Donald Trump and the End of the American Century
An OpEd Commentary
by Edward L. Rubin
Political science professor, Vanderbilt University
NASHVILLE, December 10, 2016 -- With his remarkable talent for turning his weaknesses into strengths by bald-faced denial ("No one respects women more than I do"), Donald Trump centered his presidential campaign on the slogan "Make America Great Again."
In fact, every policy that he announced, and every message that his candidacy transmitted, signals the end of America's leading position in the world.
We are entering a new era as a result of Trump's election, an era where we will be merely one of four or five contesting powers.
This should not be surprising. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, no political entity in the Western World has been able to maintain a dominant position for much more than a century.
The Carolingians rose to power (to go back a long way) with Charles Martel's great victory over the Muslims in 732; in 843, they voluntarily divided up their empire and shortly thereafter disappeared.
Spain became dominant with the conquest of the last Muslim principality in Iberia and its discovery of the New World in 1492; with the death of Philip II in 1598, following the defeat of the Armada and the loss of the Netherlands, it entered its long period of decline. Its place was taken by Bourbon France, which resolved its intense religious conflicts with the accession of Henry IV in 1589 and dominated Europe under Louis XIV.
By 1704, its armies had been pummeled in the War of Spanish Succession and its dominance was ended.
In 1763, England, recently unified with Scotland, took control of North America and India as a result of the Seven Years' War. It remained the world's leading power (briefly interrupted by Napoleon's spectacular triumphs) until the unification of Germany in 1871.
The United States took Britain's place in 1917 with its decisive entry into World War I. It retreated briefly when it refused to join the League of Nations, then returned to win World War II, turned its defeated enemies into loyal democratic allies, rebuilt Europe under the Marshall Plan, and prevailed over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
It is now exactly 100 years later, and the American Century has come to an end with the election of Mr. Trump.
It isn't easy to maintain a position of leadership. First, it demands that a nation generate rulers (one way or another) who command the respect of other nations.
Trump, who won by giving voters a chance to indulge their disaffection and xenophobia, is regarded as either a contemptible buffoon or a dangerous egomaniac throughout the world. Second, leadership costs money because it involves an obligation to defend one's allies.
Trump has announced that he wants to privatize NATO, forcing each nation to pay its own way, and has suggested that our allies develop their own nuclear deterrents. Germany and Japan, which expiated their guilt from World War II by becoming pacifist regimes, are fully capable of re-arming themselves in this way, but they will hate us for it.
Third, leaders must be willing to support those who rely on them and embrace their principles. Mr. Trump, in response to some transparently manipulative flattery and Internet shenanigans by Vladimir Putin, will deliver the Ukraine into his hands, allowing him to reverse his greatest foreign policy defeat. Once that happens (with the Baltic states thrown in for good measure, perhaps), none of the nations of Europe will trust us again; they will band together or look to China for protection.
Another means of asserting leadership is trade, an engine of influence and cooperation throughout human history. The value of commercial relations with the United States -- the things that could be bought from us and the opportunities to sell to us -- has created or cemented our alliances, and probably led to our Cold War victory.
Trump wants to reduce or sever those relations, recapturing low-wage jobs by means of trade barriers and deportations. He will plunge us into a recession if he does, but he will also cause a worldwide economic downturn for which we will be universally and accurately blamed.
Other nations will recover by expanding their trading partnerships with each other and bypassing the United States. We will no longer be the world's financial center, and the dollar will cease to be its global currency.
Political and economic relations are the stuff of history; worldwide environmental dangers pose new threats at the same time that they offer new opportunities for leadership. The United States, which leads the world in science and technology, but also burns more fossil fuel than any other nation, should have pioneered a worldwide effort to combat climate change. Instead, we have already managed to turn ourselves into a rogue nation on this crucial issue.
At the COP21 conference in Paris, representatives of the 173 other signatory nations focused their discussion on strategies for circumventing the U.S. Congress. Trump has now declared climate change denial to be official U.S. policy. The reaction will be universal resentment and dismay.
People will probably not compare him to Hitler, although he may ultimately be responsible for as many deaths. Climate change itself will be the killer; Trump will more likely be seen as another Neville Chamberlain, whose willful ignorance and blatant cowardice in the face of danger led inevitably to disaster.
There is still one more mode of leadership that Trump is anxious to relinquish, something more subtle than the others but possibly still more profound. As a nation, we are entirely a product of the modern world; unlike our predecessors, we have defined ourselves politically, not ethnically. We call our nation by a description (a group of united political entities on the American continent) not a name, and we have no real name for our people (we can't say "United Statesians" and "Americans" actually refers to the inhabitants of two continents with over 30 separate countries).
Yet we have forged a remarkably coherent and loyal populace, demonstrating how a multi-ethnic polity can be strong and prosperous. Quite possibly, we taught our ancestors in Europe how they could live at peace with one another. We might have achieved a similar success as a multi-racial nation. With people of every race and color, drawn from every continent, we might have shown the entire world how it could overcome its enmities and thrive together.
Instead, Mr. Trump, with his portrayal of Muslims and Hispanics as criminals, his policies of exclusion and deportation, and his slogan that many heard as code for "Make America White Again," has re-defined us as narrow-minded, parochial chauvinists. Nations in the developing world will turn away from us in disgust, and European nations will seek different ways to define their own identities.
The American Century is over, courtesy of Donald Trump.
Edward L. Rubin is University Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Soul, Self, and Society, a study of the new morality and its relationship to government, and of the 2016 novel, The Heatstroke Line, that depicts the decline of the United States if climate change continues.