“The proudest empire in Europe is but a bubble compared to what America will be, must be, in the course of two centuries – perhaps of one,” wrote Gouverneur Morris in 1800, who is most remembered for drafting the text of the Constitution, beginning with the words “We the People.” What motivated Morris’ prediction was the first great infrastructure project in America, the building of the Erie Canal that would eventually solidify New York as the trade and financial capital of the world. To Morris, empire was about self-determination, which was a matter of money: “Forty years ago all America could not, without bills of credit, raise one million of dollars to defend themselves against an enemy at their doors. Now, in profound peace, the taxes bring into the treasury, without strain or effort, above ten millions.”
The most shocking aspect of the Donald Trump presidency has been the unforced, voluntary retreat from constructive foreign engagement and unchallenged world leadership. While no sane person could argue that American foreign policy has been completely successful over the past century, on balance the result has been a long period of relative peace and prosperity since 1945, an idyllic Pax Americana. The world was not conquered by Hitler nor blown to bits by Stalin. No enemy troops have marched into and no enemy aircraft have dropped bombs on any of the great cities of the world. New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, and even Mexico City, Istanbul and Johannesburg, have all enjoyed relative quiet. Conflicts have been local and contained.
The two world wars of the 20th century ultimately resulted from inherent economic factors: Neither Germany nor Japan have sufficient natural resources to feed themselves, so their survival depends upon foreign imports, which can only be obtained by either conquest or trade. Motivated by paranoia, both adopted militaristic ideologies justifying conquest; only after utter defeat were they willing to trust their futures to trade – turning them into powerhouses of economic productivity.
Nations that try to go it alone become desperate failures. Zimbabwe, the former British colony of Rhodesia, was a successful grower and exporter of wheat, maize, beef and coffee to the rest of Africa, but under dictatorship since 1980 food production has collapsed to a small fraction of what it once was, and now the country depends upon foreign handouts. At the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North and the South were in substantially the same economic circumstances, but since then South Korea has become a modern nation with a high standard of living, internationally respected exports from advanced manufacturing brands such as Samsung and Hyundai, and per capita income now 50 times that of the North. By contrast, its absurdly misnamed “Juche” (self-reliance) policy left poverty-stricken, communist North Korea to be propped up by aid from China and the former Soviet Union, with widespread famine peaking during the 1990s and a huge portion of its GDP, possibly as much as half, devoted to maintaining one of the largest military forces in the world with expensive research projects to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.
Trump revived the “America first” slogan in his inaugural address, promising to stop “American carnage,” perceiving the world as a zero-sum game: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first… We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs… America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth.”
Trump’s use of the phrase “America first” is genuinely horrifying, given its primary historical association with isolationism leading up to World War II: During the period of American neutrality between the start of the war in Europe in September 1939 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the America First Committee started as an unholy alliance of left-wing and right-wing isolationists.
Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University published a controversial book a few years ago, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, arguing among other things that commerce supersedes war when “other people become more valuable alive than dead.” Trump’s perception of foreign policy as a zero-sum competition between winners and losers is a fundamental break from the principles that brought the United States to an unchallenged position of world leadership and from the Pax Americana this made possible. The Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe and Japan after World War II and the bipartisan free trade agreements of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton presidencies were all grounded in the conclusion that the world and everyone in it would be better off through cooperation.
Until very recently, it was accepted almost as an article of faith that liberal democracy – defined by free, fair and competitive elections among multiple political parties, civil liberties including freedom of speech and press, and respect for rule of law – was not only on the ascendancy, but had demonstrably triumphed across world history. The Soviet Union had simply ceased to exist, freeing Eastern Europe from communist oppression and ending the Cold War, leading to talk of a “peace dividend.” What started decades earlier as the European common market adopted a common currency and ended immigration and travel restrictions. Even communist China adopted a market economy. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to join the liberal democratic club and enjoy its shared prosperity, but all great empires throughout history have been brought down by someone not in the club.
The Pax Romana, two centuries of relative peace (27 BCE – 180 CE) enforced by the overwhelming dominance of the Roman Empire, was destroyed by a period (235–284 CE) of chaos with dozens of military leaders claiming the title of “emperor” within a 50-year period and former imperial provinces going to war with each other. The Pax Britannica, a similar interval of relative peace resulting from British dominance and the agreement by the European powers to carve up spheres of influence, was undone by Germany, a nation that did not exist before 1871 and therefore had no seat at the table at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (although Austria and Prussia did), this eventually led to World War I.
Has Trump unleashed the end of the Pax Americana? He campaigned on promises of dismantling its structural components, such as the UN and NATO, as well as virtually all international agreements ranging from NAFTA to the Iran nuclear arms control deal. He regularly taunts and belittles Kim Jong-un of North Korea, a wildly unstable nuclear power. He voiced approval of Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, a self-inflicted wound that will eventually marginalize the United Kingdom into economic and political irrelevance. He is weirdly solicitous toward Vladimir Putin who runs Russia like a Mafia state. He praised dictator Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines for a policy of extrajudicial murder. Far-right parties throughout the world have taken encouragement, notably Alternative für Deutschland entering the German parliament for the first time as its third largest party.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has led both practically and symbolically a march of progress for liberal democracy, and the world is a safer place as a result. Trump seems determined to abandon that; indeed, he seems not to understand that. Where is Trump taking the United States, and does he even know?