Get Over Yourself, America – POLITICO Magazine
For the last few weeks, we’ve been deluged by various retrospectives on Donald Trump’s first year in office. Many made valuable contributions to our understanding of this, shall we say, unique figure in U.S. presidential history. Yet all shared the same fatal flaw: the fashionable trait of heaping blame on Trump for America’s abdication of global leadership. Even seasoned American diplomats have lambasted Trump for rupturing ties with Europe, never mind that the same accusation was leveled at George W. Bush over a decade ago for brushing aside the concerns of “Old Europe” over the Iraq war, and even more recently at Barack Obama for neglecting Europe in favor of a “pivot” to Asia.
If one man alone could bring down an empire, America would have collapsed several times over in just the past two decades. After all, in 2007 it was fashionable to blame Bush for imperial overstretch in light of the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That helped Obama win the 2008 election, but his presidency clearly did not so substantially restore American prestige that it could not be quickly dismantled by Trump—otherwise these trite commentaries would have little to complain about. The facile nature of circular logic that conflates individual personality with national power is already self-evident.
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So too is America’s self-centric worldview in an age where globalization has many drivers beyond the United States. China is the top trading partner of more than 120 countries, versus just over 50 for the U.S. Europe exports more capital around the world than America does. Japanese capital is funding AI research around the world. Russians are again selling weapons everywhere.
For Americans, these trends point toward some uncomfortable questions. Why did Asian economies continue to grow so fast in the decade after America’s Great Recession? Why did European allies join the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) despite heavy U.S. opposition? Why have all countries—including close U.S. allies such as Canada, Japan, South Korea and Australia—participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) carried forward with plans to deepen a major trading zone even after the Trump withdrew the U.S. from negotiations as soon as he assumed office?
It turns out that the global system is underpinned by more powerful forces than either the whims of America’s president or even the country’s enormous military and economic weight. In fact, America’s once-dominant position in the world has been steadily declining since the 1970s when Japan’s rise and Europe’s consolidation into the EU brought two new centers of gravity, followed of course by China and now India, as well as a revived Russia, as geostrategic anchors. All of them are intensifying their relations with each other as well as with other regional powers from Saudi Arabia to Brazil—no matter what edicts are pronounced in Washington. American officials speak about accommodating China’s rise as if it were still up to them. But our collective international society wants only one thing: More connectivity among its members. Globalization has turned the world from a pyramid with America at the top into a spiderweb. To make a celestial analogy, geopolitical order is not a solar system with one star in the center around which all planets rotate. It is more like a constellation, a pattern of bright stars bound by mutual gravity.
Early 2008 seemed an odd time to make this argument. The “surge” in Iraq appeared to be solidifying America’s mission; many still spoke comfortably of American hegemony. But as I argued in a January 2008 cover essay for the New York Times Magazine (adapted from my book The Second World) titled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” the end of the Cold War meant that many countries no longer had to choose sides. Instead, dozens of the most important swing states on every continent realized their interests would be best served by pursuing multi-alignment, gaining benefits from America, Europe, China and other suitors all at the same time.
So Trump, like Obama before him, is really just an accessory to what has been happening for at least the past quarter century: the rise of a truly multipolar world. Over this period, from 9/11 and the Iraq war through the financial crisis, rising inequality and divisive populism, the U.S. and the UK in particular have suffered a brutal demotion in their legitimacy. Especially after Brexit, Europe is refocused on pooling its economic and strategic assets and is parting ways with the U.S. on how to move forward with Russia, Iran and China. In these critical cases, Europe favors engagement to the American approach of containment. Europeans aren’t focused on building ties with Asia because of Trump but because their annual trade with Asia’s major economies is nearly $500 billion more than their trade with America—a trend that long predates Trump.