In international relations theory, there is one standard that is commonly used to differentiate between superpowers and great powers. Superpowers intervene in the international system in order to advance systemic interests. That intervention can maintain or alter a balance of power or systemic status quo, but the point of Â the move is to tinker with the system as a whole, something that is not done out of pure self-interest but in pursuit of something bigger or long-term in nature.
For their part, great powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests. They do not have the capacity nor the desire to pursue systemic objectives outside of immediate national concerns.
Lesser powers can not make systemic changes but instead are subject to the actions of great powers and superpowers and the systemic effects of those actions.
I mention this as a prelude to a comment about the US position in the international system and Trump’s foreign policy actions to date. It has been clear for some time that the US is in decline. Once a pole in the bipolar balance of power that marked the Cold War, then the unipolar hegemon in the post-Cold War era when notions of the “American Century” and “Pax Americana” prevailed in US policy circles, the US has since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq been forced to deal with the rise of new and old powers when saddled with all of the hallmarks of domestic decline and yet remaining committed to a policy of perpetual war against non-state as well as state actors (although the form that conflict takes varies depending on the opponent and the nature of the battle space in which conflict occurs). Whereas once the US pushed liberal internationalism as a systemic virtue where international norms, regulations, law and institutions were seen as the foundations of a stable and peaceful world order, in the last decade or so the US has seen itself over-extended militarily in fruitless wars of convenience or opportunity that have eroded its international reputation and influence while its home front is rendered by decay and increased social division. Barack Obama tried to stem the adverse tide but a viciously disloyal political and media opposition undermined him at home and abroad.
No US politician can say, much less get elected or re-elected on the idea that the US is in decline and is no longer the first amongst equals in the international system. Barack Obama appeared to have understood the fact of US decline but could not admit it publicly. To this day US commentators, politicians and most of the general public believe or at least pay lip serve to the notion that the US remains an exceptional country, as the so-called “shining house on the hill” to which all other nations look for leadership as well as its role as the world policeman. They talk about defending freedom and American values as if those truly are the basis for US military interventions abroad and an increasingly coercive approach to ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural differences at home.
Enter Donald Trump, but with a twist. Trump also genuflects at the alter of American Exceptionalism. But his “America First” message, with its neo-islolationist, nationalist, monocultural and xenophobic undertones, is actually a tacit admission that the US is in decline. That is interesting because Trump was anything but tacit on the campaign trail when lamenting the state of the Union. Now, as president, he changed his tune and behaves as if the US as a nation-state is equivalent to himself in that it can buy, bully or negotiate its way to getting whatever it wants from others. That is where he is wrong, and his actions demonstrate otherwise.
By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Paris Climate Accords, refusing to endorse NATO’s notion of collective defense, demanding that other nations pay more for US “protection” (as if it was a Mafia racket), deriding international institutions and regional organisations, rejecting international law (such as those prohibiting the use of torture), threatening firms with retaliatory penalties if they do not invest more in the US and dismantling years of cross-border environmental and corporate regulatory frameworks in the supposed interest of creating US jobs, Trump has tacitly admitted that the US is no longer a super power that can manage the international system in its preferred image and in fact can no longer do anything more than what a great power in decline can do–pursue its interests at the expense of all others in order to try and arrest the slide.
It is too late for that. As one meme put it, “Trump is cancelling Netflix so that he can give more jobs to Blockbuster.” The decline of the US is not just a reversible economic phenomenon. It is ideological, political, moral and ethical in scope. It is institutional as well as material in nature. The very character of the US is in crisis, where a history of idealism and virtue has met its match in a culture of excess, greed and venality. Solidarity and an egalitarian ethos have given way to opportunism and survivalist alienation.
The US decline is also a product of advancing technologies in an age of globalised production, communications, consumption and exchange. It exists in a context where other nations no longer look to the US first for support on many fronts, and in which competitors have grasped the fact of American decline and moved to capitalise on it. It may not be exactly Rome before the Fall, but the US is in many ways starting to resemble the USSR in decline–all military muscle but with no heart, dead eyes and a silly orange comb over.
The good news for the US is that it can work well as a great power if it understands that is what it has become. The Bush 43 administration tried to reassert US supremacy with its foreign adventurism and only succeeded in accelerating its (albeit unrecognised) decline. Now that its diminution is in full sway, the US needs to address its internal contradictions, something that perhaps requires a (however temporary) retreat from systemic tinkering and intervention. This could be a good thing because international systems theory posits that unipolar systems are inherently unstable whereas multipolar systems with 3, 5 or 7 great powers balancing each other on specific strategic issues and geopolitical fronts are more stable over the long term. With the US backing away from international commitments and systemic engagement, it may be a moment for other great power aspirants to fully shine. Theoretically, that could work out for the better.
Practically speaking and whether it works out for the better or not, multipolarity is the where the international system is headed. The current moment is one of international systemic transition, and the fact is that conflict is the systems re-equilibrator under conditions of semi- or restricted anarchy (in which adherence to some international institutions and norms is paralleled by non-adhernce or respect for others). Absent uniform and effective enforcement authority, states decide which norms to follow and which to violate until such a time a new consensus is achieved on the contours and rules of the emerging international system. When universal norms are not uniformly followed, that is when conflicts occur. We are in such a moment.
Admit it or not, under Trump the US is at this transitional moment retreating into its shell and away from its superpower pretensions. For rising and resurgent powers, this is a window of opportunity that can lead to systemic realignment. And at least for the time being, forÂ many around the world having the US out of their lives is not a bad thing.
One thing is certain: the decline of the US as a superpower may not be acknowledged but it is real.