The question in the title assumes, of course, that, like me, readers might believe that America has, somehow, fallen or been displaced and needs restoration … some readers, some of whom are my friends, I presume, actually think that America is being restored, to greatness, right now, under President Donald Trump. Some of us beg to differ.
First: restored to what?
I believe that any fair reading of history says that America reached the apex of its power in the mid 1950s. Yes, there was a serious and dangerous Cold War going on, yes, the Korean War had not gone as well as hoped, yes there was real strategic competition from the USSR … but Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had practiced containment and Ike had set America on to a strategic path that led to unprecedented peace and prosperity that no competitor, especially not the Russians could ever hope to match.
Some will argue that the peak of power came circa 1991 when the Berlin Wall fell and there was, for a brief period a moment when America seemed unchallenged and unchallengeable anywhere on the globe or in space for that matter. But I think that brief period of what the French called hyperpuissance américaine, was an illusion, rather like the last bright flame before a spent candle sputters and dies.
I don’t mean to say that America is in any danger of dying or even of losing its status as a global super-power, but it is, no longer, the dominant ‘great power,’ the leader in almost everything, as it was from, say, about 1940 until, perhaps, the 1960s. I think the ‘Greatness‘ that Donald J Trump wants to restore is not so much the absolute power of 1990s America but, rather, the sense, amongst Americans and, indeed, amongst most people in the world, in the 1950s, that America was the “best” at almost everything: it produced great products ~ washing machines and automobiles, jet aircraft and high quality fountain pens; it gave the world great art and entertainment ~ Samuel Barber and Jackson Pollock, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis, too; it produced eminent thinkers and scholars ~ philosophers, scientists and engineers; it was a hotbed of creativity ~ which reflected the ‘freedom’ that lies at the hear of America ~ in every field.
It, the 1950s, was the epitome of soft power. America didn’t need to put troops or send drones everywhere in the world ~ the enormous ‘force‘ of American ideas and creativity, of good old Yankee know-how and of firmly held moral principles made America ‘Great.’
What went wrong?
I think it began, as early as the 1960s, with something akin to imperial overreach. My sense is that Paul Kennedy was right and imperial overreach is “the overextension either geographically, economically, or militarily that inevitably leads to the exhaustion of vital domestic resources, decline, and fall.” I believe that both Truman and Eisenhower understood that American power was never unlimited; Roosevelt had extended it to an enormous extent in the early 1940s but that could not be sustained, again, unless there was a similar threat to America’s interests. Most of the threats to America’s interests were not of any similar nature … the USSR wanted to pose such a threat but it was never able to muster the combination of resources and educated people and national will that was necessary. The expansion of Sino-Soviet backed communist regimes in Africa, Asia and Europe also did not pose the ‘necessary’ threat. But, it seems to me, that Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama never quite grasped that. Richard M Nixon may have been the only one who understood that a Great America was one that could, almost always, be #1 in anything but chose, instead, to just ‘get along’ with its neighbours and trading partners, rather than insisting on trying to dominate them, and chose, also, to end wars, not start them and to reach out to competitors rather than to try to hammer them into submission. I think that Donald Trump gets one part of the Truman-Eisenhower-Nixon thing but fails to get most of it. His urge is to dominate; Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon wanted to win, of course, but always at the lowest possible cost, to everyone … they took the long view and knew that enemies could be turned into friends and even allies.
It may be that Donald Trump’s strategic aim of slowing, constraining, containing or even halting China’s rise is the correct one, for America, even in the long term. But I do not see how he is going to be able to do that without allies. He has managed to alienate damned near every country in the world, except, perhaps, North Korea; he routinely insults other leaders and denigrates other nation’s achievements … and it’s not clear, not me at least, why he would want to do that: America may not actually ‘need‘ Australia, Britain, Canada or Denmark, but it’s hard for me to see what they would not want them to be onside.
I’m not suggesting that appeasement, à la Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and, indeed, Barack Obama, is the correct course of action; powers, great and small, including Canada, should always aim to deter, never to appease. In that respect President Trump is correct. But deterrence works best, as Truman and Eisenhower demonstrated, when it is done by a grand alliance … the sort that America built in the 1950s to deter Sino-Soviet aggressive communism: CENTO, NATO and SEATO. President Trump is quite correct to say that NATO allies, in particular, including, perhaps especially Canada, are freeloading, not coming anywhere near doing their fair share in preserving the free world, but the correct course of action is to persuade, not to insult. Maybe those who say that the key lies in his book, ‘The Art of The Deal‘ in which he suggests that one should open strongly, forcefully and then make a deal … but he’s taken refuge in bankruptcy court six times, so I’m skeptical about his skills as a negotiator.
In my opinion, since President Obama abandoned deterrence and was, de facto, an appeaser, the strategic imperative for President Trump should be to restore deterrence against both China and Russia, but, instead, he seems to be ignoring deterrence and is, instead, trying to bully absolutely everyone at the same time … often for no good reason except, perhaps his own, personal vanity.
How to restore deterrence?
I think that there are two imperatives for America:
- Identify those countries that need to be deterred ~ it is certainly China (and its nuclear armed North Korean and Pakistani puppets) and Russia and probably Iran, too, but it is also radical Islam, including e.g. Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS. We (they) do not need to deter e.g. Syria or Cuba;
- Identify core allies ~ they include Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark and the list goes on and it certainly includes Israel. NATO is a key US led alliance, but it should not be the only one and not every NATO nation is, I suspect, a fully trusted partner. I think that when you say someone is an ally then you are obliged to treat them with some modicum of respect … it seems to me that president Trump disagrees.
America must, first, understand its own strategic vital interests and explain them to its own people; America must understand its enemies and its friends, and they, too, must be made clear to the people of America and the world; then it must warn those being deterred that they are not friends and that America does intend to foil at least some of their ambitions. It must also warn allies that they are expected to shoulder a full and fair share of the deterrence efforts … or risk being expelled from the alliance and left out in the cold.
That, of course, is not a programme that Donald J Trump will implement so, in my view, America cannot be restored and can never be Great until Donald J Trump is removed from power. But I recognize the removing President Trump will not end gthe social forces that brought him to power. In the interim, countries like Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark, and, of course, Germany, Japan the Philippines and Singapore, too, must take up the slack. They, even Singapore, which according to the World Bank, spends a higher share of its GDP on defence than does the USA, must increase their defence budgets and revitalize their armed forces and prepare themselves to make peace, around the world, when required, including over the objections of Russia, China and even America. They must renew their diplomacy, too, to try to prevent conflicts and resolve disputes without resorting to force. They must form new trade blocks that based on equal, fair rules. All these actions must leave room for America to return, even to lead, when it comes to its collective senses, again.