War Stories

Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

America’s retreat from the world under Trump has shown why we’re still the indispensable nation.

Donald Trump and flags of the United Nations.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Roman_Gorielov/iStock; yesfoto/Getty Images.

This article is part of a weeklong series on President Trump’s first year in office.

One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, U.S. foreign policy stands as wobbly and diminished as his critics had predicted. Our commitments are doubted (mainly because he has thrown doubt on whether he’d honor them). Our allies are seeking separate routes to security and fortune that bypass us and our interests. Our adversaries are probing the vacuums as areas for expansion. No one quite knows what we stand for, if anything. A Gallup poll released this week shows America’s esteem around the globe at an all-time low, with the average rating plunging nearly 20 percentage points—in some of our most closely allied countries, more than 40 percentage points—since last year.

And yet, by his very abrogation of leadership, Trump has shown just how important the United States remains—more so than many theorists of an “America in decline” have assumed in recent years. For rather than shrug, adjust, and move along, most of the world’s leaders—at least those aligned with the global order that the United States helped create—have reacted to Trump’s hostile insularity with dismay and alarm.

The Asian leaders who signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement have formed their own pact since Trump withdrew—but it’s unclear whether they can withstand Chinese pressures without a U.S. bulwark. The European Union has held more talks on self-defense since Trump wavered on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which holds members to regard an attack on one as an attack on all)—but no one believes the EU might emerge as a military organization with anything like the power of a U.S.-led NATO.

For better or worse, there is no country or set of countries, other than the United States, that has the resources, breadth of interests, or experience necessary to preserve and protect the global order. By squandering those resources, disavowing those interests, and decimating the ranks of diplomats and bureaucrats who have built up that experience, Trump threatens to implode that order. This is why so many of our allies are anxious—and why some of our foes are so gleeful, though even some of them are a bit nervous: Russia and China, for instance, aren’t exactly powers that savor the unpredictable.

Daniel Sneider, a lecturer of East Asian studies at Stanford University who has been living in Tokyo, told me, “People describe the U.S. as being in long-term decline, and while some officials talk about alternative arrangements—for instance, building their own nuclear arsenals—they are not ready to seriously contemplate a world where the U.S. is not the dominant power in the region. Even the progressives who are in power in South Korea now, and who see the U.S. as a danger these days, are far from ready to think about a situation where there is no alliance.” Experts who have spent time in Western Europe come away with a similar impression.

Of course, American power isn’t what it once was; nor could it be, whoever might sit in the Oval Office. The peak of that power came during the Cold War, when the world was divided in two spheres—the U.S.-led capitalist West vs. the Soviet-led East—and America built its power on the metrics of what was needed to win that contest. America won when the Soviet foe imploded—but the game imploded too. The metrics of power shifted as geopolitical power diffracted. Some countries, which had been under the thumb of one bloc or another, became more powerful; other countries became less so; still others lost control of their borders as the Cold War’s ideological categories gave way to tribal or sectarian rivalries.

The larger emerging reality was that no country had the ability to control events in the way, or to the degree, that a few countries once did.

At the turn of this century, President George W. Bush and his entourage of neoconservatives misunderstood the new situation. Believing that the implosion of the Soviet Union left the United States as “the sole superpower,” they thought they could impose American power—military, economic, political—at will, unilaterally, with scant resistance. They didn’t realize that the end of the Cold War (and of the bilateral international political system that went with it) made us less powerful, less able to impose our will on others, and more dependent on the cooperation of allies.

President Obama did recognize these new complexities—the limits of power, the need to attract allies—and applied this insight to policies with, almost inevitably, mixed results. Trump—who, by his own admission, knows nothing of history or much else to be learned from books—misperceived this mixed record as the result of “weak” and “stupid” leaders who let foreigners exploit them in one-sided treaties and trade deals.

In a way, Trump was repeating Bush’s fallacy, with an added twist. Some of Bush’s people coupled their illusions about American omnipower with further illusions about the exportability of American values: freedom, democracy, civil society. Trump’s allergy to these notions may keep him from launching a crusade like the one in Iraq. Yet it also lays bare the fact that, during his reign, America seems to stand for no principles at all.

This is another way in which, through his negative example, Trump has revealed something special about America. The absence of any moral values, in his words or actions on the world stage, highlights the fact that America once did stand for something. Of course, these principles were often laden with hypocrisy, or used as cover for neo-colonialist ventures, but at least we stood to be judged—by ourselves and by others—on the standard of those ideals.

Throughout our history, even advocates of realpolitik—a foreign policy built strictly on the pursuit of vital interests and a balance of power—have acknowledged that, in the competition for influence, America gains an advantage from the appeal of its ideals. George Kennan, the architect of our Cold War containment policy, scorned those who wanted to chase demons around the globe, but he wrote that we would ultimately triumph over the Soviet Union if we stayed true to our ideals domestically, as they would long outlast the Soviets’ ideals.

Here is where Trump’s authoritarian impulses at home compound his lack of principles abroad. His tweets of support for Iranian protesters aren’t credible, much less inspiring, as long as he bans those same Iranians (and most Muslims) from crossing our borders or denigrates his own country’s peaceful protesters and critics in the press as “scum,” “sons of bitches,” and an “enemy of the people.” Similarly, he can’t stand as leader of the free world as long as he pillories other democracies that rely on that leadership as freeloaders—or as long as the only major foreign leaders for which he’s had only words of praise are those of Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. (Israel’s prime minister is another exception.)

The recent kerfuffle over whether he described Haiti and several countries in Africa as “shitholes” or “shithouses” misses the point. First, there’s no real difference between the two terms. (It’s a puzzle why his defenders think that uttering the latter word, instead of the former, exempts him from charges of racism.) Second, what’s important isn’t the word but the context. He was complaining about letting in so many people from Haiti and Africa—and so few from Norway. It is, of course, no mere coincidence that Haiti and Africa are predominantly black, and Norway overwhelmingly white. But the important point is that Trump fails to grasp the entire history—and the ethos—of America. We have always let in people from “shitholes.” The roots of our great migrations—Italy, Ireland, the Slavic countries, even, at one point, Germany, the home of Trump’s ancestors—were all the shitholes of their day. Trump was suggesting that the people from the shitholes are shit—that they’re less worthy of American citizenship and, more broadly, American attention.

This is not merely an issue of moral principle—or rather, it’s an issue that underscores the links between principle and power. Trump says he’s all about “winning,” but this behavior—which reflects a broader attitude—is no way to win the global competition of ideas and influence.

A failure to understand all sorts of linkages lies at the heart of Trump’s larger failure as a world leader. He gave his generals freer reign to launchair strikes on ISIS strongholds and may, as a result, have accelerated the jihadis’ military defeat—but he then offered no political or diplomatic overtures to stabilize the area (which means the violence will continue) or to weaken jihadis’ presence elsewhere in the world (which means terrorism will persist). He demands that North Koreans dismantle their nuclear weapons, even threatens war if they launch more missile tests—but offers nothing in exchange for their restraint and even undermines his top diplomat’s stab at exploring negotiations. He goes on a worldwide tour, makes meaningless nice-talk with the leaders who are shrewd enough to roll out the red carpet and make him feel good—and comes away with nothing, no new advances in trade or security or anything else, thinking that the nice talk itself was an outcome to be celebrated.

No other president has so relished a Chinese military parade or a sword dance with Saudi princes, yet skipped a trip to London (London!) for fear of inciting personal protests. No juxtaposition captures quite so succinctly just how dreadful Donald Trump has been as an American avatar on the global stage.

And yet Trump has made many foreigners pine for the America that once was, rather than dismiss us out of hand, if only because they realize they can’t get by as well as they’d like without us. Which means the affection, or the trust, or at least the bedrock perception of reliability might be regained, to some extent, after he’s gone.