Donald Trump is reminding the West why it liked US leadership

US Politics: Those with historic qualms about US power are having a chastening education

US president Donald Trump at a rally in Minneapolis on October 10th. Inadvertently, he is forcing the end of ambivalence about the US role in the world.  Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

US president Donald Trump at a rally in Minneapolis on October 10th. Inadvertently, he is forcing the end of ambivalence about the US role in the world. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

 

Our favourite memories are actually memories of memories. Each time we recall an event or an era, another coat of varnish goes on until the original is romanticised out of all recognition. And so a relationship that was fractious at the time slowly turns into the defining love of our life.

Nothing has gained more from this mental alchemy than the world before 2016. The rules-based order, as it was seldom known back then, is now remembered as an airtight fraternity of like-minded nations, tragically gone to seed. It has become a prelapsarian Eden.

The frequency with which countries chafed at US leadership gets rather lost in the reverie. It is as though France never left Nato’s command structure in 1966. It is as though West Germany did not court its communist East, to some US disquiet, soon after. The city-clogging protests against presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, the grousing about the Washington consensus: these are revised away.

The world resented American omnipresence before it complained about American dereliction. Inadvertently, Donald Trump is forcing the end of this ambivalence. The more the US president unwinds his country’s external commitments, the more other nations see the resultant damage to the global commons. His decision to expose Kurds in Syria to Turkish forces has been the most clarifying moment of all. But there have been others, over trade and climate change. Countries with historic qualms about US power are going through a chastening education in life without it.

Profound if unintended

The perverse result: an America First president could bequeath his successor a world that is keener on US leadership than it was before. Behaviour that should be turning countries away from America is likelier to remind them of its indispensability. The romantic account of the world before Trump could turn out to be truer of the world that will come after him. This outcome is no less profound for being unintended.

It is natural to assume that America’s recent perfidy will force allies to quit its orbit. If there is any doubt about its commitment to them – and the treatment of the Kurds is stirring those doubts – they would have no choice but to make other arrangements.

But this is so much easier said than done as to be hardly worth saying at all. What would those arrangements be? The EU is an economic superpower but hardly a unitary actor at all in diplomatic or military terms. China has the wherewithal to lead, but which liberal democracy could feel relaxed about entering its gravitational tug? Then there is the little matter – always underweighed in diplomatic circles – of public opinion. In Europe, Asia and Africa, crushing majorities preferred a US-led world to a China-led one, or “both” or “neither”, according to Pew Research Center, as recently as 2018.

Substituting for the US is improbable, then, at least in the medium term. If its next president wants to revive the country’s leading role, the allies will still be there to be led. If anything, they will be more biddable than they were. Those that have always been in two minds about Pax Americana are being confronted with the alternative for perhaps the first time in memory.

Tasting abandonment

The worst they have known until now was the unilateral militarism of Mr Bush (whose main western victim, in lives lost and cash blown, was the US itself) and the well-meaning tentativeness of Barack Obama. They are now tasting real abandonment. Old misgivings about American hyperpuissance are starting to seem rather beside the point. The point is to entice the US back on to what Ivo Daalder, its former Nato ambassador, calls the “empty throne”.

None of this is to predict – or hope – that allies will become uncritical of the US through sheer cringing gratitude at having it back. Where they defied its judgment in the past, they were often right, as over the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. They brought a pessimistic cast of mind that does not occur naturally in Washington, where grandiosity is designed into the built environment.

But there was something else, a John le Carré-ish cynicism about the US, that was allowed to pass for too long because it seemed worldly. It made sport of the lumbering giant even as it counted on it to stick around. This was a costless prejudice.

There was never real doubt about America’s reliability. That is no longer the case. It would be strange if the unfolding shock did not focus allied minds in future. We overrated the togetherness of the democratic world before President Trump. We are underrating the unity he will leave behind. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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