In comparison with Barack Obama, who was well regarded in the foreign media, Donald Trump does not come off as a good guy. He is also clearly redefining the country’s identity and global focus. The first American president since the 1920s to walk away from a role as global pooh-bah, Trump instead defines his job as helping the people who elected him.
Trump’s new nationalism, spelled out in his inauguration speech, effectively rejects both the progressive globalism of the Obama years and the conservative idealism associated with George W. Bush. In the process, Trump has managed to outrage virtually the entire foreign policy establishment, including the CIA “deep state,” and more than a few foreigners as well. Everywhere in the mainstream media, here and around the world, Trump is portrayed as a destroyer of ideals, institutions and alliances bringing, in the words of the Atlantic, “the end of the American century.”
Failure of the globalists
Yet, as Larry Summers has pointed out, there’s a reason for the rise of “populist authoritarianism.” What he calls “global elites” have been more focused on working with their foreign counterparts than helping their own middle- and working-class populations.
The old order is not working out all that well. The foreign policy establishments of both parties have ended up producing an America that is perhaps the weakest it has been since the end of the Vietnam debacle. George W. Bush launched a disastrous war in Iraq, which drained the country’s riches, bled its military and, in the end, left Iraq as a de facto Iranian vassal. For good measure, he pushed the expansion of trade in ways that accelerated the decline of many American industries, particularly in the Midwest, while helping boost China as our most formidable rival since the fall of the Soviet Union.
If, as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass has suggested, Bush did too much, Obama’s response was to do too little. By his prevarications and refusal to acknowledge the world as it is, Obama has left behind a disastrous reality. Despite engaging in several armed conflicts and increasingly lethal drone attacks, U.S. influence in the Middle East has weakened while that of Iran and Russia has soared. To be in second place to Russia — with an economy about the size of that great economic superpower, Italy — in the Middle East owed little to hacking, but much to greater skill at outmaneuvering the Obama administration’s diplomacy.
The real challenge: China
Despite the progressive hyperventilation about Russia, the real policy challenge lies with China, the only country that presents a serious economic and, ultimately, military threat. Despite Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” the U.S. position has demonstrably weakened there as well. China has shifted the rules of trade in its favor, built islands to gain control of the South China Sea, upgraded its military and won over old allies such as the Philippines. It is making huge inroads in Africa, and even in Latin America.
Now Trump’s often unfocused belligerence opens the door for Chinese President Xi Jinping to posture himself as the new enlightened global hegemon. Here’s the man who heads up the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — a country committed to building more coal plants and not halting emissions growth before 2030 — preening as the enlightened son of science. A dictator who increasingly adopts an authoritarian Maoist ideology while bolstering a crony capitalist empire, Xi has convinced some progressives that he is a great advocate of free trade, something he and his country have not embraced in the real world.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.