U.S. Leadership on the Rocks
Quote of the week:
“He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits. His whole career was devoted to raising these half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine… What animated him from end to end of his grotesque career was simply ambition – the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes.”
—H.L. Mencken on William Jennings Bryan
When writing about the end of the American Century in this space just five weeks ago, I assumed that the decline of U.S. influence and leadership in the world would be a gradual process. All too soon, I see the error in my analysis: there’s nothing subtle or slow-moving about Donald Trump’s deconstruction of America’s place in the world. Our reverse Rumpelstiltskin turns gold into straw. The slogan “America First” evoked enough support to capture the Republican Party’s nomination and the election; it’s the perfect phrase to accelerate distance between the United States and its allies and friends, Saudi Arabia and Israel excepted.
With the internationalist wing of the Republican Party in deep eclipse and the nationalist wing clearly ascendant, the GOP is reprising its retreat from global responsibility in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, the United States had no allies to offend. Now it does. Angela Merkel has articulated what every other ally is thinking – that it’s time to begin planning for a world in which Washington is less dependable. Boorishness works for reality TV, but doesn’t play well abroad. Authoritarian leaders rejoice at the newest member of the club, while democratic leaders are left to wonder what has become of the U.S. electorate. The biggest winners of the Trump presidency are already clear: the coal industry at home and China and Russia abroad.
The Republican Party finally has found its bookend to William Jennings Bryan, the populist rabble-rouser who was the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in three presidential elections. Bryan’s most famous oratory was delivered at the Democratic Convention in 1896, in which he railed against the gold standard for the U.S. currency, which he viewed as the root of all evil: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this cross of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Trump is, of course, all about the gold standard, at least for his properties. His stump speeches, like Bryan’s, are all about supporting the long-suffering among us. Where is H.L. Mencken when we really need him?
Never in the history of international affairs has such a modest investment by a hostile power – hacking a political campaign – yielded such extraordinary returns. Trump doesn’t need to come across with sanctions relief or other quid pro quo’s – although they would certainly be welcome in the Kremlin. His instincts and personality traits are more than sufficient to yield Moscow big dividends in weakened alliances and diminished U.S. international standing.
Trump epitomizes the diminishment of U.S. global influence that has been reflected in three signature American projects that have fallen upon hard times. All three helped project the image of America as “the indispensable nation.” The first project is what brings us together here at ACW: reducing nuclear dangers and weapons. This project has stalled out, a victim of Vladimir Putin’s backlash against post-Cold War U.S. triumphalism and partisan division at home. Trump’s Republican Party has disdain for international compacts and champions freedom of action.
A second defining project for “the indispensable nation” has been the promotion of democracy abroad. This project is now in shambles. The images of Trump’s first presidential foray into the world were deeply jarring – all smiles for autocrats and scowls for democrats. The third defining project of American leadership has been environmental protection – dating back to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Nixon Administration. This project will now continue without U.S. government backing, following Trump’s executive orders and withdrawal from the Paris climate pact.
Taken together, the abdication of U.S. leadership on these three projects is akin to the Republican Party’s rejection of the League of Nations after World War I. Remedial steps are too numerous to mention, the most important of which will have to await Trump’s departure. But some band-aids can be applied quickly, particularly at the State Department and in key overseas posts. All fixes will be temporary unless and until the Republican Party can revive its international orientation.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on June 4, 2017.