The Skeptics

Will Donald Trump Really Bring an End to America's Global Leadership?

According to Ian Bremmer, “American international leadership, a constant since 1945, will end with the presidential inauguration of Donald J. Trump on Jan. 20, 2017.”

He continues:

That’s not because Trump is bound to fail where his predecessors have succeeded. Given the rise of other countries with enough power to shrug off U.S. pressure . . . this moment was inevitable. America will remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future. . . . But Trump’s election marks an irreversible break with the past, one with global implications.

I mostly agree, though, as a historian, I doubt that anything is inevitable or irreversible. Things happen because of the decisions we make. It is time for America to choose, a key theme of Bremmer’s book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.

Over the past several decades, we’ve chosen wisely, at times, and foolishly on other occasions. Yet the chief cause of America’s relative decline—and it’s only relative—is not our mistakes but rather our successes. We’ve helped a lot of other countries get rich(er), in large part because it enabled us to get even richer. Even the poorest Americans enjoy a standard of living that seems affluent by the standards set a half century ago. The rest of the world is living better, longer, healthier lives, too.

But, as Bremmer notes, that also means that other countries are in a stronger position to resist when Uncle Sam pushes them to do things that they’d rather not. The rise of the rest is also a major theme in Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. In the book, Zakaria concludes that a reorientation of the U.S. approach to the world is needed, but he doesn’t believe that that translates into an end of American leadership. (Interestingly, between the first edition and 2.0, Zakaria became slightly more pessimistic that we could pull it off, essentially predicting the rise of “America First” isolationism.)

For many years, I assigned The Post-American World to the students taking my U.S. foreign policy class at the University of California’s Washington Center. Last year, I replaced Zakaria’s book with Bremmer’s Superpower. Bremmer offers America First (i.e., Independent America) as only one of three possibilities (the others are Moneyball and Indispensable America), but he prefers a particular brand of America First: he thinks we should be more reluctant to use force, but remain committed to global trade, and welcome the next generation of Americans wishing to follow in the footsteps of previous waves of immigrants who made the United States what it is today.

We see in Trump’s rise a rejection of such approaches. For many Trump supporters, and perhaps for Trump himself, America First means exactly that. America. First.

And it’s not just Trump supporters who feel that way. Americans seem generally disinterested in paying the costs of global leadership, especially if that means foregoing domestic priorities. Deficit spending may conceal the cost of a huge military buildup combined with a massive infrastructure package and a slew of other domestic giveaways, but it’s not obvious that greater economic growth will eventually make up the difference.

On the other hand, perhaps American global leadership will persist? After all, the gap between what the public wants and what the elites are giving them is decades old, and we’ve sustained it before. The people who surround Trump may figure out a way to continue the status quo. Cato’s Ben Friedman argues that Trump will be hawkish. Ben and my former colleague Justin Logan contend that primacy (aka liberal hegemony or deep engagement) has, well, hegemonic control over foreign-policy discourse among DC elites. Academics debate the flaws and misconceptions of primacy all the time, but many in the foreign-policy establishment seem blissfully unaware of this academic debate, often even ignoring the scholars in the academy who agree with them.