Nearly two years into his presidency, much of the world is still having trouble coming to grips with Donald Trump, the most unconventional US president ever. Still, he’s not a bad dream from which America will soon wake up. Beyond his sprawling past and the over-the-top tweets, the holder of the world’s most significant office should always be taken seriously. Erratic and ill-disciplined though he often seems, there’s little doubt that Trump is well on his way to being a consequential president. On all the evidence so far, when he says something, he means it, and when he consistently says something it will happen.
He said he’d cut taxes. He has, and the American economy is at its strongest in at least a decade. He said he’d cut regulations, and innumerable Obama-era green rules have gone. He said he’d pull out of the Paris climate change agreement and he has, to the usual obloquy, but no discernible environmental damage. He said he’d scrap the Iranian deal and that’s happened; so if Iran gets nuclear weapons, at least it won’t be with American connivance. He said he’d move the US embassy to Jerusalem and that’s been done, without catastrophe. He said he’d boost defence spending. That’s happening too, and adversaries no longer think that they can cross American red lines with impunity. He said he’d build a wall with Mexico. It’s bogged down in the courts and congress; but once it’s there, it will keep illegal migration substantially under control. But whatever our judgment on the Trump presidency so far, he’s got two more years in the world’s biggest job and has every chance of being re-elected. He is the reality we have to work with.
Even under Trump, America remains the “indispensable nation”. No other country has had both the strength and the goodwill to be the world’s policeman and guarantor of a modicum of restraint from the world’s despots and fanatics. Yet the thanks for seven decades of watchfulness, and prodigious expenditure of blood and treasure, has been arch-condescension from the intellectuals whose freedom America has protected; and commercial exploitation from the competitors that the American-led global order has created. It’s little wonder that Trump wants trade that’s fair as well as free and that he’s tired of so-called allies who give sermons from the sidelines while America keeps them safe.
The truth is that the rest of the world needs America much more than America needs us. America has no threatening neighbours. It’s about as remote from the world’s trouble spots as it’s possible to be. It’s richly endowed with resources. Its agricultural capacity is almost boundless. Its technology is second to none. Its manufacturing base is vast. Its people are entrepreneurial in their bones. From diversity, it has indeed built unity and an enviable pride in country. In many respects, it’s the world in one country, only a better world than most of that outside. An America living in splendid isolation from troubles across the sea might lose little, and perhaps gain much, at least in the beginning. A fortress America would be as impregnable as any country could be.
As yet, “putting America first” doesn’t mean “you’re on your own, world”. America hasn’t lost its pride, values or sense of “manifest destiny”. It’s just weary of “pay(ing) any price, bear(ing) any burden….(or) support(ing) any friend….to assure the survival and success of liberty” (in JFK’s stirring words) on behalf of countries that aren’t equally committed. Trump is clearly impatient with the liberal internationalism that has shaped American policy for seventy years because he worries that it’s been much better for others than it has been for America. America has disproportionately shouldered the burdens. Others have disproportionately gained the benefits, so enough is enough and there will be no more one-sided alliances.
At least for those allies that don’t shirk their responsibilities, Trump’s America should remain a reliable partner. Just don’t expect too much, as a new age is coming. The legions are going home. American values can be relied upon but American help less so. This need not presage a darker time, like Rome’s withdrawal from Britain, but more will be required of the world’s other free countries. Will they step up? That’s the test.
For the threat of Islamism hasn’t diminished. Then there’s Russia that’s clearly become a predatory state. China is still an economic opportunity but it’s a big strategic competitor too. With the militarisation of the South China Sea; the bullying of the Philippines, Vietnam and even Japan; probing against India; and the ever-present claim over Taiwan, it’s asserting itself all around the region. It’s still a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, now with a president-for-life. Some of China’s swagger is the natural heft of a very large country, re-invigorated by economic success. But China’s goodwill often seems conditional: on shunning the Dalai Lama, ignoring the slow squeeze on Hong Kong, abandoning Taiwan, and ultimately on choosing China over America. These are not choices that any free country should have to make in order to be China’s friend.
When America spends 3 per cent plus of the world’s biggest GDP on its armed forces – and the rest of the Western world scarcely 2 per cent, it’s hard to dispute Trump’s view that most of us have been keeping safe on the cheap. America can’t be expected to do more for its allies than we are prepared to do for ourselves. Trump is just making clear to everyone what should always have been screamingly obvious: that each nation’s safety now rests in its own hands, far more than in anyone else’s.