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How To Diminish A Superpower: Trump’s Foreign Policy After Six Months

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Hal Brands writes in War on the Rocks:

Regardless of which candidate had won the 2016 election, the tenure of the 45th president was bound to represent a pivotal moment in the historical arc of the American superpower. Since World War II, the United States has been the world’s foremost power. Since the end of the Cold War, it has enjoyed an astounding level of geopolitical dominance. The United States has, on the whole, used that power quite constructively to create an international system that has been remarkably prosperous, stable, and liberal by any meaningful historical comparison.

But nothing—not even the remarkable degree of primacy that the United States possessed in the wake of the Soviet collapse—lasts forever.  And in recent years, both American dominance and the international system it has underpinned have come under strain. America’s military and economic primacy have been eroded by competition from a rising China. Meanwhile, challenges to the prevailing international system — from renewed great-power revisionism, to the resurgence of authoritarian models of governance, to the emergence of profound disorder in key regions such as the Middle East — have proliferated and intensified. To be sure, the prospects that these challenges might be successfully met seemed fairly good until quite recently. After all, the United States and its allies still control a clear preponderance of global economic and military power, and with some hard decisions and enlightened policies they might well mount a credible defense of their interests and values. Many informed observers — this one included — thus assumed that when Hillary Clinton was elected, adjusting American grand strategy as necessary to shore up American primacy and sustain a U.S.-centric global order would be her fundamental grand strategic task.

But Donald Trump triumphed, and as his administration passes its six-month mark, it is clear that something very different is happening. Based on his words and actions thus far, Trump appears likely to hasten the decay not just of the existing international order but of the American superpower itself. The president has, admittedly, shied away from some of his more radical campaign proposals. He has not yet withdrawn from American alliances, started trade wars, rushed headlong into a rapprochement with Russia, or otherwise pulled down the temple. And in fairness, the president has taken, or at least pledged to take, a tough line on North Korea and other threats to international stability.

Yet if Trump has been constrained by some of his more moderate advisers, by Congress, and by other factors from pursuing a pure version of his “America First” agenda, his presidency to date has still been quite damaging.  For in both his rhetoric and many of his early policies, Trump has taken dead aim at a number of the core ideas, practices, and traditions that have been central to America’s global role for decades. The president claims to be maximizing U.S. power and freedom of action in a cut-throat global environment. But in reality, he is pursuing a “present at the destruction” style of foreign policy, one that is compromising the very qualities that have made America such a successful superpower in the first place. 

The Dual Roots of the American Superpower

For the past 70 years, America’s success in both shaping and leading the international order has been rooted in two distinctive attributes — its unmatched, tangible hard power, on the one hand, and the particular ways in which that power has been wielded, on the other.

In purely material terms, the United States has been far and away the mightiest actor in the international arena since World War II. Even during the Cold War, America’s economy vastly overmatched that of the Soviet Union; Washington also enjoyed a significant advantage in overall military power, even though the conventional balance in Europe favored the Kremlin. Since the Cold War, U.S. advantages have been even more pronounced. The United States has regularly accounted for 35 to 45 percent of global military spending and possessed unrivaled power projection capabilities. It has also enjoyed a significant — if narrowing — economic lead over challengers such as China. These strengths represent the hard-power backbone of American leadership. They are the economic and military pillars of Washington’s global role.

Yet America’s effectiveness as a superpower has also depended heavily on how that power was used. The United States did not use its unmatched strengths simply to pursue its own interests, narrowly defined, but to create a broader international system that would benefit any country that agreed to honor its guiding liberal precepts. It anchored globe-straddling military alliances that fostered security and stability in key regions, and underwrote a relatively open international economy that delivered unprecedented prosperity. It provided important public goods such as freedom of the seas and leadership in addressing key global challenges. These practices were not rooted in charity, of course. They were rooted in the searing experiences of the Great Depression and World War II, which taught American leaders that the country could only be prosperous and secure in a world that was itself prosperous and secure.

Contrary to what President Trump and his supporters insist, this was a nationalistic, “America First” foreign policy. Indeed, the United States could not have sustained this approached to global affairs for over 70 years had it notbenefitted so handsomely from the endeavor. But this was a broadly beneficial, positive sum form of nationalism, one that set the United States apart from its main great-power competitor  — the Soviet Union — after World War II, and one that made America’s hard power dominance more acceptable to many countries around the world. It was precisely this approach, in fact, that made the American superpower so exceptional — which ensured that the primary concern of that many of Washington’s allies and partners has not been the fear of American domination, but rather the fear of American abandonment.

U.S. leadership, moreover, hinged on a variety of other intangible but crucial factors. Because the international system ultimately rested on the credibility of American commitments, U.S. presidents across administrations worked hard to foster the perception that Washington was a reliable — even predictable — actor: one whose word was its bond and one that would serve as a source of steadiness in global affairs. American officials promoted — not always with perfect consistency — the advancement of human rights and democracy, in recognition that the United States would be more secure and influential in a world in which its political values were more widely represented, and in the belief that America’s geopolitical leadership was inextricably wound up with its moral leadership. American officials cultivated relationships of deep, embedded cooperation with like-minded nations, on the premise that shared long-term geopolitical interests and shared political values justified partnerships that transcended one-off, transactional interactions. Not least, U.S. influence stemmed not simply from America’s material prowess but from its image as an attractive if thoroughly imperfect society; unmatched soft power made the exercise of American hard power more effective. All of these qualities have long been essential to America’s career as a superpower. And based on the record of the Trump administration so far, all are under threat today.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Consider, for instance, the longstanding U.S. commitment to building a positive-sum world, one in which all countries committed to a common set of norms and principles can prosper.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 August 2017 at 8:44 am

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