GELFAND’S WORLD--Last week, the international press was aflutter with stories about German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly distancing herself from the Trump administration. This represents a new step in the loss of American prestige in the Trump era. Merkel's statement is not just an escalation. It is a whole new level of attack that represents a shift in the post WWII balance of power. It's been more than 70 years since Germany talked back to the U.S., and Trump has managed to accomplish this feat in less than six months. The New York Times foreshadowed the increasing downslope in American influence in an editorial, Allies start planning a life without America.
During the campaign, the president had been plaintively whining about the danger that the world would laugh at us. This seems to be a Trump personality issue, but the content of his remarks always seemed to refer to our country being mocked if we did not respond to provocations with extreme violence.
Trump got it right about the U.S. becoming the butt of jokes, but the analysis was only half right. The world is laughing at us right now, but it's because of him -- his dim witted approach to governance -- rather than our failure (so far) to start another major ground war.
The challenge to Trumpian hegemony goes beyond his personal idiosyncrasies. It's not just the laughter over Trump's speaking style or the eerie scene with the glowing globe in Saudi Arabia that Nordic leaders made fun of. It's the fact that some of what Trump is doing is enough of a danger to the rest of the world that it now requires a response.
Unfortunately, that response is looking like a movement, however slow, to a world that will be more like the pre-WWII balance of power than the post-WWII American century.
What's particularly disappointing is that we could have continued as the de facto leader of the world had we maintained some semblance of maturity (or even sanity) in the way we make decisions. Instead, the peckish decision to pull out of the climate treaty has obviously rattled world leaders who have a better grasp of reality, particularly the reality of climate change. Merkel's language, as quoted in the New York Times, is striking:
Combating climate change is an issue close to the chancellor’s heart, and on Thursday she saved some of her most pointed language to address her differences with the Trump administration. “Since the decision by the United States of America to quit the Paris climate accords, we are more determined than ever to make it a success,” Ms. Merkel told lawmakers.
“We will and must take on this existential challenge,” she said, “and we cannot and will not wait until every last person in the world can be convinced of climate change by scientific evidence. In other words: The climate treaty is irreversible and is not negotiable.”
The obvious question is whether the rest of the industrialized west can pull this off. I suspect that the Europeans have long since figured out that our having a six hundred billion dollar defense budget does not automatically give us total power over the rest of mankind. There are a couple of reasons why the one does not imply the other. The first is that some of these same European countries have their own nuclear weapons, and all too many other countries in Asia, the middle east, and the old Russian empire have their own. The existence of nuclear weapons leads logically to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), whether or not the old Soviet Union continues to exist.
The other reason is that -- in spite of our overwhelming advantage in carrier task forces and high tech aviation -- the U.S. is actually underpowered in the number of ground troops (particularly ground troops who are fresh and haven't been on numerous overseas deployments) compared to numerous other nations. Our failure to put an end to operations by guerrillas in middle eastern countries is the most obvious example. When it comes to east Asia, we couldn't begin to match the more aggressive powers.
We might usefully think back to the role played by the U.S. in the immediate post-WWII era. We were left to oversee a Europe in ruins, a continent that had erupted in multiple conflicts and two world wars in the space of barely 70 years. As one pundit pointed out some years ago, the United States provided adult supervision in the aftermath of the second great war. We were the mainstay of NATO during an era when war planners worried ceaselessly about the possibility of a Soviet invasion of western Europe. We kept troops in South Korea (vastly outnumbered by North Korean troops) as the so-called tripwire that would bring a full fledged American response should North Korea invade the south.
When Donald Trump started talking about NATO being obsolete and complaining about European contributions, he was not only playing into Putin's desires, he was communicating to western Europe that the postwar balance of power might become obsolete. That balance has certainly been expensive, and it is not unreasonable to think about economically successful countries such as Germany paying more for the security of western Europe and the Atlantic sea lanes. But there has been a comfortable lack of another world war in Europe since 1945. Even when local fights broke out in the Balkans, it was not 1914 or 1939 all over again. Local conflicts remained local, long enough for an eventual resolution.
With the United States now run by an unstable, mercurial person who is obviously lacking in historical sense and logical capability, the rest of the world is left to figure out what to do. The statements by the leaders of Canada and Germany indicate that the world's nations are trying to figure out how to evolve into a stable system in the absence of a powerful yet level headed U.S.
What the Republicans and their leader fail to see is that avoiding our previous responsibilities could have potentially disastrous effects on our economic well being. At one level, the preeminence of the dollar as the world's reserve currency could be lost. Americans who gain by the existence of our export industries (everyone from midwest farmers to coastal residents) will take a huge hit.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)