Could this be it? Might the American Century actually clock out at just 72 years, from 1945 to 2017? No longer than Louis XIV ruled France? Only 36 months more than the Soviet Union lasted, after all that bother? The question sounds preposterous.
For one, there is the unrivaled U.S. military. For another, there is the U.S. economy, still larger than any other. But then there’s the U.S. President, who in the name of making the country great again has renounced the global architecture that the U.S. designed, championed and dominated for generations. It’s the very international system that did so much to cement American greatness in the first place. Pulling out of it won’t be easy–kind of like playing Jenga wearing mittens–if it’s possible at all. But Donald Trump has gone about trying with brio.
To recap, the U.S. emerged from the devastation of World War II as the most powerful nation on the planet. In his last months in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt midwifed international institutions that gave every nation a stake in keeping peaceful and stable a world that had America at its center. Not by chance were the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund all located in the U.S. Nor was it coincidental that, for the next 70 years, U.S. Presidents articulated foreign policies that summoned the world to America’s side.
It was a matter of championing goals–freedom and free markets, progress and human rights–that Americans thought of as American values, but that even authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union felt obliged to at least nominally embrace in treaties and proclamations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And if they carried the tinny echo of boilerplate inside the General Assembly, it was quite something to hear them quoted by a schoolteacher under the thumb of a warlord in Congo, or a Kurdish peasant in Turkey’s militarized southeast.
All that began changing a year ago. In his “America first” Inaugural Address and in every major speech since, Trump has cast the world largely made by the U.S. as its greatest enemy: a brutal zone of ungrateful allies, terrorists disguised as immigrants and East Asians eating our lunch. America’s 45th President may go down as the first to embrace fear itself. But at the start of his second year in office, Trump still is not one to shy from a confrontation. With the federal government back open for business, he steered, like St. George toward the dragon’s cave, to Davos, Switzerland, and the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum.
It’s the crowd Trump referred to during his campaign as the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
What exactly is Davos? There has never been a photograph that shows the place clearly, which is actually fitting, inasmuch as the ski resort is synonymous with the faceless forces that steer life on earth. “Globalism” takes in the world all at once–one market, one ecology, one shared responsibility. And its rise has coincided with amazing progress: in 1981, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Today it’s 10%.
The gains, however, have not been uniform. The British charity Oxfam calculates that 4 out of 5 dollars generated in 2017 went to the world’s wealthiest 1%, a topic that will be addressed, as it is nearly every year, in breakout sessions. Davos, it has been said, is where billionaires go to talk to millionaires about the problems of the working class.
Which means Trump should be right at home. He won the presidency by flamboyantly exploiting the chasm between the supremely assured global elite (including the Clinton Foundation) and the deep unease of U.S. workers who have lived with stagnant wages during the four decades that Davos has existed. The loss of factory jobs to low-wage countries cast the matter in patriotic terms. “At the bedrock of our politics,” Trump said in his Inaugural, “will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.”
The problem is what to do about it in a world the U.S. not only built but built to last. Globalism’s core is the capitalist system that prevailed in the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviets, and then coaxed Communist China to transform itself into something new: a market-based economy topped by an authoritarian order. A year ago it was Chinese President Xi Jinping who made a star turn at Davos, delivering a robust defense of open trade with the zeal of a convert. “The global economy is the big ocean you cannot escape from,” Xi said, adding, of China, “We have learned how to swim.”
The speech teed up what turned out to be a breakout year for the only country positioned to assume world leadership. Ten months later, Xi announced that China would move to “center stage in the world,” its path cleared by none other than the new U.S. President. Over the course of 2017, Trump demeaned NATO, pulled out of the Paris accord on climate change and traveled to China to congratulate Xi on besting the U.S. in trade. “I give China great credit,” he said.
Trump’s admiration for China dovetails with his rejection of the traditional American approach to the world. The famously transactional author of The Art of the Deal likes the way China does business one country at a time. “Focusing on bilateral negotiations rather than multilateral negotiations” is Trump’s stated preference. It’s how Beijing went about assembling the trillion dollars in deals that together are called the “New Silk Road,” a series of bargains with smaller, less-than-democratic Central Asian countries, powered by loans that China offers on its terms. Beijing’s goal is not only railroads and ports; it also wants to bind developing countries to its authoritarian system. China is assembling an illiberal version of the international system that the U.S. built seven decades ago.
It makes sense–for Beijing. “China’s strategy to the world is they want everything to be bilateral negotiation, because, except for the United States, China is stronger than any other country,” notes Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The U.S. strategy has been to push for multilateral negotiations, because we have robust allies. China doesn’t have any real allies.”
It’s not only confusing for the U.S. to reject the multilateral world that it made. According to Alterman, it may well be impossible. “The U.S. can’t be an island,” he says. “We have the most powerful economy in the world. We are more networked into the rest of the world than any other country. We are the reference point for the world. And I don’t think that goes away. What goes away is other people’s willingness to help maintain the system.”
At least until Trump depleted the State Department, the potency of that system was always most evident abroad. In nearly any capital, the most important foreign diplomat was the U.S. ambassador, and many missions include an Information Resource center. They’re basically libraries open to locals that served, in the pre-Internet days, as a kind of Christian Science Reading Room for democracy, stocking U.S. newspapers and periodicals that showcased a free press, while offering credible reads not often available in less free societies.
The centers remain open from Minsk to Rabat, but their mission is now challenged by Trump’s ceaseless assaults on the news media, which comfort despots rather than the people suffering under them. Trump’s cudgel of “fake news” has been used to justify crackdowns on journalists in the Philippines, Russia, China, Venezuela, Turkey and other countries. “In 2017, the Trump Administration made explicit–in both words and actions–its intention to cast off principles that have guided U.S. policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades,” the watchdog Freedom House declared in its latest survey of the state of democracy in the world, which has been in decline for a dozen years.
In many ways, the real turning point came at the U.N. in September, when Trump staked out for the U.S. the low ground traditionally claimed by authoritarian regimes: the primacy of sovereignty, which translates as “mind your own business.” He used the word 21 times in a 41-minute speech, with scant mention of the ideals that made the light showing from the U.S. a beacon, as opposed to a campfire.
Thus did the world’s oldest democracy yield back to Europe at least rhetorical defense of the Enlightenment on which the U.S. was founded, including the 18th century notions that inspired first the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution: tolerance, liberty, progress and, not least, reason. There does not appear to be much of that in Trump’s effort to withdraw from the world.
Rather than a strategic retreat, it has the feel of a sullen withholding from a world moving so quickly, it’s already looking for leadership elsewhere.
This appears in the February 05, 2018 issue of TIME.