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How Trump and Obama have shown us American greatness

| Monday, November 25, 2019

When a close friend says they “don’t know” if they can trust you anymore, it’s obvious something’s wrong. Obvious, that is, to everyone except Donald Trump.  

This happened earlier this month when French President Emmanuel Macron, reeling from Trump’s reckless maneuvers in Syria, diagnosed NATO with “brain death” and stressed the need for European “[autonomy] in terms of military strategy and capability.” The message was very clear: U.S. credibility has been dangerously tarnished, and its commitments can no longer be taken for granted. Trump’s foreign policy — one cemented in transactionalism and disengagement — has been a nightmare and has left America and the world worse off because of it.

But it’s important to remember that America’s recent retreat didn’t begin with Donald Trump but Barack Obama. It was his administration that led the ill-fated withdrawal from Iraq and stood helplessly by as Moscow moved into Crimea and Beijing into the South China Sea.  And who could forget Obama’s supposed “red line” in Syria or the terribly-flawed Iran deal? Before the eyes of the entire world, we continue to display just how weak America is — frightening our allies and emboldening our enemies in the process.

But for all the harm they’ve done, Obama and Trump have taught us something uniquely valuable. Indeed, they’ve united us in a way not thought possible after George W. Bush. And for as much as Trump talks about greatness, he and Obama have shown just that — but not in the way he ever intended or imagined. The failures of the past decade have loomed large but have proven America is an indispensable and exceptional nation — without which the liberties, peace and prosperity that have defined the post-WWII liberal world order would all but wither away.

While this rhetoric has traditionally been used in mostly conservative circles, belief that America “has a special responsibility” to lead the world has skyrocketed among Democrats, so much so that it has overtaken the percentage of Republicans who agree with this. And abroad, according to one expert, “[m]any … who once decried American overseas involvement as ‘hegemonic’ now seek greater American engagement in international affairs.” This isn’t to say everyone is applauding us, but it’s a remarkable shift — one that could’ve only arisen in a world that has understood the implications of American retreat.

But are such views of America even accurate? No question about it.

In light of human history, it’s remarkable that America created the world order it did in 1945. The fact that it, in a moment of unquestioned hegemony, would shun balance of power politics while helping to rebuild Germany and Japan is truly an anomaly, one that helped usher in the “long peace” of the past 70 years and, according to Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, “shape a world unusually conducive to the spread of democracy” and freedom. The fact that “[t]he Europeans … trusted the United States not to exploit its power at their expense” stands in stark contrast to the centuries before it, not to mention that America’s deep commitment to economic freedom and openness has enabled billions to be lifted out of poverty in a single lifetime.

All of this isn’t to paint some perfect, “America-can-do-no-wrong” caricature of our country. We’ve more often than not failed to live up to the lofty values we preach. At the same time, America’s ability to call itself out, reimagine itself and recalibrate its sights is something truly remarkable. I can’t think of another power in world history that’s overseen such an unprecedented proliferation of freedom and prosperity yet maintained America’s willingness to shine a light on its own imperfections, seeking to be a more humane and moral nation than the day before. As Kagan observed, “[t]he liberal world was far from perfect … [b]ut compared to what had come before over the previous 5,000 years, it was a revolutionary transformation of human existence.”

But as America disengages from the world, we see with it the foundations of the world order it made slowly crumbling away. That’s because, as French journalist Natalie Nougayrède put it, “[t]here is simply nothing at hand to replace or replicate America’s role in upholding key pillars of post-1945 international relations.” Once America lacks the strength or resolve to defend the order it created, “[e]veryone loses.” If America continues on its present course, we will see a continuation, even acceleration, of the slide away from democracy. Russia will be even more aggressive in intimidating Western democracies, and China’s grip on Hong Kong and Taiwan will only tighten. Absent a vigilant U.S. to hold them accountable, strongmen will be freer to commit human rights abuses at home and abroad — as seen in Yemen’s civil war and Xinjiang. Even free trade stands to be lost after America’s decline. Without a power willing to ensure open seaways, spheres of influence will slowly be carved out by regional and global powers once their interests are no longer being served by the current system, as can be seen in the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. The lesson: No one can fill the shoes of America in promoting freedom and checking the ambitions of tyrants and adversaries. We seem to forget that the American Century — not the ages before it — is the “aberration” in history. There is no “end of history.” If we care at all for the freedoms we now have, we can’t afford to continue or “manage” America’s retreat and decline.

This doesn’t mean we go back to some Theodore Roosevelt-style, gung-ho foreign policy though. As Senator Marco Rubio observed, “[f]oreign involvement has never been a binary choice between perpetual war and passive indifference.” Done correctly, operating from a position of strength doesn’t mean more conflict but rather deters it. George Kennan got it right when he wrote that a nation which “has sufficient force and makes clear [its] readiness to use it … rarely has to do so.”  

Likewise, we just as desperately need to rejuvenate U.S. soft power and diplomacy, which Trump has so recklessly dismantled. This will take years, even decades, to complete, but this — along with finally developing a clear, coherent grand strategy for the 21st century — will help develop a structure around which we can better combat threats to America and the liberal world order.

America is more than special: It is indispensable and the greatest nation on Earth. But it’s wrong for Americans to respond to this with arrogance. Just the opposite is needed: Humility in understanding the weight of our task. The past decade and the fantasies of the “peace dividend” have vividly illustrated how much America is needed today — yet we still seem so apathetic and disillusioned. Those watching what’s happening know “that the new world order is coming up for grabs.” It’s time we acted like it.

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in Political Science. Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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