Does it go beyond Trump? Is America’s leadership of the world irreversibly in decline?


3It’s not just Donald Trump and his dark and isolationist vision for America. Even some of the pundits striving to see the shining city on the hill, find it swathed in mist, a fog of mis-statement, un-intention, doubt and disinclination.

How has that happened?

Fred Hiatt, editor of The Washington Post’s editorial page, identifies a cocktail of reasons for what he fears may be the irreversible decline of US leadership. The reasons include the Trumpian argument for isolationism, of course, but also President Obama’s policies of retrenchment.

Mr Hiatt argues that the “consensus” for American leadership of the world may be dissolving before our eyes, which means that “even if Trump is defeated, it’s far from clear that Clinton will be able to restore US leadership…”

He goes on to say: “History may show Obama’s retrenchment to have been one more dip in the traditional Cold War cycle between assertiveness and retreat — or the beginning of a longer turning inward that could end up making the world a far more dangerous place.”

It’s hard to argue against at least some of this. President Obama cannot, of course, be blamed for the blowback from President George W Bush’s ill-judged Iraq War. But Mr Obama has made his own mistakes too. The most glaring of these is his failure to enforce the red line he had drawn for Syria’s Bashar Al Assad. There was also the appalling failure to plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya. And there was his determination to spell out a clear withdrawal strategy and timeline for Afghanistan (which may have led the Taliban to simply hunker down and resolve to wait out the Americans).

It’s true too, as Mr Hiatt writes, that President Obama may have been unwise in assuring the American people that “it was safe to pivot to nation-building at home.” The consequences have been obvious for the past few years. Syria, points out Mr Hiatt, “descended into a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any since Rwanda (and) the president justified inaction by insisting with increasing vehemence on America’s inability to influence overseas events for the better.”

That said, it’s more debilitating by far to have a potential US president suggest that America is such “a mess” and is so incapacitated it cannot look beyond its borders. Or as Mr Trump put it late last year, in relation to Russia’s meddling in Ukraine: “Ukraine is a problem, and we should help them, but let Germany and other countries over there that are directly affected — let them work it. We’ve got enough problems in this country.”

Whether or not the age of American world leadership is ending before our eyes, a ‘President Trump’ would probably hasten it.