaining unquestioned US hegemony.
US military might, of course, is sustained not only by massive financial investments, but by a social structure designed to insulate the nation’s ruling classes from militarism’s harsh consequences. The All-Volunteer Force, which was created in 1973 to stave off antiwar criticisms that permeated the United States during the Vietnam War, guarantees that very few Americans directly suffer from US military primacy. Less than 1 per cent of the US population serves in the armed forces, and those who do serve hail from very specific groups. As a just-released New York Times report reveals, the "men and women who sign up [for the US military] overwhelmingly come from counties in the South and a scattering of communities at the gates of military bases … where the tradition of military service is deeply ingrained." Put another way, those who return to the United States from deployments abroad with missing limbs, broken bones, and shattered psyches are not the children of the privileged who actually decide when and where America fights its wars.
The militarism of the United States abroad is further fostered and emboldened by the ambient militarism one finds in the course of living an average American life. The best-selling video game in 2019 was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, in which players participate in covert operations across Europe and the Middle East “to stop full scale global war.” The enemies in the game either belong to an organisation named al-Qatala, a “terrorist group hell bent on inflicting mass casualties anywhere, anytime,” or fight for Roman Barkov, a Russian general with a “brutal agenda.” Or move beyond the household and attend an American football game, where you may witness a “flyover” ceremony of military jets set to the Star-Spangled Banner. Cultural products and productions like these encourage the notion that US citizens stand bestride a world that they have the right, duty, and ability to control.
While much handwringing about the decline of US power has accompanied the election of Trump to the US presidency, for material, social, and cultural reasons, the United States looks set to maintain its global military primacy for years to come. This is a problem that those who want to dismantle empire must directly confront. American power does not rely on moral supremacy. Instead, it relies on a military supremacy, the likes of which has never before been seen in history. How do we deconstruct the US military machine? How do we transform a society and culture that encourages militarism? These are the questions that must occupy critics in the new decade and beyond. Otherwise, the status quo will remain unchanged.