by Thomas Walkom
Donald Trump can be thin-skinned and obnoxious. He plays fast and loose with the facts. He has adopted much of the worst of the Republican agenda, including opposition to women’s reproductive rights. At times, he is gauche and ostentatious.
These are some of the reasons why so many people – including so many Canadians – detest the new U.S. president.
But he is also oddly realistic. His America First rhetoric may conjure up memories of 1930s isolationism. It may signal a retreat to Fortress America.
But it also reflects what is going on. America no longer dominates the Western world in the way it has done since 1945.
The postwar era is over.
The signs are everywhere. In the Middle East, it is not the U.S. that is brokering an end to the devastating Syrian civil war. Rather that role has been taken on by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
And while their success is far from certain, the new trio has managed to do something Washington was never able to do – convince the two sides to meet, albeit briefly, in the same room.
In the Korean peninsula, it has become clear that any solution to the problem of a nuclear-armed North lies not in Washington but Beijing.
The U.S. is not irrelevant there; it still has about 28,500 troops in South Korea. But it is less relevant than it was.
Even America’s former colony, the Philippines, is pivoting away from the U.S. and towards China.
Economic integration? Trump officially killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership this week when he withdrew from the tentative 12-country trade and investment pact (technically, it cannot proceed without American participation).
But he was merely delivering the coup de grace. Opposition to the deal was so strong in the U.S. that even Democratic Party presidential contender Hillary Clinton, a former fan, had vowed to kill it.
Meanwhile, China is forging ahead to create its own economic zone. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the U.S. has refused to join, now has 57 members – including Britain, Germany and France. Canada is applying to sign on.
Trump has questioned NATO’s relevance, at one point calling it “obsolete.” He’s also called it “very important to me.”
How the president squares these remarks is not entirely clear. But he is not the first to question the need for a military alliance set up to counter a Soviet Union that no longer exists.
Those who see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a modern-day version of the U.S.S.R. argue that NATO remains desperately relevant. But Trump doesn’t appear to share those views. Indeed, he appears to think that Russia should be granted the same leeway in its backyard that the U.S., via the Monroe Doctrine, claims for itself in the Americas.
More to the point, he is reluctant to foot so much of the bill for an alliance that may no longer suit U.S. requirements. And that is the key to what may eventually be called the Trump Doctrine: America’s position in the world has changed.
Indeed, the idea of America First is hardly new. Franklin Roosevelt did not lend Britain armaments to fight Hitler in March 1941 simply out of generosity. He did so because he perceived, correctly, that a Hitler who dominated Europe would threaten the U.S.
Similarly, America did not take on a leadership role in the postwar world economy just to be nice. It backstopped the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and eventually the World Trade Organization for two reasons.
First, it was the only country rich enough to do so. Second, it reckoned that creating a coherent set of global rules was in the best interests of American capitalism – and therefore of Americans.
But that, too, is changing. The crisis of 2008-09 demonstrated that America alone is no longer able to solve global economic problems. The election of Trump showed that American workers are no longer willing to assume that what suits U.S. business will suit them.
The rise and decline of great powers is rarely neat. My guess is that America Firster Trump will intervene far more in the world than his critics think.
But his fundamental instincts are not foolish. The U.S. no longer dominates the globe in the way it did. These days, international leadership is not something it can so easily afford.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services