America, the disgraced superpower

America, the disgraced superpower
Comment: Once seen as an exceptional world power, the United States under Donald Trump's haphazard presidency will lose the international respect it commanded, writes Michael Brenner.
6 min read
14 Nov, 2016
An intemperate, uninformed president does not bode well for the US' global standing [Getty]

At this moment of unprecedented upheaval, it is striking that some things never change.

We are being subject to a tidal wave of interpretation and speculation as to what a Trump administration means for American foreign relations in regard to Russia, Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, the "pivot to Asia", trans-Atlantic ties and, of course, Mexico.

It is neither natural nor appropriate, though, to make believe that Washington is experiencing a transition of power to be approached in standard terms.

The unpalatable truth is that we have no idea as to what Trump will do or not do.

Trump's campaign remarks are the sole evidence available for indications of the direction that he will take. That is an extremely flimsy basis for forecasting actions abroad, for two reasons. First, candidates' calculated sound bites while running almost never are a reliable guide to their actions or thinking - in its rudimentary form or as it takes shape under the influence of real life conditions and the counsel of advisers.

Second, Trump's comments about foreign policy were mere points of demagoguery meant, as with everything else he said, to appeal to the primitive instincts of an aroused audience.

There is not the slightest sign that he had thought seriously about any of it. Donald Trump finds serious thinking itself an alien mental activity. Moreover, he has few experienced advisors in his entourage.

The one notable exception is the chairman of his national security advisory panel, James Woolsey, former director of the CIA. Woolsey himself is an uber-hawk whose views on all matters of consequence align with those of the neo-cons, the Cheney-like hard nationalists and Hillary Clinton - and are diametrically opposite to Trump's much publicised iconoclastic remarks.

If truth be told, the America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return

So what we will be seeing between now and the inauguration, and afterwards, is a mad scramble by a horde of aspirants for the power and access to occupy Donald Trump's mind - if they can find it.

This is the disconcerting reality. Since it provides little of substance for the habitual commentators, they are inclined to play a game of make-believe - conjuring supposedly meaningful evidence from what is a kaleidoscope of emotional outbursts and a fantasia of day dreams.

There is good reason to believe that within six months of Trump's taking office, when his administration undertakes its first half-baked measures abroad, there will be a temptation to writing about a supposed "Trump Doctrine". The premise of a return to something like "normal" will be unjustified.

If truth be told, the America we have known and imagined is ended. It never will return.

In terms of relations with others, image is of enormous importance. The US has gained great advantage from being seen as exceptional. From its earliest days, it fascinated and gave inspiration as the first working democracy, as the embodiment of the hope-filled New World, as the land of the common man and common decency.

Later, as it grew into a world power, it held the allure for many as being somehow beyond the world's pervasive tawdriness. These images held even as contradicted by slavery and racism, by imperial wars of expansion against Mexico and Spain, by signs of hypocrisy.

To vote for Trump is the ultimate act of political immaturity

America did tip the balance in favour of the right side in two world wars; it did demonstrate uncommon magnanimity in its support for German and Japanese reconstruction and democracy. Even when playing the game of power politics, it retained a measure of credibility as the one underwriter and arbitrator to whom others might resort.

The resulting "soft power" or "soft influence" has been a unique asset. Already dissipated to a high degree over the decades of the "Global War On Terror", it now is destined to fade into a shadow of its former self.

A blatantly racist, xenophobic, studiously ignorant, and belligerent country cannot retain the respect of other governments or the high regard of their peoples.

A country so feckless as to choose Trump the buffoon as its president is mocking itself. The negative impact will be compounded as the US is riven by internal conflicts of all kinds, repressive actions and perhaps another serious economic crisis.

We can expect that whoever winds up in senior policy positions in a Trump administration will downplay these intangibles - if they even acknowledge them. In this, they will be encouraged by the tradition of self-delusion that has become a feature of American thinking about its place in the world.

Think of the Middle East where just about everything that we have been doing since 2001 has been guided by a fantastic view of the region - from Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Gulf, to Turkey, to Palestine and Israel. This tendency to divorce ourselves from reality so as to perpetuate myths of American omnipotence and superiority is also witnessed at the operational level.

The negative impact will be compounded as the US is riven by internal conflicts of all kinds, repressive actions and perhaps another serious economic crisis

These self-delusional practices have prepared the psychological ground for the grand illusion to come in assuming that the America of Trump will continue to draw the world's admiration and its deference to American leadership.

The inclination to "normalise" the transition in treating Trump, his utterances and his odd-lot entourage as if they somehow could be squeezed into conventional molds is understandable.

It is a manifestation of an unwitting coping strategy for coming to terms with the shattering event of his election. Americans in general are pursuing a similar psychological strategy for the sake of preserving the conception of themselves and their country that is a foundation stone of their identity.

Hence, the impulse to minimise the singularity of this revolutionary development without precedent - not only in the US but anywhere in the democratic world. This is one instance where American "exceptionalism" is not prized.

This is a natural reaction to a brutal truth about Americans - and its dire consequences. For the choice of Trump reveals many Americans as politically immature. To vote for Trump is the ultimate act of political immaturity. There are, of course, identifiable reasons why many were drawn to the flamboyant candidate, why his demagoguery resonated, why his exaggerated imagery struck a receptive nerve.

However, for that emotional response to translate into the actual selection of this man to be president crosses a critical threshold. Children - at times - let emotion rule their conduct. Children disregard consequences. Grown-ups do not.

The combination of an intemperate, uninformed presidency and a populace that has lost its grip on the world's realities does not bode well for American foreign policy.

Michael Brenner is professor of International Affairs, Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and a fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/Johns Hopkins in Washington. He has held previous academic appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the Brookings Institution.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.