Does the world really want unilateral leadership ?

As we wade through long essays of weepy analysis of America’s declining global standing in the age of President Donald Trump, a question worth pondering is whether the rhetoric would be much different in the age of President Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush.

One does not have to be a supporter of Trump’s trade war to observe that a great deal of the shock and horror with which his administration is received in foreign lands — most recently at last week’s G7 summit in Quebec — is brazenly disingenuous. Though Trump is framed as presenting a depressing, existential threat to the credibility of U.S. leadership of the western alliance, such framing fails if it does not first concede the degree to which “world opinion” always flops back and forth depending on whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House. Overseas allies are giving a terrible score to U.S. leadership at the moment, says Gallup. To find comparably bad numbers you have to go all the way back to . . . the last Republican administration.

President George W. Bush attempted to mobilize the world in favor of war with Iraq, a rallying cry that relied heavily on deference to American intelligence and geopolitical strategy. The initiative was a flop. The leaders of France, Germany, Canada, and others opposed the war loudly, and protesters filled the streets of Europe. Close allies fought elections over who possessed the greatest courage to “stand up” to the United States, and even pro-war governments made a great show of how they reached the decision entirely on their own terms and had no intention of being an American poodle.

Then, as now, America was mocked for having true friends only in Israel and the former Warsaw Pact, leading to Donald Rumsfeld’s defensive assertion that we should stop paying so much attention to “Old Europe.” Then, as now, the U.S. administration was said to have preemptively discredited itself by embodying everything the civilized West rightly despised about America: unilateralism, arrogance, simplistic black-and-white morality, over-the-top rhetoric. The Economist ran covers depicting the president of the United States as a Strangelovian caricature riding a bomb, and John Kerry made “respected in the world” one of the slogans of his 2004 presidential run.

I raise this not to relitigate the Iraq War, or any other part of Bush’s foreign policy, but rather to remind us of the simple fact that the West’s impression of American leadership is always extremely contextual, based on what that leadership is doing, as opposed to being broadly supportive unless given extreme provocation to be otherwise.

It would be absurd, after all, to believe that the foreign policy of Barack Obama was uncontroversial with western allies simply because he carried himself in some dignified, agreeable matter. To the extent that Obama’s lead-from-behind approach to foreign affairs ever exerted itself aggressively, it was largely in the service of things Europeans either already had (diplomatic relations with Cuba), wanted (the Iran deal, the Paris climate accord), or mostly ran themselves (the intervention in Libya). His line on Israel (belligerent, unhelpful) was basically the European one, while bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria was a mission the Europeans couldn’t jump into fast enough. Obama’s was not a presidency that drew allies into the unknown by tapping into some vast reserve of goodwill for the United States; it was one that earned easy praise for marching under someone else’s banner.

In the Canadian magazine Maclean’s the other day, Scott Gilmore wrote a much-shared, righteous screed about how Trump has proven the need to “America-proof the west.” Yet such sloganeering flows easily from a certain sort of foreigner who has never liked America much to begin with and clearly sees fantasizing about a post-American world order as an opportunity Trump’s rise has provided, rather than a burden he’s imposed. Far from being perfectly at peace with American global leadership until a few weeks ago, lesser powers have been pursuing a project to offset American “hegemony” for years, and the goal has been either explicitly or implicitly cited as justification for everything from tightening up the European Union to forging closer ties to China.

To be sure, although anti-Americanism can often be a petty, jealous, and hypocritical thing, it can also be rooted in genuine divergences in the philosophy of foreign policy. The perspective of the American Right on matters of international law, institutions of global governance, supra-constitutional treaties, and the justifiable use of armed force, among other things, will always differ noticeably from that of the majority of European leaders, rooted, as it is, in uniquely American traditions. Any era of Republican control of U.S. foreign policy thus seems destined to herald some degree of ideological disharmony within the broader western alliance, and a western alliance worth anything will surely learn to incorporate this consistency of American democracy into its strategic planning.

Unless, that is, the point was never about integrating the United States as it actually exists into a position of leadership and deference, but rather merely tolerating American leaders to the degree they do not contest the settled consensus of the rest, propose disruptive ideas, or exert any independent prerogative without unanimous assent.

President Trump’s tariffs seem like broadly bad policy poorly imposed, though it’s still early, and I have faith they may yet lead to productive outcomes, including an end to some of the trade deformities Peter Navarro recently outlined. Yet as far as existential crises to the western alliance go, Trump will be only as bad as America’s allies let him be — which, unfortunately, some seem quite eager to do.

Authored by J. J. McCullough

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.