24 June 2020   Leave a comment

Tom McTague has written an essay for The Atlantic entitled “The Decline of the American World”. It is worthy of a very close read. McTague raises the issue of how differently US allies are assessing Mr. Trump’s foreign policy from previous Presidents. The US has been a dominant power in world affairs since the end of World War II and it enjoyed the support of strong allies even when those allies disagreed with some US actions. That general support continued despite active opposition from France over the US role in the Vietnam War and opposition from Germany over the Iraq War of 2003, to name just a few examples. McTague suspects that this general support came from broad agreement over the rules-based liberal world order to which US rhetoric aspired. The persistence of that general support is something that McTague views as significant:

It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.

“Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.”

That general support seems to have evaporated as President Trump has jettisoned the idea of a liberal world order and has instead pursued a world order based upon balance of power rules that elevates a narrow definition of the national interest as the only determinant for foreign policy. In so doing, the US divested itself of any responsibility to conduct its foreign policy along lines that demonstrated common values and interests. McTague correctly identifies Mr. Trump’s interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News in 2017 as the clearest example of this shift: “In an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News in 2017, Trump was asked to explain his respect for Putin, and he replied with the usual generalities about the Russian president leading his country and its fight against Islamist terrorism, prompting O’Reilly to interject: ‘Putin’s a killer.’ Trump then responded: ‘There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?’”  With that statement, the US eschewed the role of a world leader and became just another ordinary power.

But it is not easy for the world to give up on the aspirations of a rules-based world order. After all, none of the problems facing the world, such as climate change or the sputtering world economy or the need to protect human rights, can be addressed without multilateral cooperation. And American citizens are still insisting on the protections of human rights for all. It is not coincidental that it was the sight of Americans pulling down statues honoring Confederate soldiers that led Belgian citizens to pull down the statue of King Leopold, the genocidal ruler of what was once known as the Belgian Congo. Liberal aspirations are unlikely to be pursued by Russia or China so those who wish to see those values protected must turn to those countries that are willing to defend them. McTague observes:

“By 1946, when Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri, to deliver his famous Iron Curtain speech, the might of the United States was obvious. The U.S. had the weapons to destroy the world, the military reach to control it, and the economy to continue growing rich from it. Churchill opened his speech with a warning: ‘The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done, but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement.’

“America’s problem is that the rest of the world can see when it has fallen below its achievements. In moments such as the current one, it is hard to dispute some of the criticisms leveled by the country’s most vociferous critics from abroad: that it is irredeemably racist or overly ambivalent to poverty and violence, police brutality and guns. The rights and wrongs don’t appear particularly complicated in this dilemma, even if the country itself is.

“Yet this is also a nation that is not Russia or China, as much as its own leader would have us all believe. In Moscow and Beijing, for starters, it would not be possible to protest in such numbers and with such vehemence. From a European perspective, it is also striking to see the energy, oratory, and moral authority once again bubbling up from below—the beauty of America, not the ugliness. To listen to an Atlanta rapper address a press conference, or a Houston police chief speak to a crowd of protesters, is to watch a more accomplished, powerful, and eloquent public speaker than almost any European politician I can think of.”

It is impossible for the US to return to its previous role of a dominant superpower–the world has changed too dramatically from the unique conditions of 1945. But Americans and the rest of the world need to think more seriously about how to maintain a liberal world order without the constant intervention of the US in world affairs.

Posted June 24, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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