Understanding America's global role in the age of Trump
April-June 2017
By: Rodger Baker

Reagan was no isolationist; he did not seek retrenchment or withdrawal from the global role of the United States. Instead, he promoted internationalism, free trade, active financial and defense support of allies, and a hands-on approach to world affairs. The Reagan administration sought through strength a greater capacity to fulfill what he saw as the US role as the leader of the West, the bringer of democracy and the guiding light to the world.

It is this broader mission that appears, at least on the surface, to be lacking in the Trump administration’s expression of peace through strength. America is exceptional, but exceptional and alone, responsible for itself but not others. The goal is to make America great, but it is unclear to what end. In part this may be the “wide swing” reaction to the perception that the Obama administration often appeared to focus on the interests, concerns or verbal preferences of others over those of the United States. In times of transition, the pendulum often swings wide before it moves back a little toward the center. Reagan’s policies were a far cry from those of his predecessor, and Barack Obama shaped himself as the antithesis of what was derided as the cowboyesque tendencies of George W Bush. In each case, though, the realities of the global system ultimately tempered at least some of the rhetorical and ideological differences, or at least their application.

Perhaps the biggest challenge currently is simply understanding just how to measure American power in the modern world. During the Cold War, the intelligence community produced so-called net assessments and National Intelligence Estimates for the president and the administration to measure the net balance between different aspects of American and Soviet power, and those of their alliance structures. These included economic, social, political and, of course, military comparisons, although the latter frequently defaulted to bean-counter comparisons of the numbers of systems rather than providing a holistic look at their overall effectiveness. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc gave rise to a clear preponderance of US economic, cultural, political and militarily power.

But that massive gap is narrowing, not necessarily due to a decline in overall American strength, but rather to the rise of regional powers – notably China and the re-emergence of Russia, but also smaller regional groupings that have been growing economically and militarily. Many worldwide argue that the United States should no longer be the default global leader, that other countries have the right to take their turn at broader international leadership, and that American ideals are not universal and so should not be asserted as such. The diffusion of global power is also creating a diffusion of global ideals. Global and domestic resistance to perceived over-globalization is strong, and the ability of the United States to assert its ideals and its right to lead the global system is increasingly challenged from without and within.

In relative strength, the United States is losing ground, particularly by measures from the beginning of the post-Cold War period. But that does not mean that any other single power will soon overtake the United States. The United States remains the single largest economy and the single most powerful military force in the world. The question is perhaps not whether the United States has strength, but how it intends to apply that strength, and whether America has a vision beyond itself.

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