Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. empire has stood alone as a global superpower. The country has maintained over 800 military bases throughout the world, initiated wars on nearly every continent and generated the world’s most sought-after currency. The U.S. has also attracted an array of international students, allocated large amounts of funding for global aid and won people across the world to its liberal democratic tenets.
But now, we are witnessing the beginning of America’s global decline. And while President Trump campaigned on reversing American decline, he is, in fact, speeding it along.
Since coming to power, the Trump administration has watered down U.S. economic and ideological strength while also working to overextend its military might, as Trump pursues bellicose policies, albeit coupled with an increased defense budget.
These endeavors will ultimately reduce U.S. power by ceding space to other burgeoning powers, particularly China and Russia, illustrating that when it comes to global power, a mighty military is not enough to maintain an empire.
In rolling back U.S. standing in the world, Trump is unmaking a much bigger, more contentious project: the U.S. empire.
American imperialism dates to the nation’s earliest days as the country sought to extend its boundaries by violently removing Native Americans and claiming lands throughout the continent. At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. began to pursue an empire outside the continental mainland, in places such as Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
At the time, however, it was European empires that dominated global affairs. But this changed during and after World War II. The war devastated these once dominant nations, destroying their manufacturing capabilities. This fatally undermined their economic hegemony at the same moment when their colonial power was also finally dismantled by nationalist uprisings in places such as Algeria and India that succeeded in achieving independence.
Amid the destruction, the U.S. filled the void as the world’s commanding superpower. Its portion of global GDP swelled to 35 percent as its manufacturers supplied the world with finished products. The U.S. likewise took over former European military bases stationed throughout the world. Several pillars of power, including its ideology, economy and military, provided the U.S. with the ability to shape the world order.
And although the U.S. did not systematically pursue colonial efforts in the postwar period, it often flexed its muscle in alternative ways that perpetuated its global power. For example, the U.S. has supported an array of authoritarian dictators in places such as Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia, engaged in covert action to undermine recalcitrant leaders in places such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, leveraged international financial institutions to promote its preferred economic policies and continually engaged in military warfare.
The Trump presidency, however, has brought this more-than-a-half-century project of the United States projecting military and economic strength around the world to a screeching halt — demonstrating just how contingent American power truly is. History shows us that global empires are never completely invincible; poor decisions by political leaders have often weakened them to the point of collapse.
Likewise, the Trump administration seems determined to erode U.S. global influence on a number of axes, threatening just this sort of imperial standing.
Nowhere is this more true than on the ideological front. Global polling shows just how much the international community rejects Trump and his “America First” foreign policy approach. According to a Pew poll, only in two countries does Trump enjoy higher favorability ratings than his predecessor Barack Obama: Russia and Israel. Elsewhere, Trump has witnessed precipitous declines: 83 points in Sweden, 75 points in Germany and 71 points in South Korea, to name just a few examples.
This is due in no small part to the fact that Trump has shown very little interest in maintaining and supporting the institutions that the global community has come together to support, such as the United Nations and its agencies (such as UNESCO), and the Organization of American States. And he has received widespread international condemnation for his objection to an array of agreements and international bodies like the Paris climate change accord, maneuvers out of lockstep with the world.
The U.S. empire has also long relied upon foreign aid and diplomatic efforts to maintain its imperial standing. And Trump is seemingly, and perhaps unknowingly, determined to dismantle these tools as well. Substantial amounts of American aid have flowed to fight AIDS, combat poverty, fund human rights groups and promote liberal democracy. The Trump administration, however, has cut the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, among other agencies and programs involved with global engagement.
The Department of State, for its part, is also undergoing its own implosion.
Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson downsized his agency to the maximum extent possible. Morale within the department has seemed to hit rock bottom, with dozens of career diplomats resigning, many in open protest of the new administration. What’s more, dozens of U.S. embassies continue to lack ambassadors, including those in Germany and South Korea, and five of six under secretary of state positions remain unfilled. These dynamics seriously limit U.S. diplomatic capacity and may only exacerbate existing conflicts.
Nor are things different in the economic realm, where Trump ran on his business acumen. Yet he is seemingly intent on ceding global economic ground to China and, to a lesser extent, Russia and other regional powers. While the U.S. retreats from international trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership and pursues protectionist measures, perhaps inciting a trade war, China is increasingly integrating more countries and regions into its One Belt, One Road initiative.
China has sponsored development projects throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, while also gaining access to coveted natural resources. In Africa, China has built dams in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, transit rails in Ethiopia and Kenya and theaters in Ghana and Senegal. Some fear that this reliance on Chinese funding will result in democratic declines, as countries rely much less on U.S. funding that often comes with political strings attached. Either way, as Trump decimates the USAID and State Department budgets, we can be assured that nations throughout the world will more readily look to China for economic support.
Some hegemonic features will, of course, remain under Trump, particularly U.S. military capabilities. Congress recently greenlighted a nearly $700 billion defense budget, and, with the recent additions of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to Trump’s foreign policy team, many have begun to suspect that U.S. military aggression may be just around the corner.
But military might cannot cover for these other weaknesses. Without the tools of “soft power” to influence countries throughout the globe, the U.S. will diminish its capacity for global leadership. And it is creating a vacuum that will be filled by countries such as China, Iran, Russia — whose values are often the antithesis of ours. Which makes clear the great irony of the Trump era: Those who claim to “make America great again” are the same individuals who might unwittingly generate its global decline.