On the other hand, Trump is, to put it delicately, a flawed instrument for charting a change of course in the U.S. approach to the rest of the world. It appears likely that Trump has yet to figure out where exactly he stands on American statecraft. His schizophrenic speech at the Center for the National Interest in April was actually two speeches: one for the party’s neoconservative wing and the other for those disenchanted with what the neocons have wrought and looking for an alternative. For every constructive proposal suggesting a departure from reflexive adherence to our post–Cold War imperial path (e.g., his sensible proposal that we should be an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians rather than continue to act as the former’s lawyer), Trump offers another endorsing core elements of the default position of continuing global activism (i.e., a promise to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement).
Still, if Trumps wins in November (which the electoral math and his astronomically high unfavorable ratings do not favor) there is at least a chance that “making America great again” will involve a foreign policy that really puts “America first”—focusing on our national interests, narrowly defined, and curbing our enthusiasm for trying to run the world.
But far more likely is the prospect of the American empire limping along a bit longer like Matthew Arnold’s weary titan: struggling to hold aloft the too vast orb of its fate, slowly being crushed by the weight of global leadership, but fearing to give it up. This is the tragedy of our situation, for us and for the world.
This is the twelfth in a series of essays on the future of American primacy. You can read the previous essay, “What Comes after U.S. Primacy” by Christopher Layne, here.
Michael C. Desch is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he is director of the International Security Center.
Image: Navy SEALS strain under the weight of their boat and days of difficult training. Flickr/Rennett Stowe