The Post's Anne Applebaum — Pulitzer Prize winner, professor at the London School of Economics, academic specialist in propaganda — takes a hard look at what Trump hath wrought internationally for the U.S., and what she sees should not surprise.
She writes that the "era of American hegemony" — "when the United States was the 'essential' country" — began with the era of the Soviets' destruction, "probably peaked just before 9/11," and has been in decline ever since. But under Trump, its finality has been "accelerated" — mostly because this president "knows no history," he knows not what he's doing, and he seems oblivious to what is actually taking place.
Two fundamental aspects of Applebaum's essay are of interest. She treats American "hegemony" as a rather benign phenomenon instead of the internationally bullying kind to which we've all become semantically accustomed. And she marks its beginning in 1991, with the aforementioned collapse of the Soviet Union. I find it striking that she puts aside the larger historical framework — that which Time publisher Henry Luce called "The American Century," the postwar development of the liberal international order led by the United States. Seen from this perspective, America's decline under Trump looks more like a plunge.
At any rate, and under either framework, Applebaum's initial thesis is incontestable. America once "invested" in the world, she writes: diplomatically, militarily, and "above all in alliances." Through interdependent treaties, namely NATO and SEATO, the U.S. "kept parts of Europe and Asia free to choose democracy, and open for commerce and trade." Our most significant investment came in the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Western Europe, formed the basis of mutual economic growth, and made possible the practical creation of the European Union, now the world's second largest economy.
None of this just happened, none was inevitable. All of it took the careful ministrations of American presidents and engaged Congresses. Trump, however, "seems to believe that he can maintain" our status as a world leader "and even increase it, without making investments," observes Applebaum. And now comes his "abrupt withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal," which has thrust us into "the worst of all possible worlds."
We have in effect become a rogue nation, with others looking for ways around us. We have violated a perfectly serviceable treaty, we have broken our word, we have made ourselves unreliable — and our erstwhile friends in Europe will, in time, make a joke of our useless sanctions. What's more, "Trump recently sent a letter to Arab allies," notes Applebaum, "demanding that they commit more military resources to solve Middle Eastern problems." Without us.
Then comes her analytical coup de grâce, which I shall quote at length.
"How far can Trump get by shouting and goading, by talking about how much the United States is 'owed' by NATO or the Arab world? How far can he get without investing in allies, in diplomacy, in military engagement? Maybe quite far. That moment of American hegemony really was impressive, and there are many places where the aura has yet to fade. It will take quite a bit of time for Europeans, not to mention Russians and Chinese, to find their way around U.S. sanctions on Iran, to invent alternative ways to invest, to create new sources of credit outside the existing international banking system. It will take time before the rearmed nations of the Middle East realize that there is no reason, any longer, to consult the U.S. government before going to war. It will take time before U.S. economic policy becomes so erratic that others decide not to preserve the dollar as the reserve currency, or not to reserve a space for Americans at the top table. It may be many years before Americans finally notice that “hegemony on the cheap” means they no longer have much say in what happens outside their borders. But sooner or later that moment will come."
What Applebaum does not say is that America's international decline may be reversible, which is surprising, given that she underscores the "quite a bit of time" it will take for all these diminutions of American influence to occur. Of course first the next president must decide if he or she wishes to reestablish America's postwar or post-1991 status (presumably, at the electorate's urging). But assuming that decision is positive, Trump's ignorant, arrogant interference may be negligible; it can perhaps be brushed aside subsequent to many a sit-down with foreign friends and monitory messages to foes. Quite possible is that Trump will become but a bad yet disposable memory.
The trick will be in getting him the hell out of the White House just as soon as possible, so that America can get back to work as a large part of a benevolent international order.