The Self-Inflicted Demise of American Power
The effect of Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine can be summed up as “Make America Weak Again.”
NATO leaders have a lot to worry about. The U.K. government is a Brexit hot mess. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has been holding a unified Europe together on her shoulders like Atlas, may not be able to last much longer. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been channeling his inner authoritarian, and he’s not the only one. And then there’s President Donald Trump. Never one for subtlety, Europe’s most important ally called nato obsolete, threatened to ignore America’s treaty defense commitments to nato members that don’t pay up, slapped tariffs on European aluminum and steel, and treated nato as an irritating layover on the way to his real destination: Helsinki, where he’ll be meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And that was before Trump actually touched down in Brussels and started berating European leaders face-to-face.
Many experts believe the chief challenge of managing President Trump’s foreign policy is keeping Trump on message. They’re wrong. Trump isn’t misspeaking when he ignores his talking points, insults allies, or congratulates Putin on winning a sham election. He’s not veering off script when he declares that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat just because Kim Jong Un posed for a photo in Singapore. Trump is actually on message nearly every day and in every tweet. It’s just not a message that most serious national-security experts want to hear. Deep in the recesses of our brains, we experts just cannot believe that an American president would pursue so many profoundly shortsighted policies—or that he would actually believe he’s doing a good job.
Trump has a foreign-policy doctrine, all right. He’s been advancing it with remarkable speed, skill, and consistency. Its effect can be summed up in one neat slogan: Make America Weak Again.
America’s preeminence on the world stage rests on five essential sources of power: neighbors, allies, markets, values, and military might. The Trump Doctrine is weakening all of them except the military.
To be fair, America’s military might is a biggie in global politics, and Trump deserves high marks for rebuilding America’s fighting forces after years of decline in the face of growing threats. The February 2018 budget deal allowed for a $61 billion increase in military spending in 2018 with another $18 billion increase in 2019, making it the largest defense budget in U.S. history and reversing crippling defense sequestration caps from 2013—a deal designed to be so bad, Congress thought it would bring everyone to their senses but didn’t. Trump isn’t just spending more; he’s modernizing and innovating more, too. The Trump administration is committed to modernizing America’s aging nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and has called for additional research spending for cyber, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, and space—all key areas where the U.S. is increasingly vulnerable and the country’s innovation edge is narrowing. Trump’s defense-spending policies have received overwhelming bipartisan support, a rare feat in Washington. In a complicated global landscape with Russia seeking to stretch its territorial reach and China undergoing a massive 20-year military buildup, a recommitment to investing in military strength is both welcome and necessary.
But it won’t be enough. In today’s threat environment, military power can’t go it alone. The other four sources of American power are more important now than ever. And under Trump, they are growing weaker by the day.
Friendly neighbors are underrated as a source of global power. The United States was born with good geography and successive presidents have made the most of it. For centuries, the empires and nation-states of Europe and the Middle East have lived in tough neighborhoods, with hostile powers nursing historical grievances and vying for advantages through brutal territorial conquest. By contrast, the United States has prospered in no small measure because it has been flanked by two vast oceans and two friendly neighbors that have provided a level of security other states would envy. The last time American and Canadian soldiers fought one another was in 1815. The Mexican–American War ended in 1848, and the last U.S. president to order troops into Mexican territory was Woodrow Wilson, who did so a century ago. Europe’s latest territorial aggression occurred in 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea). Wars are so prevalent in the Middle East, it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t one.The Trump Doctrine, however, sees dangerous threats massing along America’s borders and calls for a sharp departure from the past. The Trump administration’s policies and pronouncements have sent Canadian–U.S. and Mexican–U.S. relations into tailspins, threatening longstanding ties and close cooperation on everything from defense to drug interdiction to trade. Relations in the ’hood haven’t been this bad in a century. From imposing tariffs on Canadian goods because they’re “national-security threats,” to all those comments about Mexican “rapists” and “bad hombres” flooding into U.S. cities, to the border wall, to vows to jettison the North American Free Trade Agreement that has been pivotal to economic growth across the continent, it’s little wonder the neighbors aren’t feeling so neighborly anymore. Mexican voters just elected an anti-Trump, radical leftist president in a landslide election. Canadian officials have imposed retaliatory tariffs and are now talking about how to protect their nation from the United States. It takes a special kind of stupid to make enemies out of Canadians.
Alliances are another vital source of American strength on the global stage. In Asia, the U.S. has better bilateral relations with China’s neighbors than China does, including defense treaties with Japan and South Korea. These relationships advance U.S. interests, project American power, protect global commerce, and promote peace and stability. In Europe, one of Russia’s chief aims is to split the nato alliance because Russia has so few friends of its own. Putin knows that alliances are not about spreading some woolly-eyed vision of global peace over lattes and arguing over who pays the bill. They are about the hard-nosed projection of national power in a dog-eat-dog world. The more friends you have, the more economic, diplomatic, and military might you can marshal and the more you can coerce adversaries to do what you want them to do.
But the Trump Doctrine sees alliances as raw deals in which the U.S. pays too much and gets too little. Yes, it’s true that most nato allies have not lived up to their defense spending commitments and it’s high time they did. But the Trump Doctrine often seems to suggest that alliances should be run more like a market bazaar, where buyers and sellers haggle over everything and often get nothing—even when a lopsided deal is in everyone’s best interest. Joint-readiness drills, foreign sales of American military equipment, and relationship management cannot be boiled down to Buy the scarf with that shirt or you’ll get nothing. For alliances to work, allies have to know they have each other’s backs. And enemies have to know it, too. Just ask Putin if he’d rather have nato—with all of its “raw deals” uniting 29 nations that include economic powerhouses such as Germany and Spain and global leaders such as France and the United Kingdom—or his own allies, which consist of exactly one besieged Syrian tyrant, the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (whose other members are the superpowers called Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), and, on good days, some Iranians.
The third source of American power is the country’s economy, which has become the envy of the world because it trades with the world. Thanks to falling trade barriers and rising globalization since World War II, global economic growth has hit unprecedented levels. More than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. And the U.S. has prospered. Sure, free trade creates global winners and losers, and many playing fields are not level. China has been stealing American intellectual property and doing everything it can to keep American companies down and out. Beijing isn’t even secret about it. China’s “Made in China 2025” plan declares the country’s intention to corner the market in key growth industries such as robotics and electric vehicles.
The Trump Doctrine views free trade with suspicion, the liberal international order as a rip-off to American workers, and economics as a zero-sum game in which if you win, we lose. Trump is a protectionist and proud of it. It seems he’s never met a tariff he didn’t like. First came the steel and aluminum tariffs on U.S. allies, sparking retaliatory tariffs on everything from American motorcycles to bourbon. Now Trump and China are locked in an escalating trade war that has started at $50 billion worth of goods on each side. It’s anyone’s guess when or how it will end, but this much is clear: It won’t be good.
Why would the president undermine American economic vitality? Because the Trump Doctrine is meeting 21st-century trade challenges with 20th-century tactics: tariffing the heck out of foreign products under the misguided assumption that tariffs will only affect the countries they target. Trump seems stuck in the 1970s, when most cars were made in Detroit and most TVs were made in Japan. In today’s world of global supply chains, products just aren’t made in one place anymore. The Dutch company Fairphone has just 27 employees but sources its parts from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, and China. Made in America doesn’t mean what it used to. In a global-supply-chain world, tariffs don’t just hurt foreign companies and workers. They hurt American ones, too.
The fourth and most unique source of global power is American values. The United States has always been much more than a country. It’s an audacious experiment in democracy and an enduring hope for others. This “shining city upon a hill” has not always lived up to its own aspirations or expectations. But for many oppressed peoples in the far reaches of the globe, the United States has always stood for the triumph of laws over the naked abuse of authority, and for the capacity of democracy to bring freedom, peace, and prosperity to everyone, not just Americans.
The Trump Doctrine rejects these bedrock American values at home and refuses to advance them abroad. Democratic states are considered weak, authoritarian leaders are admired, moral authority counts for nearly nothing, soft power is too soft, and hard power is what gets results. In this presidency, journalists are labeled enemies and dissent is considered unpatriotic. Nobody should count on hearing stirring speeches about the march of freedom or the power of justice during the president’s trips abroad. Or seeing throngs of well-wishers in distant capitals lining up to see the president because of the noble values he represents or the sacrifices he honors in America’s military heroes, who paid the ultimate price to secure the blessings of freedom for others. The effect of the Trump Doctrine is Making America Weak Again by diminishing the role of American values, and with them our standing in the world.
International-relations scholars have long found that great powers typically fall for two reasons: imperial overstretch or rivalry with other great powers. Never in world history has a country declined because of so many self-inflicted attacks on the sources of its own power.
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