Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make American great again.” Yet, the message behind this motto, which is now on the official website of his transition team, and his many other campaign rhetoric, antics and tactics are not American and what makes this country “great.”
If they are translated into policies, instead of “making America great again,” they will diminish it and end the Pax Americana — a liberal international order America has shaped and led since the end of the World War II.
Foundations of American dominance
America’s decline has long been predicted. But, such a declinism has been exaggerated, if not, misplaced as this country has defied all the predictions and challenges to remain the world’s sole superpower.
Both China — the world’s rising superpower and America’s main challenger — and Russia are yet to match America in key areas — ranging from economy, military and diplomacy, through freedom, democracy and transparency, to science, technology and education.
For instance, according to the International Monetary Fund, America’s GDP (nominal) this year is $18,561 billion (24.7 of global output) while that of China is $11,392 billion (15.1%) and that of Russia is just one,268 billion (1.7%).
China, the world’s most populous country, has surpassed the US in terms of purchasing power parity (GDP PPP). Yet, the gap in GDP PPP per capita between the two countries — $56,084 in the US and $14,340 in China in 2015 — remains immense.
America remains far ahead of China and Russia, not only in terms of economic and military capabilities but also in terms of soft power. Its global image is more positive than that of China and Russia.
The emergence of the likes of Facebook and YouTube is an obvious example of America’s cultural and technological dominance.
Above all, like it or not, the US still stands at the apex of the post-1945 liberal international order, with a formidable network of alliances and an unmatched global reach. China and Russia are yet able — if not at all — to build such an influential order.
There are at least three factors or pillars that have enabled America to become the world’s superpower and the architect and leader of the global liberal economic and political order during the past seven decades.
First, America embraces a set of core values — including respect for liberty, freedom, equality, diversity, individual rights, democracy (e.g. peaceful transition of power), justice, rule of law and checks and balances.
These fundamental and constitutional principles unite and govern the American society. Its government also seeks to promote them abroad. It is seen as the leader of the free world because of its respect and promotion of these values.
Second, America has long championed open economic policies. Open trade has been central to this.
Free trade is always controversial in America as well as in other countries as they do not benefit all people. Yet, overall, its pros are always bigger than its cons. America has become prosperous and powerful in the post-war era because it has strongly advocated open trade.
Trade pacts between nations have other noncommercial benefits and implications. For America, they enable it to strengthen its global influence not only in economic and commercial areas but also in political, strategic and security spheres.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a such agreement. As well as allowing the US to play a central role in shaping the trading rules and other related regulations in the Asia-Pacific region, the TPP would also cement American ties with its key allies and partners in a vital and dynamic region, seen “as a growth driver and anchor of stability of the global economy.”
Third, the US has become a superpower, with a far-reaching global influence because it has been able to establish and lead a network of alliances and partners. NATO is a chief among these. For the last seven decades, this 67-year alliance, which has embodied the concept of “the West” itself, has been central the Pax Americana.
Now in great danger
With the rise of Donald Trump, a populist leader, which is itself seen as a sign of American weakness, the US’s hegemony and its Pax Americana are at risk as the pillars on which America dominance and its America-centric international order have been anchored are greatly weakened.
Judging by his outlandish rhetoric and behavior exposed during the campaign, Trump is opposed to many core values that American stands for and that make it a “great” country.
As underlined by some of America’s mainstream media, he is seen as a bigot and a racist, with a xenophobic view of immigrants, minorities and women. Such a view goes against America’s fundamental values and principles, e.g. freedom (of religion) and equality (of opportunities).
His other claims, such as that America’s voting system was “rigged” and that he would not accept election results if he lost or his “I, alone, can fix it” hubris also show he disdains democracy and thinks and acts as a despot.
That nationalist politicians, autocratic regimes and strongman leaders — rather than democratic governments, human rights campaigners and oppressed people — around the globe that have rejoiced at Mr. Trump’s election is an example of why America is no longer seen as the promoter and defender of liberal, democratic values.
Trump’s protectionism, or more exactly his trade war posture, will potentially damage America’s economy and its global role.
Given its huge trade deficit with some countries, notably China, it is necessary for America to undertake measures to balance trade and address the concerns and frustrations of American voters, especially those are left behind by globalization and free trade. However, protectionism is not the solution to the challenges it is facing.
Some economists have already predicted that Trump’s protectionist policies will potentially slow down America’s economic growth. Ironically, if any economic downturn happens, its first victims are the working people who apparently supported his protectionism and whom he pledged to protect.
Though it is not a perfect deal (like any FTA), it is widely believed that the TPP would significantly benefit America — economically and especially geopolitically. This trade deal, seen as a central plank of President Barack Obama’s Asia pivot and signed by its twelve members last year, was in coma for the last several months. Its supporters had a faint hope that it could be revived if Hillary Clinton won. However, following Trump’s triumph, it is now likely a matter of when, rather whether, it will be pronounced dead.
Its death will provide China, America’s main geopolitical rival, with a great opportunity to take the lead in shaping the region’s trading rules. China, which is excluded from the Pacific Rim deal, has now stepped up efforts to promote its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
If the TPP is dead, so is America’s Asia rebalancing strategy. Trump’s lack of engagement or withdrawal in the Asia-Pacific region will embolden China to expand its regional dominance at America’s expense. Beijing can also be more assertive and aggressive in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important commercial sea lanes, if America ignores this vital region.
Besides vowing to abandon the TPP and the Obama administration’s Asia pivot, Trump has also questioned America’s military commitments to its regional staunch allies, Japan and South Korea.
In Europe, by calling NATO “obsolete” and cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has attempted to weaken or even destroy this trans-Atlantic alliance, Trump risks tearing NATO apart. If this 67-year alliance collapses, the whole Pax Americana will fall.
It seems that the President-elect has softened some of his rhetoric and pledges made during the campaign. Whether he will make other changes in tone after his inauguration early next year remains unclear.
Yet, if he continues his “America First” policy, which is a very nativist, protectionist and isolationist outlook and which disregards America’s fundamental values and traditional alliances as he pledged during the campaign, America will never be “great again.”
No matter how powerful it is, economically or militarily, a nation will never become the world’s leader if it is not able to establish and maintain a wide network of allies and partners that respect and adhere to its values and principles and think its leadership is indispensable.
China has used its economic clout to attract — for some observers, to buy — allegiance from regional countries. However, it is not yet able to forge strong alliances and trustworthy partnerships such as those that the US has long established with many regional countries.
The Trump administration should cherish his country’s values, principles, alliances and partnerships, rather than overlook them because they are America’s greatest assets that make it respectful and powerful in the world.