We can cite several examples in history of newly rising powers challenging the hegemony of the dominant powers. The classic of the nineteenth century was ambitious Prussia picking a fight with the well-established power that was France, and using that war to pull together all the independent German states into a German Empire. Germany not only humiliated the French, it quickly replaced France as the major challenger to British hegemony.
Nazi Germany posed a lethal revisionist challenge to the international order, a challenge that was only defeated by a massive international alliance that included both the United States and the Soviet Union. After the war, the United States used its hegemony to promote the recovery and development of Europe and East Asia through a liberal international economy, along with a clear bias toward liberal democracy. The US also pushed actively for decolonization, and forged a network of military alliances aimed at the Soviet Union. All these elements of US policy were seen as linked: prosperous allies would be better able to buy American goods and better able to confront the military and political threat from the Soviets. The US assumed a disproportionate defense burden, and tolerated some protectionism among its allies, but it also had the immense benefit of being the keystone of an international order that it had shaped to serve its long-term best interests.
Now we are seeing something new: the country that created the international political and economic order after the War, now under the new management of Donald Trump, is trying to blow that order up.
The Soviets became the major challenger to the US hegemony that followed World War II. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US hegemony seemed absolute, but within a decade it was clear that both China and Russia were challenging that hegemony.
Now we are seeing something new: the country that created the international political and economic order after the War, now under the new management of Donald Trump, is trying to blow that order up. The global order as Trump sees it is actually working against American interests. He cites persistent trade deficits with our leading trading partners as a sign that the rules of the game are stacked against us. He cites low defense budgets of NATO allies as evidence of free-riding. He shows scant regard for the liberal democracies of Europe and Japan, while cultivating authoritarians like Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey.
It was all on display over the weekend as Trump demolished the G-7 summit in Canada and burned his bridges to the major democratic powers, all in order to look strong in the runup to his summit in Singapore with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
Does he have a strategy? Is he really trying, as David Leonhart says, to destroy the West?
I suggest that it’s not a strategy in the usual sense of a well-structured plan to serve a carefully considered conception of the national interest. It is rather a desire constantly to upset any well-established patterns so that stability depends only on him. It is all about him. We saw it as he torpedoed the G-7. We saw it as he pulled out of the summit with Kim, then acceded to Kim’s urgent plea to go through with it. We saw it as he pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran denuclearization agreement. In none of these cases were substantial policy issues the drivers. Rather, the driver was always to make Trump the center of attention, the man who must be satisfied or he will blow up the deal.
We see the same pattern in domestic affairs. Whether it’s immigration and the Wall, or Obamacare, or tax cuts, his moves (especially his tweets) are always calculated to make himself the center of attention. His legislative negotiations have usually involved deals that he signed off on, only to back away, leaving his allies swinging in the wind and himself the center of attention.
This is a man who despises staff work and has no patience for the homework that would be necessary to prepare for a major summit meeting. Instead he says it’s all about mood. He affirms that he’ll size up Kim in the first minute of their meeting.
This is the fatuous blowhard and bully, the overinflated ego that holds his country and the world in his hands.