As 2017 ended with billionaires toasting their tax cuts and energy executives cheering their unfettered access to federal lands as well as coastal waters, there was one sector of the American elite that did not share in the champagne celebration: Washington’s corps of foreign-policy experts. Across the political spectrum, many of them felt a deep foreboding for the country’s global future under the leadership of President Donald Trump.
In a year-end jeremiad, for instance, conservative CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria blasted the “Trump administration’s foolish and self-defeating decision to abdicate the United States’ global influence—something that has taken more than 70 years to build.” The great “global story of our times,” he continued, is that “the creator, upholder, and enforcer of the existing international system is withdrawing into self-centered isolation,” opening a power vacuum that will be filled by illiberal powers like China, Russia, and Turkey.
The editors of The New York Times remarked ruefully that the president’s “boastfulness and belligerence and tendency to self-aggrandizement are not only costing America worldwide support, but also isolating it.” Discarding the polite bipartisanship of Washington’s top diplomats, Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, ripped Trump for dumping “principled leadership—the foundation of American foreign policy since World War II”—for an “America first” stance that will only “embolden rivals and weaken ourselves.”
Yet no matter how sharp or sweeping, such criticism can’t begin to take in the full scope of the damage the Trump White House is inflicting on the system of global power Washington built and carefully maintained over those 70 years. Indeed, American leaders have been on top of the world for so long that they no longer remember how they got there. Few among Washington’s foreign-policy elite seem to fully grasp the complex system that made US global power what it now is, particularly its all-important geopolitical foundations. As Trump travels the globe, tweeting and trashing away, he’s inadvertently showing us the essential structure of that power, the same way a devastating wildfire leaves the steel beams of a ruined building standing starkly above the smoking rubble.
The Architecture of American Global Power
The architecture of the world order that Washington built after World War II was not only formidable but, as Trump is teaching us almost daily, surprisingly fragile. At its core, that global system rested upon a delicate duality: an idealistic community of sovereign nations equal under the rule of international law joined tensely, even tenuously, to an American imperium grounded in the realpolitik of its military and economic power. In concrete terms, think of this duality as the State Department versus the Pentagon.