Days after taking office, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. Less than six months later, he abandoned the Paris Treaty on Climate. Some 11 months later, he pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In every case, the Trump Administration had acted without having developed an agreed alternative with the nation’s strategic allies.
In May, the American global retreat accelerated. The month concluded with the Trump Administration’s launching an unprovoked economic assault against some of America’s closest partners. The Trump Administration demanded that a renegotiated NAFTA come with a 5-year sunset clause, meaning that such an agreement would only be fleeting. Then, on May 31, the Trump Administration slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.
This “America First” policy path hints that a more than seven-decade long generous and far-sighted U.S. world role following World War II and throughout the Cold War is ending. The jarring events since President Trump was sworn into office confront the nation’s allies with wrenching questions: Is America still a reliable partner? Can the United States still be trusted to honor its commitments? What might a world in which the United States has become just another nation, mainly by its own choice, be like?
President Trump’s policies have damaged American reliability and trustworthiness. Even if President Trump changes course or is succeeded by a President who returns the U.S. to its former post-World War II role, the damage will linger. The nation’s allies now understand that radical and disruptive U.S. policy changes could always lie just one election away.
A post-America world is now among a number of plausible scenarios that could evolve over the next decade or two. Under the Trump Administration’s current policy path, the probability of that scenario is increasing. Moreover, ongoing U.S. disengagement from world affairs and American allies is occurring within the context of a changing world order.
In its Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, the National Intelligence Committee (NIC) observes:
The post-World War II international order that enabled today’s political, economic, and security structures and institutions is in question as power diffuses globally, shuffling seats at the “table” of international decision making. Today, aspiring powers seek to adjust the rules of the game and international context in ways favorable to their interests… Norms that were thought to be settled will be increasingly threatened if current trends hold, and consensus to build new norms may be elusive–particularly as Russia, China, and other actors such as ISIL seek to shape regions and international norms in their favor…
As dominant states limit cooperation to a subset of global issues while aggressively asserting their interests in regional matters, international norms and institutions are likely to erode and the international system to fragment toward contested regional spheres of influence.
The NIC’s document describes a plausible scenario–“Islands”–that could result from a combination of political instability, structural fiscal challenges, a reversal in progress against poverty, protectionism, a significant American retreat from the world stage, among other factors. The report states:
The combination of these events led to a more defensive, segmented world as anxious states sought to metaphorically and physically “wall” themselves off from external challenges, becoming “islands” in a sea of volatility. International cooperation on global issues, such as terrorism, failing states, migration, and climate change eroded, forcing more isolated countries to fend for themselves. Furthermore, declining defense budgets and preoccupying domestic concerns drove the West to spurn military force when its vital interests were not threatened. This led to an atrophying U.S. alliance system. Instability increased in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Such an unstable and unsatisfying world could carry with it the risk of a large catastrophe such as a major regional or even global war. That the United States, with its older population, narrowing policy view, and large fiscal challenges, might be pursuing a largely non-interventionist policy would not ensure that it would escape the ravages of such a conflict. Indeed, history has already provided its answer to the question whether non-interventionism is a rational and effective national security strategy.
On February 27, 1939, even as the shadow of German aggression was expanding across Europe, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) delivered a speech before the U.S. Senate entitled “It is Not Cowardice to Think of America First.” He declared:
…I still thank God for two insulating oceans; and even though they be foreshortened, they are still our supreme benediction if they be widely and prudently used…
We all have our sympathies and our natural emotions in behalf of the victims of national or international outrage all around the globe; but we are not, we cannot be, the world’s protector or the world’s policeman.
Less than three years later, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. The United States was at war.
To his credit, Senator Vandenberg would go on to abandon isolationism. He would then play a leading role in the Senate as the U.S. actively built the post-World War II order that is now decaying and from which the Trump Administration is withdrawing.
Today, things are nowhere near where they were during the 1930s. However, the Trump Administration’s policies and its mistreatment of longstanding American allies have called into question American reliability and trustworthiness. The nation’s relationships with its East Asian, European, and North American allies are now fraying. Unless it is reversed, that trend will have consequences in the years and decades ahead.