A mere one president later ...
Commentators are once more worrying over America’s waning preeminence. A New Yorker headline in January suggested Donald Trump was “Making China Great Again.” When the president withdrew from the Iran deal in May, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum lamented that “the era of American hegemony” had been “remarkably brief.” And just last week, reflecting on the G7 summit, the New York Times exhorted Americans “to recognize that this president has transformed ‘America First’ into ‘America Alone,’ and that this is the last place that a great and powerful nation wants to be.”
international/archive/2018/08/ americas-global-influence-is- declining/568708/
In Nairobi National Park, a succession of concrete piers rises over the heads of rhinos and giraffes, part of a $13.8 billion rail project that will link Kenya’s capital with the Indian Ocean. It’s a project with the ambition and scale of global leadership, and the site safety posters are in the language of its engineers and builders: Chinese.
Four hundred miles further north, in one of Kenya’s city-sized refugee camps, there’s another sign of what global leadership used to look like: sacks of split peas, stamped USAID; a handful of young, quiet Americans working on idealistic development projects. I saw both this month, but one already looks like a relic of the past. The baton of global leadership is being passed from the U.S. to China.
In Africa, the evidence is everywhere. China will put nearly $90 billion into the continent this year, the United States nothing close. China is betting big on economic partnerships and dependencies along its new Silk Road, christened “One Belt, One Road.” The U.S., meanwhile, spends many of its dollars on expensive wars, to the detriment of soft-power projects like USAID, or domestic welfare programs like Medicaid.
America’s global influence is certain to decline relatively in the years ahead; it is the inevitable consequence of the return of the Middle Kingdom. As that happens, the U.S. should be more deliberate about the policy choices it makes. It’s a lesson I’ve seen my own country—which was once an empire, too—learn the hard way. On the way down from global hegemony, Britain came around too slowly to investing in domestic welfare. The U.S. should apply those lessons sooner.
The time is ripe. Its 45th president swung to power on the backs of voters worn out by the burden of expensive wars, tired of wartime austerity, and fed up with rising inequality. America has spent nearly $6 trillion on sustaining long-running conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Median wages haven’t gone up in decades. Its health-care inequality is a byword in failure, infant mortality barely better than that of developing countries, and some states’ death rates are soaring because of “diseases of despair.”
It’s clear that many voters gave up on the American empire. When they voted in 2016, they didn’t care for the international institutions the U.S. had so carefully constructed after World War II: NATO; the United Nations; the World Bank. They didn’t care for their country to protect the liberal world order, to lead the “Free World.” Voters on the left and the right showed their readiness for a policy turn inwards. They wanted a country focused on domestic policies. (These are my own views, and not those of my organization.)
A similar thing happened in Britain after World War II. In 1945, the Labour leader Clement Attlee campaigned on bettering the lives of Britons at the bottom. He promised welfare over warfare: a national health service, social security, public housing. It won him the election; scoring an upset win against the man who had just brought Britain its finest victory in a global war, Winston Churchill.
But in the tumultuous years that followed, Attlee wasn’t able or willing to fully scale down spending on the army and the Empire. When Churchill came back after him in 1951, India and other colonies had already won their independence, but the over-spending on foreign intervention and the military remained. The result was a delay of the inevitable decline of the Empire, but also a half-baked welfare state, which couldn’t provide for its citizens the promises that Attlee envisaged.
During a series of international conflicts from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, Britain continued to lose not only territory in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, but also vast amounts of money and human capital, which could have otherwise been deployed to the betterment of its people. In Cyprus, Kenya, Oman, Yemen, the Suez Canal, the British possessions in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, Britain spent vast amounts in a futile effort to retain some its imperial power.
I don’t long for the days of the British Empire. My family spent its vainglorious reign digging ironstone from the ground. The imperial sun never shone down the mine shafts of northeast England. But I know the end of the Empire did not mean the end of Britain, or that of the wellbeing of its citizens. Quite the contrary: the Britain I grew up in provided me and my family with educational opportunities and health care we’d never have known had Britain not attempted to build a welfare state at home.
Those of us on the global sidelines, America’s anxious auxiliaries, know a collapse in the instruments of a nation’s power when it happens. In Britain that collapse was precipitated by the left’s loathing of imperialism. In the United States, it has come from the right’s loathing of “globalism.”
America remains a global power, but in the world’s capitals, policymakers are now puzzling out which alliances and organizations will shape the future. Entropy rules over empire.
President Trump posed in Churchill’s armchair on a recent visit to Britain. A bust of Winston Churchill sits once more in the Oval Office. But in terms of America’s position on the world stage, Trump’s legacy may more resemble the one that Attlee set in motion. And Attlee is remembered and respected today not for an empire lost, but for a welfare state founded.
Now based on things written by people who I know have supported Trump as president, that he is willing to openly and defiantly turn his back to the "postwar order" of a pax American formulated in the wake of World War II is one of the things they like most about him. Trump supporters see him as someone willing to say openly what blue-state voters and even progressives might have been willing to say so long as it didn't involve any policy-impacting changes, that the era of American colonialism and imperialism doesn't seem worth it. It's just that such a set of claims were probably not supposed to be said by someone like Trump who ran on a GOP rather than a DNC ticket.
But what that sort of repudiation would entail is a voluntaristic decline in prestige, influence and power-brokering status. At the level of what a less imperialist United States would actually mean, it would include (among other things) an America with less clout, less prestige and connection to the international order that it in so many ways functionally shaped in the post-World War II period. One of the things that may have separated leftists from the traditionally liberal is whether or not this declinist take on American influence could be considered possibly acceptable or an unmitigated disaster. Ironically people on the old left and old right might have some overlap in proposing that the age of American colonialist/imperialist interventionism should end.
Where xenophobic panic seems to kick in is whether American journalists and pundits become afraid that Russia hacked the election (as in actually did so effectively, as distinct from tried to do something) or ... China. With the Cold War legacy being what it was it is in some ways a lot easier to suspect the Russians than the Chinese, though that sort of script has a lazy inertia to it, most likely. If it were a matter of the sheer number of ships a navy to navy battle between the United States and China would at this point probably not going in our favor on purely numeric grounds, but it's not seeming as though Chinese naval power can be projected at anywhere close to the levels the United States naval power can be.
But that's the thing about these adminsitrative flip flops, it has begun to seem as though red and blue partisans think America is in a dangerous declien because the other team won the executive branch. It makes a kind of emotional sense for those to whom red state and blue state partisanship is their religious conviction but for those of us who are not in that sort of camp it seems as paranoid as the 1980s era ravings of some Hal Lindsey style eschatology guru. For a whole lot of Americans the impact is going to be gradual and indirect.
Sometimes the panic manifests in sloganeering that can seem wildly racist if you stop and think about it. I saw some non-white people writing after Trump won that we should remember to set back the calendars fifty years. That seemed a bit ... melancholic ... but depending on what your skin color is the rhetoric made a certain kid of sense. Some white progressives said that we needed to set the clock or calendar back five hundred years. It wasn't until as recently as .... 2004 that the American Indian Probate Reform Act became effective. If you want tome downbeat reading material ... go read up on that.
Oh ... well .. that'd be great for Native Americans who would suddenly no longer have been largely wiped out by epidemics of disease! Since half my lineage is Native American setting the calendar back five hundred years would be GREAT for magically bringing back more Native Americans. The implicit assumption that setting the calendar back five hundred years has to be bad is not a given. We'd have a world that was not reliant on fossil fuels to power our entire global technocratic economic system and, like I wrote earlier, there'd be a lot more Native Americans. There's a temptation toward the total abjection of the past or any life that isn't mediated in contemporary Western technological terms. Is human life not worth living if you don't have access to artificial light and indoor plumbing? Most definitely. Is life worth living if you can't read any books? Well, I'd struggle imagining that one for myself but ... yes.
A world in which America isn't the uncontested leader of the so-called free world is still the world, and arguably still a world worth living in.
But that hardly means that whoever takes up the mantle of the leader of the world is going to be any better. On that point there's reason to be concerned that however bad the United States can often be it's not at all clear that whichever power rises to be the "leader of the world" next is going to be "better".