Month by month, tweet by tweet, the events of the past two years have made it clearer than ever that Washington’s once-formidable global might is indeed fading. As the American empire unravels with previously unimagined speed, there are many across this country’s political spectrum who will not mourn its passing. Both peace activists and military veterans have grown tired of the country’s endless wars. Trade unionists and business owners have come to rue the job losses that accompanied Washington’s free-trade policies. Anti-globalization protesters and pro-Trump populists alike cheered the president’s cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The idea of focusing on America and rebuilding the country’s tattered infrastructure has a growing bipartisan appeal.
But before we join this potential chorus of “good riddance” to US global power, it might be worth pausing briefly to ask whether the acceleration of the American decline by President Trump’s erratic foreign policy might not come with unanticipated and unpleasant costs. As Americans mobilize for the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential contest, they might look beyond Washington’s mesmerizing celebrity scandals and consider instead the hidden consequences of the country’s ongoing withdrawal from the global arena. Indeed, this fitful, uncontrolled retreat carries with it such serious risks that it might be time for ordinary voters and political activists alike to put foreign policy, in the broadest sense, at the top of their electoral watch list.
First, let’s just admit the obvious. After 18 months in office, Trump’s one-man style of diplomacy, though potentially capable of a few “wins,” is clearly degrading American global stature. After surveying 134 countries, Gallup’s pollsters recently reported that worldwide approval of US leadership has plunged from 48 percent in 2016 to a record low of 30 percent, a notch below China’s 31 percent and significantly under Germany’s 41 percent.
As Trump has abrogated one international accord after another, observers worldwide have struggled to find some rationale for decisions that seem questionable on their merits and have frayed relations with long-standing allies. Given his inordinate obsession with the “legacy” of Barack Obama, epitomized in a report, whether true or not, of his ritual “defiling” of his predecessor’s Moscow hotel bed via the “golden showers” of Russian prostitutes, there’s a curious yet coherent logic to his foreign policy. You might even think of it as Golden Shower diplomacy. Whatever Obama did, Trump seems determined to undo with a visceral vehemence: the Trans-Pacific trade pact (torn up), the Paris climate accord (withdrawn), the Iran nuclear freeze (voided), close relations with NATO allies (damaged), diplomatic relations with Cuba (frozen), Middle Eastern military withdrawal (reversed), ending the Afghan war (cancelled), the diplomatic pivot to Asia (forgotten), and so on into what already seems like an eternity.
As bizarre as all this might be, Trump’s four to eight years presiding over what still passes for US foreign policy through such personal pique will have lasting consequences. The American presence on the global stage will be further reduced, potentially opening the way for the rise of those autocratic powers, Beijing and Moscow, hostile to the liberal international order that Washington promoted for the past 70 years, even as—thanks to Trump’s love of fossil fuels —the further degradation of the planetary environment occurs.