Donald Trump’s call to place “America first” as he declared in his inaugural speech is propelling him
into direct conflict with his campaign slogan to “Make America great again.” Already in his first week in office he has undertaken a series of actions that do more to weaken rather than strengthen the United States.
It was Time publisher Henry Luce who proclaimed in a 1941 Life Magazine editorial that the twentieth century would be the “American Century.” And to a large extent it became so after World War II and then clearly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. In the former case the USA emerged from WW II as the strongest country in the world, in the latter, it was ,as Francis Fukuyama declared in The End of History and the Last Man, because of its dominance as the last standing superpower in the world that had won the Cold War and the battle for ideological ideas.
America’s strength was not just measured by military might but also by being the richest and largest economy in the world. America’s power was also measured by it cultural exporting of its values, it role as the leader of the free world, the leading democracy, and moral leader of the world. Its willingness to engage in alliances, trade, and political adventures across the world gave it what historian Paul Kennedy in the Rise and Fall of Great Powers the soft power to be great. To be a world leader the USA had to be hegemonic, and it was.
But the worlds of 1946, 1989, or 1991 are far different than the one that exists today. The political world is not bi or monopolar but multipolar. The EU has a larger GDP and economy than the US, as does China. Whether anyone likes it or not, the global economy is global as Thomas Friedman pointed to in The World is Flat, with a degree of global interconnectedness that in many ways is impossible to reverse. And the USA is no longer the best educated, most technologically advanced, or singularly-dominant country in the world. The USA is a first nation among rivals and friends, and America’s ability to remain a leader resides in adapting to a changing world and continuing to engage with others.
This is what Trump fails to understand. Whatever “Making America Great Again” means it is impossible and perhaps undesirable to turn the clock back to some halcyon days of old the US dominated the world, when White guys worked in union scale manufacturing and mining jobs that built cars, steel, and dug coal, and women stayed home and dressed in heels and skirts like Donna Reed while raising 2.3 children. That world does not exist anymore and no matter what one does, it is not coming back. The same is true internationally, especially if Trump continues along the path he has already taken.