After four years of Donald Trump’s fitful tenure, America is awakening from a long, troubled sleep to discover, like the fictional character Rip Van Winkle, that the world it once knew has changed beyond all recognition.
In that classic American tale by Washington Irving published in 1819, an amiable but shiftless farmer strolls out of his colonial village to go hunting in the Catskill Mountains. There he happens upon a group of mysterious men, drinks deep from their keg of liquor, and falls into a long sleep. He awakens to find that he’s grown a white beard down to his belly and his youth has withered into an unrecognizable old age. Walking back to the village, he discovers that his wife is long dead and their house in ruins. Meanwhile, the sign above the village pub where he whiled away so many pleasant hours no longer bears the face of his beloved King George, the British monarch, but has been replaced by someone named General Washington. Inside, the convivial chatter of colonial days has given way to fervid electioneering for something called Congress, whatever that might be. Incredibly, Rip Van Winkle had slept right through the American Revolution.
While this country was similarly sleepwalking through the fever dream of President Donald Trump’s version of America First, the world kept changing as decisively as it did during those seven years when General Washington’s Continentals fought the British Redcoats. Just as King George suffered a searing defeat that cost him the 13 colonies, so the United States has, with similarly stunning speed, now lost its leadership of the international community.
Whose World Island Is It?
During the eight years before Donald Trump took office in 2017, the United States seemed to be adapting creatively to some serious challenges to its post–Cold War global hegemony. After the 2007–08 financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, a bipartisan stimulus program saved the nation’s auto industry and launched a slow but sustained economic recovery.
Fueled by renewed economic vitality, Washington seemed to have a reasonable shot at checking China’s all too real and growing global economic challenge. After all, using the $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves it had earned by 2014 from its new role as the world’s workshop, Beijing had launched a trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative focused on making the vast Eurasian landmass (and parts of Africa) into an integrated trade zone—a veritable “world island” that would exclude America and so radically undercut its global leadership.
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In his two terms as president, Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, pursued a clever countervailing strategy, seeking to split Beijing’s potential world island economically at its continental divide in the Ural Mountains. Obama’s planned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which pointedly excluded China, was the keystone to his strategy for drawing Asia’s trade toward America, thereby rendering that Belt and Road Initiative a hollow shell. That draft treaty, which would have surpassed any other economic alliance except the European Union, was designed to integrate the economies of 12 Pacific basin nations that generated 40 percent of gross world product—and the United States was to be at the very heart of it.
To drain commerce away from the other half of Beijing’s would-be world island, Obama was also pursuing negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. Its combined $18 trillion economy was already the world’s largest, accounting for 20 percent of gross world product. The proposed regulatory alignment between Europe and the United States would supposedly have added $260 billion to their total annual trade. Obama’s bold grand strategy was to use those two pacts to beggar Beijing’s plans by giving the United States preferential access to 60 percent of the world economy.
Of course, Obama’s effort was encountering strong headwinds even before he left office. In Europe, an opposition coalition of 170 civil society groups protested that the treaty would transfer control over the regulation of consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed corporate arbitration tribunals. In the United States, Obama’s scheme faced sharp criticism even within the Democratic Party. Key figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the potential degradation of labor and environmental laws via the TPP. In the face of such strong criticism, Obama had to rely on Republican votes to win Senate approval for fast-track authority to complete the final round of negotiations over the treaty. That opposition, however, ensured that neither agreement would be approved before he left office.
It was, however, Donald Trump who delivered the coup de grâce. Right after his inauguration, he curtailed trade talks with Europe and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying, “We’re going to stop the ridiculous trade deals that have taken…companies out of our country, and it’s going to be reversed.”
Unilateral Foreign Policy
Trump would instead adopt a unilateral America First strategy that soon sparked a costly trade war with China. After two years of escalating tariffs on both sides of the Pacific that damaged the US economy, Trump capitulated in January 2020, signing an agreement that rescinded the most prohibitive US duties in exchange for Beijing’s unenforceable promise to buy more American goods. The president then hailed his “big, beautiful” trade deal as a great victory, even though it was nothing less than an ill-concealed surrender.
While his White House seemed obsessed with gaming its bilateral ties with China, Beijing was stealing a page right out of Obama’s strategic global playbook, outmaneuvering Washington by pursuing two multilateral trade agreements that should have seemed eerily familiar to anyone who lived through the Obama years. In November 2020, Beijing would lead 15 Asia-Pacific nations in signing a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that promised to create the world’s largest free-trade zone, encompassing 2.2 billion people and nearly a third of the global economy.
Just a month later, China’s President Xi Jinping scored what one expert called “a geopolitical coup” by signing a landmark agreement with European Union leaders for the closer integration of their financial services. In effect, the accord gives European banks easier access to the Chinese market, while drawing the continent more closely into Beijing’s orbit. So serious is the shift away from Washington that President Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, publicly urged the NATO allies to first consult with the new administration before signing on to the deal—a plea they simply ignored. Indeed, this treaty is arguably the biggest breach in the NATO alliance since that mutual defense pact was formed more than 70 years ago.
Through a stunning inversion of Obama’s bold yet unrealized geopolitical gambit of using multilateral pacts to draw Eurasia’s trade toward America, those two agreements will give China preferential access to nearly half of all world trade (without even factoring in the still-developing Belt and Road project). In a diplomatic masterstroke, Bejing exploited Trump’s absence from the international arena to negotiate agreements that could, along with that Belt and Road Initiative, steer a growing share of the Eurasian continent’s capital and commerce toward China. In the years to come, Beijing’s inclusiveness could well mean Washington’s exclusion from much of the burgeoning trade that will continue to make Eurasia the epicenter of global economics.
The Decline and Fall of You-Know-Which Great Power
If that were all, then we could chalk up a few significant wins for China and just wait for Biden’s foreign-policy team to try to even the score. But there’s far more happening that suggests those treaties were a clear manifestation of deeper, more troubling trends.
When empires decline and fall, they seldom collapse in the sort of sudden apocalypse portrayed in a monumental series of paintings entitled “The Course of Empire” by another denizen of the Catskill Mountains, the renowned artist Thomas Cole. His 1836 painting in that series, now appropriately enough hung at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, shows a “savage enemy” plundering a grand imperial capital whose inhabitants, debased by years of luxurious living, can only flee in terror while women are raped and buildings burn.
Empires, however, usually experience a long, less dramatic decline before they fall in the Roman fashion, thanks to events whose logic only becomes apparent years or even decades later, as historians try to sort through the rubble. So it’s likely to be in what, until mid–last week, was (and still in many ways remains) Donald Trump’s America, where the signs of decline are as erratic as they are omnipresent.
The most telling harbinger of that decline, Trump himself, is now in exile at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Ten years ago in an essay for TomDispatch titled “Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025,” I suggested that US global hegemony would end not with Thomas Cole’s apocalyptic bang but instead with the whimper of empty populist rhetoric. “Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair,” I wrote in December 2010, “a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.”
Trump’s election in 2016 made all too real what, until then, had only seemed to me a troubling possibility. With a legerdemain worthy of that 19th century showman P.T. Barnum’s bag of bunkum (like the supposed Cardiff Giant or the Fiji Island Mermaid), Trump’s TV show The Apprentice presented The Donald as a self-made billionaire of extraordinary financial savvy. Who better to rescue America from the job losses, stagnant wages, and foreign competition brought on by economic globalization? But Trump had cheated his way into an Ivy League college; many of his businesses had gone bankrupt; and his much-vaunted entrepreneurial flair came down essentially to frittering away a $400 million inheritance from his father. As journalist H.L. Mencken predicted back in 1920, America had finally come to the point where “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Once in office, Trump soon bent the nation (but not the world) to his will, rupturing time-tested alliances, tearing up treaties, denying incontrovertible climate science, and demanding respect for American authority with a thundering, if largely empty, rhetoric that threatened military retaliation or economic reprisals globally. Despite the manifest inanity of his policies, the Republican Party capitulated, corporate tycoons applauded, and nearly half the American public cleaved to their newfound savior.
As with all sellout shows, the best was saved for last. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck with full force in March 2020, Trump turned up at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, donning a MAGA hat, to proclaim his “natural ability” when it came to medical science, while distinguished doctors stood by like studio extras in mute testimony to his otherwise risible claims. As the pandemic began climbing toward its terrible, still developing toll, Trump hijacked White House briefings by medical experts to promote a succession of crackpot claims—wearing a mask was merely “politically correct”; Covid-19 was just another flu that “becomes weaker with warmer weather”; hydroxychloroquine was a cure; and shining ultraviolet “light inside of the body” or injecting “disinfectant” were possible treatments. A surprising number of Americans started drinking bleach to protect themselves from the virus, forcing months of public health warnings.
After nearly a century in which the United States had been a world leader in promoting public health, the Trump administration, to escape blame for its own escalating failures, walked out of the World Health Organization. Lending the country the aura of a failed state, the CDC itself, once the world’s gold standard in medical research, bungled the development of a coronavirus test and so forfeited any serious, nationwide attempt to successfully track and trace the disease (the most effective means of controlling it).
While smaller nations like New Zealand, South Korea, and even impoverished Rwanda effectively curbed Covid-19, by the end of Trump’s term the United States already had experienced more than 400,000 deaths and 24 million infections—significantly above any other developed nation’s death rate and a full quarter of the world’s total cases. Meanwhile, Beijing mobilized a rigorous public health campaign that quickly contained the virus to just 4,600 deaths in a population of 1.4 billion. In only four months, China virtually eliminated the virus (despite periodic new local breakouts) and had its economy humming along with a 5 percent increase in gross domestic product, which accounted for 30 percent of global growth last year. Meanwhile, after 11 months of an incessant pandemic, the United States remained mired in a crippling recession. This striking disparity in state performance only accelerated China’s quest to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy and, with all that financial clout, become its preeminent power.
A Tragicomic Encore
It was, however, President Trump’s bid for an encore that would prove truly extraordinary when it came to imperial decline. During its 70 years as a global hegemon, Washington’s public promotion of democracy has been the signature program that has helped legitimate its global leadership (no matter the CIA-style interventions it launched or the colonial-style wars it continually fought).
While the Cold War often compromised that commitment in particularly striking ways, following its end Washington has spent 30 years officially promoting fair voting and democratic transitions, with leaders like former president Jimmy Carter flying off to capitals on five continents to oversee and encourage free elections. Suddenly, the world watched in slacked-jaw amazement as, on January 6 on the White House ellipse, the president denounced a fair American election as fraudulent and sent a mob of 10,000 white nationalists, QAnon conspiracists, and other Trumpsters off to storm the Capitol, where Congress was ratifying the transition to a new administration.
Adding to this failed-state aura, the country’s once-formidable national security apparatus crumpled like a Third World constabulary as right-wing militiamen breached the frail security cordon around the Capitol and stormed its halls as if they were a lynch mob hunting for congressional leaders. House majority leader Steny Hoyer’s desperate calls to a dawdling Pentagon and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s dangerously delayed mobilization of his state’s National Guard, caused by the US military’s compromised chain of command, only seemed to echo the sort of tropical coup scenarios I witnessed in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, during the 1980s.
When Congress was finally back in session, the Capitol still rang with Republican calls, in the name of national unity, for forgetting what the president had incited. In that way, Republican congressional representatives seemed to echo the kind of impunity that has long protected fallen military juntas in Asia or Latin America from any accounting for their countless crimes. This attempt, in other words, to perpetuate a would-be autocrat’s power through a (failed) coup was the sort of spectacle that many millions living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have experienced in their own fragile states but never expected to see in America.
Suddenly, our supposedly exceptional nation seemed tragically ordinary. The shimmering dome of the Capitol once symbolized the vitality of this nation’s democracy, inspiring others to follow its principles or at least acquiesce to its power. This country now looks tattered and tired, caught like others before it between forgetting in the name of unity or demanding the powerful be held accountable for high crimes that will otherwise haunt the nation. Instead of aspiring to America’s ideals or entrusting their security to its power, many nations will likely find their own way forward, cutting deals with all comers, starting with China.
Despite an aura of overwhelming strength, empires, even ones as powerful as America’s, often prove surprisingly fragile and their decline regularly comes far sooner than anyone could have imagined—particularly when the cause is not Thomas Cole’s “savage enemy” but their own self-destructive instincts.
Today, in the era of a 78-year-old president, a veritable Rip Van Biden, Americans and the rest of the world are, it seems, waking up in a new age. It could well be a daunting one.