There’s been a robust debate over the last couple of decades about America and its role in the world. Critics on both the left and the right have sprung up to oppose various aspects of American hegemony. On the left, the most common critique is that we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, that we’re far too overextended militarily. On the right, critiques tend to focus on the fact that we spend too much on foreign aid and that we need stronger borders. Both critique free trade as hurting American labor to enrich multinational corporations.
And yet, both sides like American hegemony when it serves their values. Conservatives are fine with our soldiers and drone strikes littering the Middle East as long as it keeps us safe from terrorists, and Liberals are fine with spending unauthorized tax dollars on global health initiatives. Both enjoy the cheap goods they receive from free trade.
However one feels about globalization, it’s hard to deny that being the hegemon is a luxury. Developing countries want to liberalize their economies and democratize their political systems largely because they’re modelling themselves after us. Many don’t think America should lead the world, but few would substitute an authoritarian regime in its place.
Furthermore, being the hegemon affords Americans a number of smaller luxuries that should not go underappreciated because of ideology. The fact that most areas of the world are able to speak our language, for example, makes travel and communication a relatively simple endeavor for any American. Preferential trade treatment and housing the world’s central banking institutions means that we get the best goods at the lowest prices. Our enormous size and alliances makes for an infinitesimal chance we ever get attacked by another country.
But this is all changing. The Trump administration is losing the respect of the global community through rash decision making, dangerous rhetoric, and sheer incoherence.
When the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords in June, they made the argument that the agreement was nonbinding anyways. What the hell is the point of being in a deal that doesn’t make you do anything? As a point of fact, they’re correct. The agreement was set up such that each country set their own standards. But what the administration was implicitly saying as that we should ditch the international order that we, the United States, set up after World War II. Of course the Paris Accords are nonbinding, we live in an anarchic global system. Every agreement we make is nonbinding, because we don’t have an enforcement mechanism. The European Union, the United Nations, the Iran Deal, international law. It’s all nonbinding, but countries honor their commitment because of a concept political scientist call “soft power.”
The Paris Climate Accords have no mechanism for enforcement and yet Germany, France, Canada, and the U.K. have all put in place plans to make their countries carbon neutral in the next 40 years since the agreement was signed. In fact, there’s something of a global competition of who can get their fastest. This is how international relations works. It’s the system we set up to shame Germany and Japan into reform after World War II and to keep Russia at bay during the Cold War. Soft power is an essential tool for the promotion of Democratic institutions who work together with one another rather than fight. Without it, our disputes are far more likely to be settled with warfare and sanctions than summits and treaties.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron know the value of being the world’s leader and the soft power benefits that come with it, and appear to be making very serious moves to succeed America in that role. Both have crafted a picture of global leadership that combines the traditional neoliberalism of the United States with a more progressive tolerance. With the Trump administration faltering on everything from NATO to NAFTA to climate change, Macron and Merkel have a clear path to hegemony. This even further buoyed by the administrations ban on Muslim refugees, a program entirely anathema to the post-Truman Doctrine global consensus. Furthermore, rather than embrace our Democratic allies in Merkel and Macron, Trump has created a hostile relationship with them while simultaneously offering praise to authoritarian leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Phillipine leader Rodrige Duerte, and Vladimir Putin.
This transition won’t be immediate. Unlike the World Wars or the Cold War, hegemonic succession won’t involve warfare. Luckily for the United States, France and Germany are our allies, and our enormous resources ensure that we’ll still be a major player in global affairs. One way to conceptualize this is that we will essentially flip places. Rather than Germany and France having a seat at the table where the United States calls the shots, we’ll have a seat at Germany and/or France’s table.
Ultimately, this may be the lasting effect of the Trump presidency. While thus far proving to be largely incompetent in getting his domestic agenda passed, Trump’s foreign policy behavior isn’t constrained by an opposition party in Congress or public opinion polls. Trump will continue to call into question the efficacy and legitimacy of long held international institutions, and each time he does Macron and Merkel will take another step towards the top.
Once we lose our seat at the head of the table, it will be a tall if not impossible order to get it back. If the members of Trump’s cabinet with more traditional foreign policy aims wish to keep it, they must act quickly and decisively before Trump further erodes America’s place in the world.