Politics & Policy

America Doesn’t Have a Successor

President Trump with other G7 leaders in Taormina, Italy, May 27, 2017. (Reuters photo: Alessandro Bianchi)
There is a frantic, almost panicked desire to see dramatic declines in U.S. power and prestige because its people elected Donald Trump. But geopolitical reality remains unchanged.

America has lost the leadership of the globe in the last ten days. In fact, it lost it two times over. For completely different reasons. The first time it was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that did it. Twilight of American power, right there. Might as well mothball the nuclear subs and aircraft carriers. The second time was when it pulled out of the Paris accords. No time for the mothballs, Americans have abandoned science and will shortly be living in cave dwellings along Appalachia. Both are cases of the commentariat wishing Donald Trump’s presidency to be shown to be more disastrous than it is. And so the race to find the next global leader is on.

Joan Walsh declared Angela Merkel the leader of the free world. How interesting! But it fails the sniff test. The European Union exists on several unspoken agreements. One of them is that Germany doesn’t get a big military anymore. In compensation it does get the greatest benefit from the euro currency. Another unspoken part of the deal is that the European Union is the political deputy in the NATO alliance. That is why, whenever EU expansion talk comes it is about whether to include more NATO countries, even when they aren’t European, like Turkey. Never that big European country outside of NATO, which is Russia.

Germany could not maintain its treasured European project if suddenly it made a bid for world leadership with a military buildup. The whole project of the EU rests on the military reality that the U.S. provides Europe’s security from Russian domination. Does anyone for one minute believe that a German public that is now dogmatically anti-war and pro-EU would be willing to jeopardize the political arrangement they love and that gives them prosperity for a major military build-up that would require new sacrifices? Do they think member states of the EU want this? Think Poland and France will happily trust Germany with their security? The fact is this. If EU member states want to keep their project, then America must continue to be the underwriter of European order. The two go together.

Some Europeans have the good sense to look further afield for new leadership. In the Irish Times, the usually sharp Fintan O’Toole writes that the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, “defines the US as a rogue nation.” He then looks to the future. “The Chinese, who understand the idea of the long term, have seen the opportunity to take the high ground and place themselves at the forefront of an epic battle for planetary survival.” An afternoon in any Chinese city would disabuse O’Toole of this notion.

If EU member states want to keep their project, then America must continue to be the underwriter of European order.

China is a notorious liar when it comes to pollution. When scientists measured the awful air quality in China from a U.S. Embassy and found it filled with the most harmful airborne particles, the Chinese vice minister for environmental protection issued a statement protesting that the United States had violated international conventions. Since the Paris accords were signed, China has systematically underreported its coal consumption. This is O’Toole’s far-sighted, planetary savior?

O’Toole claims — I won’t say he believes — that pulling out of the agreement means that the U.S. has lost the edge on science, at least symbolically. Want a real measure on science? Look to the education systems. All the best Chinese students in science (and many from Europe) come to study in American universities. That was true even when America stood outside of the Kyoto protocols. It will remain true for a good long while. O’Toole likely knows better, but he can’t let respect for himself and his readers get in the way of a free kick on Trump. (A respectable Irish Times man has to give himself cover for his occasional heresies on rule of Ireland by Brussels.)

There is a frantic, almost panicked desire to see dramatic declines in U.S. power and prestige because its people elected Donald Trump. The people have to learn their lesson, after all. But the reality-based community has lost touch with the real world. America remains a hegemonic force: It has the largest and best equipped military that secures peace and prosperity from Europe to the South China Sea, the most prestigious university system, the largest consumer market, and it remains the source of so much innovation.

The most powerful and important country on earth is led by Donald Trump. This may be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and a little scary. The world may hate it. Most days, I do. But it does not mean that the United States ceases to be powerful and important. An American-led world order might feel queasy with Donald Trump at the helm. But the deckhand doesn’t prove the captain is nuts by chopping down the main mast himself, or declaring the ship sunk at the first gust of hot air.


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