Rarely in history are epoch-making moments so clearly discernible. But we seem to have witnessed one at the G20 leaders’ meeting in Hamburg, Germany, in early July. Donald Trump arrived at the summit after a widely publicized speech in Warsaw in which he held himself up as the purported champion of “the West.” He left the G20 increasingly isolated from the other leaders, except perhaps for a few who express a similar penchant for authoritarianism. If the trend toward irrelevance is not quickly reversed, his performance may eventually be viewed as marking the end of the American century.
That century opened in 1917 with President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to commit US troops to the charnel house that was the trench warfare of the First World War. Wilson wrapped intervention in idealism, particularly the need to stop German aggression. But his actions were also grounded in American self-interest.
Wilson realized that, if left on their own, the old imperial powers of Europe would exhaust themselves slaughtering each other, making them ripe for revolution, as had occurred in Russia. He feared the consequences for the US and other democracies. He defended American intervention, therefore, with a clarion call to make the world safe for democracy.
US financial interests were also at stake. New York bankers had lent freely to the UK and France to finance Allied purchases of US munitions. Had the Allies lost the war, the value of these loans would have been questionable; financial crisis might have followed.
In any event, 1917 marked the beginning of the American century in which the US assumed the leading role as international policeman and global banker. It was a role that successive presidents accepted; over the next 30 years, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britannia as the anchor of international relations and security. By 1945, following another global war, the US was the de facto leader of “the West” in its ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union.
To be sure, there has always been opposition to this role. Wilson was the key power broker setting the terms of peace after the First World War in the Treaty of Versailles, championing the principle of self-determination. Yet his triumph in creating the League of Nations was short-lived: Senate Republicans fearing “foreign entanglements” refused to ratify the treaty that would have made the US a member. Similarly, in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to contain fascist aggression were stymied by a motley collection of “America First” isolationists and Nazi sympathizers. And even after the Second World War, when it was evident that the US had no choice but to be the guarantor of international peace and prosperity, Senate Republicans once again eschewed American involvement abroad.
In this context, Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy is simply the latest variation of a long-playing theme in American politics. What is different is that this tune has never before been played by the incumbent of the White House. This is what made the G20 summit deftly chaired by Angela Merkel so remarkable. The German Chancellor tactfully avoided open rifts among the G20 leaders. But there was no mistaking the outcome.
In the space of a mere 36 hours or so, the US seemingly relinquished international economic and political leadership. A century ago, the US had assumed the mantle of global leadership only after three years of European war exhausted the moral, financial and political capacity of the UK to provide leadership. The danger today is that there is no clear heir to that mantle as there was in 1917. And even then, the handoff of global responsibilities was not smooth. As Charles Kindleberger argued in his 1973 book, The World in Depression 1929-1939, the spread of global depression in the 1930s is explained in part because the Bank of England “couldn’t” and the US Federal Reserve Board “wouldn’t” provide the public good of international financial stability. This experience led the US to work with others to put postwar international finance on a stable footing by creating global organizations such as the World Bank.
Today, the risk is that the vacuum created by the US abdication of global responsibilities will benefit countries that believe that existing institutions and security arrangements created by the US together with other states over the past 70 years will constrain their ambitions. What all previous presidents realized is that America’s long-term financial, economic and security interests are promoted by these institutions and arrangements. Not Trump. Previous presidents have used international forums to mobilize coalitions to promote key objectives. Not Trump.
The President could have used the G20 meeting to align his fellow leaders in a strategy to isolate North Korea and neutralize its nuclear ambitions. There is no avoiding foreign entanglements in a world of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Instead, his administration’s ham-fisted attempt to threaten others with trade sanctions probably isolated the US instead of North Korea. Had the administration first secured a political statement by the G20, it could have increased the leverage on others to cooperate on the containment of North Korea. Countries, like individuals, sometimes find it easier to act in concert with others.
But such an approach implicitly recognizes the benefit of international agreements; if governments view these arrangements solely as constraints to be avoided, they will be loath to pursue them. In this respect, the atavistic nativism of the Trump administration belies a fundamental misreading of the world: Trump’s people view the world through the lens of the 1950s, when the US was truly dominant in the global economy and could unilaterally set the terms of global arrangements. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations chose cooperation, however, working with America’s international partners to build the postwar international financial, economic, trade and security architecture that has served the community of nations so well.
Trump’s performance at the G20 apparently confirms his intention to undermine the foundations of this architecture. The risk is that he will create a new ideological divide based on social values and political authority, rather than on a contest between collectivism and individualism, as in the Cold War confrontation between Communism and market-based economies. The irony is that no country may be more susceptible to damage caused by that divide than the US.
For the past seven decades, American leadership and the ideals that the US represented provided the glue that kept liberal democracies joined in a broad coalition of Enlightenment values. That leadership and those ideals marked the American century. Trump has signalled his intention to withdraw the US from that coalition. The challenge for its other members is to remain united in the face of the new fissure opened by this decision.
This article first appeared in Policy Options.