Donald Trump’s fizzled summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is yet another occasion for commentary on this president’s unfitness for office, particularly in matters of foreign affairs. The failure in Hanoi was Trump’s greatest blunder so far, according to Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian. It was another “Trump vanity project.” His “self-reverential style of personalized, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants diplomacy” is irresponsible in nuclear talks, per se, and ineffectual more generally.
Tisdall’s summary of Trump’s failed leadership is stunning:
Trump’s rightwing nationalistic instincts; his coddling of dictators; his cultivated ignorance of complex, sensitive international problems; and his image-driven refusal to look beyond the next news cycle, have become fixed features of his foreign policy approach.
It is this approach that has given us the appeasement of Vladimir Putin’s Russia at Europe’s expense, cut-and-run troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, a dangerously obsessive vendetta against Iran, an unconscionable betrayal of the Palestinians, and a chaotic attempt to impose regime change on Venezuela.
That said, there is another side to the Trump story that complicates this line of critique. Writing in the March 4, 2019 edition of Time magazine, political scientist and foreign affairs editorialist Ian Bremmer maintains (after acknowledging the legitimacy of criticizing Trump’s “chaotic and abrasive decisionmaking”) that Trump’s unprecedented approach to foreign affairs reflects the American public’s wariness over the experts’ “consensus view about the U.S. role in the world.” The public, regardless of party affiliation, no longer assumes that US entanglement abroad is essential to national security or global stability. The American public exhibits “a waning appetite for the obligations and impositions of imperial governance.”
It appears, Bremmer observes, that inconclusive and endless military engagements after 9/11 have done little to convince Americans they should bear the burden of “promoting and defending democracy around the world.” Rather than remaking the world in America’s image, they seem more inclined to promote their belief in American exceptionalism by the power of good example, that is, by realizing democratic values at home rather than by “selling or imposing them abroad.” The public is risk averse and reluctant to rely on military force. Americans prefer diplomacy over military action. Some support economic globalization, but more want to increase national independence and reduce international obligations.
This shift of public opinion is not in accord with most expert opinion. “The Pax Americana era is over,” Bremmer suggests, which represents a shift of attitude that policy makers must now take into account. The public’s perspective “appears better suited to the fraught geopolitical realities of the current moment.”[i]
The point is not to endorse Trump’s vanity project or excuse his undiplomatic flippancy. It is not to suggest he is a benign figure or to ignore the fact that he is a decidedly dangerous force. Nor do I mean to imply that we should dismiss the importance of the US playing a positive role in international affairs. Trump himself, as US President, is a serious problem. As political scientist Jeffrey Isaac points out, simply disparaging “all foreign policy institutions, elites, commitments, and alliances,” which is Trump’s modus operandi, does not amount to a coherent policy shift that fixes US imperial arrogance. No, Trump’s rash “authoritarian temperament” is a means “to destroy institutions and to create chaos,” not the way to enrich “democratic political life.”
The point instead is to call attention to the danger of conflating President Trump’s blundering with an apparently shifting public assessment of American empire. If expert consensus reflects a myopic view of US foreign policy now out of step with American public opinion and geopolitical realities, then debunking Trump in order to affirm Pax Americana is to engage in a worrisome version of the strawman fallacy. To substitute Trump’s self-serving caricature of public opinion for the public’s actual discontent with imperial overreach is to attack a distorted version of the country’s evolving worldview. Attacking Trump’s misrepresentation of public discontent is much easier than taking on the underlying reasons for questioning imperial hubris.
Empires come and go. The US empire dates from 1945 to 2025, according to historian Alfred McCoy. The decline and fall of US global power, he observes, “is just a matter of timing and circumstance.” In a weakening world order, the US is no longer the one indispensable nation. The question is how best to adapt during the transition in order to avoid a cataclysmic collapse, a devastating war, and the emergence of an illiberal new world order, one that abandons the rule of law, subordinates human rights to state sovereignty, and is “governed by the raw realpolitik of commercial advantage and national self-interest.” Yet, even that dark image may prove overly optimistic. Given a failure to deal with the imminent threat of global warming, the question of adaptation may be rendered moot. A largely uninhabitable and “eternally cataclysmic planet” would mean the rule of chaos rather than world order of any kind.
Adaptation, even survival, necessitates a democratic corrective to the authoritarian drift of American politics. Without a richer public discourse and stronger democratic culture nurtured by constructive dissent, the country’s chances of overcoming an outdated imperial mindset and addressing the perils of a world in transition are severely diminished.
[i] Ian Bremmer, “Worlds Apart,” Time, March 4, 2019, pp. 17-19.