Here in the United States, we have a short memory and even shorter foresight when it comes to international politics. We can’t seem to find it in ourselves to view the world through anything other than our own partisan lenses, qualifying our nation’s behavior, as well as the responses it garners, from the rest of the world only in terms of how it relates directly to our sitting president. We’re either “pro-Trump” or we’re “the resistance,” and we filter news about Chinese expansion, Russian aggression, Iranian nuclear weapons, combat operations in Africa and the like through the presidency.
The supposition that the world is standing by to respond to America’s lead is based, to some extent, on reality. After World War II, America assumed the role of global leader, using its booming economy to bolster European allies in the rebuilding process and then using the resulting leverage to establish a world order that placed the United States at the center of all global trade and diplomacy. It wasn’t American isolationism, nor was it a rallying cry of “America first” that made America the dominant super power that it is. It was quite the opposite: America made it the nation’s business to meddle in the affairs of foreign states, stacking the deck in our favor whenever possible, and expanding our sphere of influence until it came to include military alliances with 55 of the world’s 195 nations, veto authority in the United Nations we helped to establish, and an economy that could support the largest and most powerful military ever seen on this planet.
Today, however, there’s a growing sentiment within America that being a member of the global community somehow weakens America’s position within the hierarchy we helped to build. Somewhere along the way, we began to chafe against our role as not just a world leader, but as the world leader any large initiative needs the support of in order to prove viable. We grew frustrated with European nations relying on our defense. We started romanticizing leaders like Vladimir Putin, who remains popular among many within the United States because of his air of superiority and unapologetic approach to international relations. Americans are tired of watching diplomats be diplomatic, and despite nearly two straight decades of continuous war, your average voter remains so far removed from the horrors of combat that even the possibility of a bloody conflict with a nation like North Korea isn’t enough to deter the drumbeat of those who have come to loathe the apparent inaction of diplomatic discourse.
Love or hate Donald Trump, you can’t ignore the way his presidency is negatively effecting perceptions of the United States around the world. You may be inclined to say that you don’t care what the world thinks of the U.S. — and that’s your prerogative — but if you think America’s position as the most powerful nation on the planet came about without the support of anyone else on the planet, you’re likely going to be in for some tough realizations in the decades to come.
China, as I’ve written about a lot recently, isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to global expansion. In many ways, they’re taking pages directly out of America’s super-power book. The Belt and Road Iniative, which is a series of large infrastructure projects going on all over the world via Chinese lending, will reestablish trade norms for the planet. If successful, America will no longer be the market catered to by the world as it has been for most of our lives, with more nations tailoring their businesses for China instead. The flow of money, currently dominated by the United States, will shift along with it — and so too will much of the economic leverage the U.S. enjoys when establishing trade agreements. As the trade environment in China becomes more beneficial to foreign investment, more nations will warm to their diplomatic endeavors, seeking improved relations with the bigger pot of money.
That’s where the souring perception of America among our allies could become an issue as well. A recent Pew study of 25 developed nations showed perceptions of America in sharp decline, coinciding with a lack of faith in President Trump. Some of this is the natural result of Trump’s legitimate pressure on allied nations to meet their financial obligations to alliances like NATO, but just like in domestic affairs, the issue with Trump is often more about delivery than it is about substance. Barack Obama also called on NATO nations to pay more, for instance, but didn’t do so in a way that encouraged Europe to establish a separate European alliance that would aim to sever the continent’s reliance on American defense.
To some, the idea of Europe paying for it’s own guns and bombs sounds like a good thing (and I’m among them), but few have considered the second and third order effects of such a fundamental shift in the world’s military structure. A Europe that is not reliant on the United States for defense may prove to be a far more independent and unruly group of allies than America has enjoyed for the past seventy years. America’s role as the world’s economic leader and as Europe’s white knight ensures that many of the globe’s most powerful leaders speak politely when American policy makers enter the conversation, but when China becomes the center of the trade universe and America is no longer providing security for those same states, conversations will begin to shift as well.
The point isn’t that Trump is bad or good, nor is it that his policies are hurting America’s chances at remaining a super power for the coming century… the truth is, policies rarely have such an immediate effect. It’s America’s delivery, its branding of these policies that bolsters China’s efforts to become the dominant super power of the 21st century. Defeat in this competition won’t be sudden, but it will be dramatic if we allow our love affair with waging political warfare with one another to neuter our ability to engage with these topics effectively. We need to find ways to package American initiatives for foreign interest before that interest is gone. We need to assure our allies that America honors its mutual defense treaties and values their involvement in the American brand of international order.
Because if we don’t, our children or their children may live in a world where America has to assume a more subservient role to greater economic, political, and even military powers. Being the strongest guy in the room isn’t enough to lead, you’ve also got to convince others to follow.
And right now, we’re failing to do that.