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The Demise of American Leadership

One of the things that I hear all the time is that President Donald Trump is removing the United States from its position as leader of the Western, democratic world. Granted, he has withdrawn America from treaties and agreements that we were the leaders in formulating: TPP, Paris Climate Agreement, Iran Nuclear Deal, dealing with trade, climate change and nuclear proliferation, respectively. In their place he has engaged in unilateral trade wars, denied man-made climate change, dismantled environmental protections within the U.S., and increased tension in the Middle East by violating U.N. resolutions and moving our embassy to Jerusalem while further demonizing Iran as the cause of all Middle Eastern unrest. Granted, he may yet achieve a breakthrough in reducing nuclear tension in Korea, and we don’t know the outcome of trade negotiations with China, but that only means that some unilateral negotiation strategies can be fruitful. It doesn’t lessen the fact that Europe and other North American countries no longer look to the United States for leadership.

Before we bemoan the void in leadership created by the new American nationalism and unilateralism, we should examine the kind of leadership our country has provided. Following WWII, the United States led the reconstruction of Europe by instituting the Marshall Plan, giving billions of dollars for rebuilding infrastructure in Western Europe. At the same time, we pursued the Truman Doctrine, a plan for America to defend the West against Soviet communism by a combination of economic and military assistance. This doctrine led directly to the formation of NATO and the idea that the chief protector of Western European democracy was the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. (as well as troops stationed inside many European countries). Under this doctrine, American military spending swelled, while that of our allies languished because it was not needed, given our protection. One result has been that, over the years, U.S. infrastructure and social programs have fallen further and further behind that of the countries who didn't devote as much of their budgets to defense—because we were.  Another consequence of the American focus upon military might and our apparent ability to deter even a power as great as the Soviet Union with our (mostly nuclear) military threat, was a national view within the U.S. that America was invincible. Our military strength became a cornerstone of our national identity. The Vietnam War, as revealed by both its eventual outcome and the Pentagon Papers, gave us a lesson in how maintaining this picture of invincibility could lead to distortion of truth, and to a dogged pursuit of victory while minimizing obstacles until we were faced with defeat. Even when such a defeat was obvious, the myth that liberal dissidents within and outside of the government forced us to fight “with one hand tied behind our back,”  (which meant we resisted “nuking” North Vietnam, or in the words of General Curtis LeMay, “bombing them back to the stone age”) left the proponents of American military might with a way to rationalize losing a war. Then we reasserted our national self-esteem by winning wars against ragtag opponents in Grenada, Panama and Haiti while surreptitiously helping to overthrow elected governments who we feared would spread communism in various parts of the world. We reasserted our leadership by leading a Western coalition into Kuwait to drive out Saddam Hussein, then we attacked Iraq (minus some, but not all, of our allies, this time), for a misguided reason, leaving that country in ruins, strengthening Iran, and giving birth to ISIS. We invaded Afghanistan in a war that is setting records for its length and has no end in sight, and we led NATO in a war in Bosnia. In Libya, we encouraged and finally, using our military, backed up both our European allies and revolutionaries on the ground in overthrowing the country’s dictator,  leaving a dysfunctional hotbed of terrorist activity in the aftermath.

On the economic front, the U.S. led the convergence of national economies into an international one, which, over a period of years, led to more and more wealth being concentrated in the pockets of fewer and fewer people (often the owners and CEOs of multinational corporations), one result of which was a worldwide recession when some of the financial players got too careless and too greedy after their lobbying succeeded in deregulating the way they did business in the U.S. When China became an economic threat, our business interests determined that losing business to China was a national threat to the U.S., and, as the “leader of the free world’s economy,” we and our allies, behind closed doors, formulated the TPP, whose chief aim was to combat the influence of China. Unfortunately it also would have placed the interests of the member nations behind the interests of the private companies who were writing and negotiating the treaty (which is why progressives such as Bernie Sanders opposed it). The American economic leadership that we are accused of abandoning by deserting the TPP is one that serves American business, not necessarily the American people (they are not the same thing or we would not lead the developed world in income inequality). President Trump didn’t leave the TPP because he realized this; he left it because he wanted to have no constraints on how he negotiated trade deals unilaterally. The Trump administration economic policies have shown no indication that they will reduce inequality, and in fact, they are almost sure to increase it.

So this is what American leadership has been about. When I hear critics of America’s current administration complain that we are squandering our position of leadership in the Western world, I am less alarmed when I reflect upon what that leadership has been like. Many Americans view world leadership as a competition in which America needs to be number one, ahead of China and Russia, but they ignore the quality of that leadership. Perhaps this is a good time, while we appear to be vacating that leadership position, to reflect on how we want to lead instead of just how to reassert our leadership.


Reader Comments (1)

Before you bemoan the loss of American respect and leadership in the world, you should provide some, or any, serious evidence of your claim. Without evidence, I can make the opposite claim and say that the US is walking with big shoulders, head held high, on the world stage and has successfully reclaimed a great deal of our former status as a country not to be trifled with or boxed in. President Trump is so much more of an actual leader than his apologist, milquetoast, servile and embarrassing predecessor. President Trump has shown great insight in withdrawing from and renegotiating many of these alleged "deals" which sacrificed the safety and well-being of American citizens for a regressive, unsustainable and unattainable globalist agenda.

The entire world has a fairly clear understanding that the US has intentionally muzzled itself since 1945 not just in terms of nuclear might, but also in terms of devastating conventional and experimental weaponry nearly as destructive as nuclear weapons. The US is largely invincible unless the attack comes from an internal, homegrown enemy that seeks to erode the functional capacity of the US Constitution by eliminating the foundational Christian and Enlightenment principles of that peerless document.

May 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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