As President Donald Trump wraps up his first year in office, questions abound about his fitness to serve and what his “America First” foreign policy portends for America’s role in the world. While several authors kicked off 2018 by arguing that Trump is abdicating American global leadership, Evan Osnos’ essay in the New Yorker argues that Trump is ceding it to China. Osnos writes,
Under the banner of “America First,” President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad. On his third day in office, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation trade deal designed by the United States as a counterweight to a rising China. To allies in Asia, the withdrawal damaged America’s credibility. “You won’t be able to see that overnight,” Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, told me, at an event in Washington. “It’s like when you draw a red line and then you don’t take it seriously. Was there pain? You didn’t see it, but I’m quite sure there’s an impact.”
Benjamin Friedman of Defense Priorities—a friend and former colleague—is skeptical. Commenting on Osnos’ piece on Twitter, Friedman argues that the United States is not abandoning its position as a world leader because the Trump administration is yet to renege on any of Washington’s security commitments—instead forsaking only the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate agreement. Citing a 2017 War on the Rocks piece he co-authored with political scientist Joshua Shifrinson, Friedman argues that rather than abandoning American leadership, Trump is defiling it.
I agree with this point in part, but I think it requires some modification.
The idea that America First suggested Trump’s intent to abandon American leadership has always been mistaken. It was always more likely that Trump wanted to transform American leadership from that of a “chairman of the board” to something akin to a mob boss. He doesn’t want to abandon America’s security commitments. He wants to make them more transactional (hence his regular calls for America’s allies to “pay their bills” in return for American protection.).
The distinction is important though. Trump may not actively seek the end of America’s global leadership, but by transforming it, he may accelerate its demise.
Even a country as powerful as the United States needs to present a palatable vision to the world it seeks to lead. The American vision of global leadership has been built on ideals such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, open commercial exchange, and positive-sum cooperation. While the United States certainly violates the ideas at times, political scientists Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue the resulting hypocrisy is superior to the transactional alternative Trump presents. They write,
[H]ypocrisy is as crucial to international politics as to personal relations. Blunt pursuit of self-interest is rarely appealing to others. American leaders used to push the self-serving myth that U.S. interests and the world’s interests were mostly the same, and that America was the one indispensable nation. Now, Trump has driven a highly visible wedge between American interests and the world’s. Making America Great Again might be an attractive slogan to a large minority of American voters, but it is unlikely to attract non-Americans, who fear that Trump wants to make America and himself great at their expense, something that, in turn, will make greatness harder to achieve.
So Friedman is right that Trump is not intentionally abandoning American leadership. However, as he defiles it by making it more nakedly transactional, it becomes more likely it will end as a result.