America can no longer carry the world on its shoulders

Janan Ganesh: Selfish logic of Trump’s America First doctrine will be aped by future presidents

To become a “normal country” is the dream of more than one republic. The world is familiar enough with the German case. Having atoned for the war and put Europe first, its next step as a common-or-garden nation is to pursue its narrow interests without embarrassment.

Because he is so peculiar, we cannot credit that Donald Trump’s project is the normalisation of his own country. For all their shock value, that is what his foreign policies amount to: the restoration of the US as a selfish state among selfish states, not an overworked governess with the entire free world as her mewling wards.

This realpolitik can be self-defeating. It misses the national interests that are served through such nominally high-minded works as the Paris climate accord. But it is still more coherent than its critics. Liberals chafed at American power until its threatened retreat, at which point Nato and the Washington Consensus on trade became sacraments to be saved from populist menaces. As for mainstream Republicans, at least Trump does not go in for mystical hokum about the US as a special nation ordained to uphold freedom.

Realism has more going for it, though, than internal coherence. It also fits the external conditions. To lead a world order takes a nation in the full plumage of its powers. That is a better description of the US in 1948 than 2018, much less 2048. Trump’s infidelity to the postwar system is disquieting, but perhaps he is doing through choice what future presidents will have to do through necessity.


Extreme circumstances

Pax Americana is not the natural order of things. It is a phase born of the most extreme circumstances. The US accounted for a third of the world's output when it set up the Bretton Woods institutions, revived Japan and secured Europe. Because its absolute power remained so awesome, we forget that its relative position began to decline soon after. It now accounts for about 20 per cent of global output. It does not have the wherewithal to underwrite the democratic world forever. At some point, a president was going to construe the national interest in narrower terms. The most recent three were elected on a pledge to do so.

Whether Trump-as-statesman understands the relative decline he has lived through – he was born in 1946 – Trump-as-politician understands something just as relevant. The taxpayer still awaits the peace dividend that was said to be in the mail when the Berlin Wall turned to debris.

The US has spent most of the post-cold war era in expensive conflicts in another hemisphere. These “forever wars” rolled on as the home land endured a financial crash and the kind of infrastructure that should be beneath the dignity of the nation that built the Hoover dam.

Trump's infidelity to the postwar system is disquieting, but perhaps he is doing through choice what future presidents will have to do through necessity.

The two trends – relative decline and domestic exhaustion – have created the best atmosphere for realpolitik since the post-Vietnam years. The difference is that this time it should last, as China and other powers trim America's room for manoeuvre.

There is no demand for isolation. There is plenty for a focus on interests over values. Trump's is the first (and therefore the worst) attempt to service that demand. There was no need to humiliate allies as blameless as Canada or to impose, as his government did this week, new limits on the annual intake of refugees. But the underlying logic of selfishness will outlast him.

Realists smell a chance to temper the crudities of America First into a serious, interest-led, foreign policy. The foremost among their academic tribe, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, each have books out to encourage their nation's retirement from "liberal hegemony".

Correction due

Even if the coming realism turns out to be an over-correction, a correction was due. Not long ago, George W Bush could describe freedom as the "design of nature" and Barack Obama could, with equal nonchalance, say that the arc of history bends towards justice. The arc of history does not bend towards anything.

There are things to miss about these presidents – their personal class, their seasoned cabinets – but this teleological gibberish is not one of them. The postwar record suggests that ideals get the US into trouble more often than cold calculation does.

Richard Nixon said that a leader can, at most, "give history a nudge". He or she cannot alter the course of history so much as quicken a trend that is already in train. The structural trends of the world demand a more self-interested US over time.

Each of Trump’s broken treaties and tariff rounds can be read as a nudge towards that destiny: a bid to make America normal again. His successors will do it better. But they will do it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018