President Trump’s speech on Tuesday at the United Nations was an intelligent — at times eloquent — presentation of his “America First” worldview. He laid out an approach of pursuing narrow self-interest over broader global ones and privileging unilateral action over multilateral cooperation. But Trump might not recognize that as he withdraws America from these global arenas, the rest of the world is moving on without Washington. Wittingly or not, Trump seems to be hastening the arrival of a post-American world.
Take one of his first major actions, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping trade deal conceived during the George W. Bush administration and negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration. It was an attempt to open long-closed markets such as Japan and also to create a grouping that could stand up to China’s growing muscle in trade matters.
The other 11 TPP countries decided to keep the deal minus Washington, which simply means the United States will not gain access to those markets. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while sweet-talking Trump, also quickly struck a free-trade agreement with the European Union, creating one of the largest economic markets in the world and giving opportunities to Europe that might otherwise have gone to the United States.
As Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay point out in a forthcoming book, “The Empty Throne,” if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. When Washington steps away, the global agenda is shaped without U.S. input. So withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council simply means that American diplomats will watch the group’s routine condemnations of Israel from the sidelines while having less ability to bring moral pressure to bear on despots everywhere.
The Trump administration’s constant attacks on the World Trade Organization, an American idea, have left the field wide open and China is eagerly jumping in to shape the rules and conventions that will govern global trade. When Trump cuts funding for various international agencies, he is playing right into the hands of Beijing, which has long sought greater influence in these bodies. China will happily pick up the tab and accept new posts, along with the status and clout they bring. Similarly, the bizarre and continued absence of key American diplomats — no assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and South Asia; no ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and South Africa, among others — means that American interests are not represented.
Perhaps the most remarkable new effort to sidestep America has come from the Europeans, in reaction to Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear pact and re-impose financial sanctions on Iran and anyone who does business with it. Because of the immense global strength of the dollar, few major companies are willing to engage commercially with Iran — since dollars are the most commonly used currency for international transactions. This has infuriated the Europeans, who believe they should have the ability to do business with anyone they want.
They are therefore trying to create an economic mechanism that can bypass the dollar. As E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told me this week, “We cannot accept, as Europeans, that others — even our closest allies and friends — determine and decide with whom we can make business with or trade.” She indicated that others — presumably the Russians and Chinese — might join this effort. Were the European Union efforts to come to fruition, they would put a dent in the most significant element of American financial power — the unrivaled role of the dollar in the global economy.
The truth is, the European effort is unlikely to succeed. The dollar’s clout has actually increased in recent years as a globalized international system has needed a common currency. The euro’s future remains in doubt, China’s yuan isn’t even convertible, Japan’s yen represents a country in deep demographic decline. And yet, it seems foolish for the United States to pursue policies that produce the desire to curtail American power, bypass Washington and create new arrangements — especially among America’s closest allies. It’s one thing for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to try to usher in a post-American world. It’s another for Europe to take the lead in doing so.
The result of America’s abdication will not be European or Chinese dominance. It will be — in the long run — greater disorder, the erosion of global rules and norms, and a more unpredictable, unstable world with fewer opportunities for people to buy, sell and invest around the globe.
In other words, it means a less peaceful and prosperous world — one in which American influence will be greatly diminished. How does this make America great?