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The Empty Throne
America's Abdication of Global Leadership
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America emerged from the catastrophe of World War II convinced that global engagement and leadership were essential to prevent another global conflict and further economic devastation. That choice was not inevitable, but its success proved monumental. It brought decades of great power peace, underpinned the rise in global prosperity, and defined what it meant to be an American in the eyes of the rest of the world for generations. It was an historic achievement.
Now, America has abdicated this vital leadership role. The Empty Throne is an inside portrait of the greatest lurch in US foreign policy since the decision to retreat back into Fortress America after World War I. The whipsawing of US policy has upended all that America’s postwar leadership created-strong security alliances, free and open markets, an unquestioned commitment to democracy and human rights. Impulsive, theatrical, ill-informed, backward-looking, bullying, and reckless are the qualities that the American president brings to the table, when he shows up at all. The world has had to absorb the spectacle of an America unmaking the world it made, and the consequences will be with us for years to come.
The Empty Throne
Room 2E924 in the outermost ring of the Pentagon was packed. Better known as “the Tank,” it is one of the most secure facilities in the US government and the meeting place for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the morning of July 20, 2017, though, it hosted a special guest—the president of the United States. Gathered with Donald Trump in the small, windowless room was virtually everyone who was anyone dealing with foreign and national security policy: the vice president, cabinet secretaries, assorted White House advisers, and the chair and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were there to provide Trump with a crash course on American global leadership.1
The long-scheduled visit was on the face of things unremarkable. Many presidents had traveled to the Tank to receive briefings and show their appreciation for America’s service men and women. But Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had an ulterior motive in arranging Trump’s trip that day. They believed that six months into his presidency he still had much to learn about the world and America’s role in it. On the campaign trail he had repeatedly shown his ignorance about basic foreign policy issues, even as he castigated past administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, for what he called their catastrophic choices. Reaching the Oval Office hadn’t miraculously given him a deeper grasp of global politics or a greater appreciation for the “lousy” deals and “stupid” commitments his predecessors had made. Instead, he resisted inconvenient facts, repeated urban legends, and contested the counsel his advisers offered. Perhaps a tutorial in the Tank on how and why the United States had pursued an outsized role around the world since World War II might persuade him that it was worth continuing to do so.
Mattis set the context for the meeting at the start. “The greatest thing the ‘greatest generation’ left us,” the retired Marine four-star general said to open the briefing, “was the rules-based postwar international order.”2 The briefers then took Trump on a tour around the globe. Using maps, charts, and photos, they laid out America’s far-flung overseas commitments. They reviewed alliances and trade deals, carefully explaining what challenges and opportunities the United States faced beyond its borders. To make their brief more compelling to a president who had made his fortune in real estate and who had committed his administration to bringing jobs back home, they stressed how America’s global leadership benefitted US businesses and created jobs for Americans back home.
The student, though, eventually challenged his tutors. He wasn’t impressed with the alliances and agreements they were praising. “This is exactly what I don’t want,” he objected.3 He peppered them with questions. Why were US troops in South Korea? Why didn’t America’s free-trade agreements generate surpluses for the United States? Why didn’t Europe pay its fair share for NATO? Why shouldn’t the United States build up its nuclear stockpile? Some of the exchanges grew testy as the experts tried to persuade a president who thought he knew more than he did to adopt a worldview utterly foreign to his thinking. At several points Trump rebuked his briefers with a simple and direct rebuttal: “I don’t agree!”4
When the meeting ended after two hours, Trump praised his briefers to the reporters waiting outside the Tank. The discussion had been “great” and the people at the Pentagon “tremendous,” he said. “The job they do—absolutely incredible.”5 That didn’t mean, however, that they had dented his deep skepticism about the value of America’s military alliances and the benefits of its many trade agreements, let alone persuaded him to lead what he saw as ungrateful friends who laughed at America while stealing its jobs and wealth.
The July 20 meeting later gained fame for the pithy assessment Tillerson made of Trump’s intelligence after the president left the Tank to return to the White House. He’s a “fucking moron,” the former Eagle Scout told a few colleagues. Tillerson’s blunt assessment dominated Washington conversation when it leaked months later. But the more consequential assessment, even though it drew almost no attention, was the one Trump made in the Tank as the meeting ended: the rules-based world order that so captivated his briefers was “not working at all.”6
The overriding question for America and the rest of the world was, would Trump try to fix it or walk away from it?
“I INHERITED A mess,” Donald Trump complained repeatedly after becoming president.7 The specific challenges he faced were easy to list. North Korea was gaining the capability to hit the United States with nuclear-armed missiles. A revanchist Russia was challenging American interests in the Middle East, sowing divisions in Europe, and interfering in US domestic politics. A rising China was looking to dominate Asia and rewrite the rules of global politics in its favor. An aggressive Iran was seeking regional hegemony in the Middle East. The Islamic State controlled parts of Iraq and Syria, inspiring jihadists around the globe. The list went on.
Underlying these problems, however, was a broader, more fundamental one: the world that the United States created in the aftermath of World War II and that Mattis and his colleagues explained to Trump in the Tank that July day was fracturing. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had wisely steered the United States away from repeating the grave error it had made in turning its back on Europe after World War I. Determined to chart a different course and confronted with a new mortal adversary in the Soviet Union, they defined America’s interests globally and sought to lead other countries in creating a world that would be more conducive to US interests and values—and to countries that shared them. That world would be built on advancing collective security; opening free markets; and promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
It was a radical strategy. For millennia world politics had been driven by the logic of domination—“The strong do as they will; the weak suffer what they must,” as the ancient Greeks put it. The United States could have done the same after 1945. It stood atop the world, towering over both its vanquished enemies and weary allies. But it didn’t. It instead created a system based on the logic of cooperation—countries willing to follow America’s lead would flourish, and as they did, so too would the United States. The country would do well by putting aside narrow nationalism and promoting a broader common good. “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation,” President Dwight Eisenhower later wrote, “and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”8
The rules-based order never fully matched its founders’ aspirations. Its reach was limited to the West throughout the Cold War. Large portions of the world lived under communist domination outside the order, and even more lived uneasily between the two. Cold War divisions, moreover, limited what the United Nations and other international institutions could do. The United States at times failed to live up to its lofty rhetoric as narrow interests trumped broader ones in its foreign policy choices. Human rights were often sacrificed to political expediency. And global leadership didn’t guarantee good judgment, as the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War attested.
Yet even taking these failures into account, the American decision to lead the Free World after World War II was a historic success. Europe and Japan were rebuilt. The reach of democracy and human rights was extended. Most important, American leadership helped facilitate one of history’s great geopolitical triumphs: the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. That in turn created the opportunity to extend the benefits of the American-led order well beyond the West. Washington believed it had discovered “the secret sauce” of national success and was eager to share it. Just as important, other capitals were eager to embrace Washington’s guidance. Democracy was on the march. Global trade boomed. Hundreds of millions were lifted from abject poverty. For a moment it seemed that the world had reached the “end of history.”9
But history didn’t end. Even as the ambitions for what US foreign policy could achieve grew in the post–Cold War era and Americans became comfortable thinking of themselves as the “indispensable nation,” the world they had created was unraveling. Great-power competition once thought dead began to revive. The rapid growth in the movement of goods, money, people, and ideas across borders—globalization, as it came to be called—produced more problems and at a faster rate than national governments could handle. International institutions seemed stuck in the Cold War, unable to grapple with these new transnational challenges. The Middle East was in turmoil, populism was rising, and terrorists were striking with seeming impunity around the globe. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the optimism of a Pax Americana had given way, as Richard Haass aptly put it, to “a world in disarray.”10
This disarray had multiple causes. Countries like Russia and Iran never accepted the premises of American global leadership or the world it sought to create, and they resented what they saw as the United States treading on their interests. They preferred traditional geopolitics, where they dominated their regional spheres of interest, and sought to return to it. Meanwhile, policy makers in Washington failed to see just how quickly their recipe of market economics and open trade would generate the “rise of the rest,” as Fareed Zakaria described it, and didn’t anticipate what it would mean for American leadership.11 They hoped to get “responsible stakeholders” who would gradually take on more responsibilities while still deferring to Washington’s lead.12 They instead got countries that often preferred free riding on Washington’s efforts or championing their own ideas for improvements to the rules-based order. Finally, Washington’s own missteps and misjudgments undercut its leadership. The invasion of Iraq plunged the United States into an intractable Middle East maelstrom and sowed doubts about the wisdom of American leaders. The Great Recession of 2008–2009 threw into question Washington’s recipe for success. Free markets and open trade suddenly looked to be the road to ruin rather than the path to success.
Saddled with the bitter harvest of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, Barack Obama came to office amid a growing realization within the foreign policy establishment that American global leadership needed to be adjusted and the rules-based order put on a more sustainable footing. Obama sought the answer in encouraging allies to do more, confronting a rising China with a “pivot” to Asia, and ostracizing a belligerent Russia. Whatever the merits of that strategy, it failed to produce quick results. Obama ended his presidency knowing that the job remained unfinished. “American leadership in this world really is indispensable,” he wrote in a letter he left behind on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office for his successor. “It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.”13 It was heartfelt advice from the outgoing president. It was not advice that Donald Trump would take.
DONALD TRUMP RECOGNIZED many of the problems bedeviling America’s role in the world. He had campaigned promising to solve them. But unlike all of his predecessors since Truman, he didn’t see global leadership as the solution to what ailed America. To the contrary. He saw it as the problem. America’s alliance commitments had, in his view, required the United States to “pay billions—hundreds of billions of dollars to supporting other countries that are in theory wealthier than we are.”14 America’s trade policies had “de-industrialized America, uprooting our industry, and stripped bare towns like Detroit and Baltimore.”15 The result, as he put it in his inaugural address, was nothing less than an “American carnage.”16 Jobs had been lost, companies had closed their doors, and once-proud cities looked like ghost towns. Trump wasn’t interested in securing the cooperation of other countries. He wanted to take back what they had taken from America.
Trump’s disdain for American foreign policy had deep roots. He first aired his gripes in the 1980s, and he stuck to them over the subsequent decades, even as his positions on domestic issues seemingly changed with his moods and his audience. He put his criticisms at the core of his campaign. He vowed that “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”17 None of the three pillars of American foreign policy—security alliances; open trade; and support for democracy, human rights, and rule of law—escaped his scorn. He said he would happily tell the other members of NATO, the most successful military alliance in history, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”18 He suggested that Japan and South Korea acquire their own nuclear weapons. He denounced US trade policy, vowing to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and impose huge tariffs on China. He decried US efforts to lecture others about democracy and human rights because “we have to fix our own mess.”19
What Trump was offering was a return to a foreign policy based on the logic of competition and domination. His predecessors spoke of American leadership routinely—and glowingly. He seldom mentioned it at all, except when delivering formal speeches written by aides that smoothed his rough edges. Instead, he continually spoke of winning—and he intended to win. Foreign policy experts surveyed the world and saw friends and enemies, allies and adversaries. When Trump surveyed the world, he saw only competitors, and they were seeking to take advantage of him and the United States. He would judge them not on sentimentalities about the past but on their willingness to make deals that he liked. His comment about world leaders just days before he took the oath of office made the point. “So, I give everybody an even start,” he said. “Right now, as far as I’m concerned, everybody’s got an even start.”20 No other American president would have equated the leaders of Britain and Australia with those of China and Russia.
The disdain Trump showed on the campaign trail for American leadership alarmed foreign policy experts in both major political parties. They breathed a collective sigh of relief, however, when he started his presidency by appointing foreign policy traditionalists like Mattis, Tillerson, and—after the short, unhappy tenure of Michael Flynn as national security adviser—Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster to critical national security positions and turning to free traders like Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council, for top economics jobs. The praise for these appointments wasn’t rooted in a belief that these picks had quick and easy solutions for a world in disarray. They didn’t. Rather, the appointments were cheered because they, and the subordinates they hired, believed in the importance of American leadership—and what it could accomplish. This “axis of adults” in one telling, or “globalists” in another, would, or so the thinking went, curtail Trump’s excesses and steer him on a more conventional path.
That hope rested on two questionable premises: that presidents change their views easily and that advisers matter more than the man they are advising. Trump quickly disproved both premises. He had said what he meant and meant what he said on the campaign trail. And no amount of expert advice was going to change things. He ended US participation in TPP, withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, initially refused to endorse America’s alliance commitments, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, sought to renegotiate NAFTA, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and curried favor with Russia even as his advisers argued, sometimes publicly, that he was undermining America’s national interests and global leadership. Just as dangerous as what Trump did was how he went about doing it. He insulted allies and flattered adversaries. He routinely surprised his foreign policy team with his tweets and public statements, leaving them to clean up the diplomatic messes he had created. The president “has moved a lot of us out of our comfort zone,” as McMaster delicately put it.21 Trump, as he had said on the campaign trail, was more direct: “I alone can fix it.”22
A few of America’s friends applauded Trump’s words and deeds. Israel and Saudi Arabia saw that he was giving them what they wanted and asking for nothing in return—a deal that was too good to pass up. But most of America’s friends and allies were mystified and alarmed, even if they frequently preferred to keep their concerns private for fear of making themselves the target of Trump’s outbursts. They wondered why he directed so much of his anger at America’s friends while lavishing so much praise on its rivals. Their alarm didn’t reflect unrealistic expectations about how relations with Washington should proceed. America’s friends and allies were not strangers to epic confrontations with American presidents; American leadership had never generated unquestioned obedience. Even good friends can disagree strongly. Over the years, America’s friends and allies had done just that on numerous issues, most memorably on the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq.
This time, though, felt different. Trump’s first year and a half in office sent an unmistakable message. He had no interest in leading America’s friends and allies. He was looking to beat them. His was not a win-win world but a world of winners and losers. “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win,” he once wrote. “That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win—not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”23
Trump was comfortable abdicating American leadership because he saw no value in it—just costs. In his view, America neither had exceptional responsibilities nor was an exceptional country. Rather, it was like every other nation, and as a result, it should pursue its own narrow interests, not mutual ones. “I will always put America first,” he told world leaders gathered at the United Nations in September 2017, “just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”24 Most of America’s friends in turn rejected his claims that the cooperative policies that had served them—and the United States—well for seven decades were now a danger. When he abandoned the Paris climate agreement, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, railed against multilateral trading arrangements, and overturned a range of other long-standing US policies, they forged ahead on their own. Trump might see opting out of the rules-based order as the ticket to America’s renaissance. They, however, weren’t about to follow him there.
Trump’s retreat from global leadership was not lost on America’s enemies—or its friends. A senior Japanese foreign policy official assessing Trump’s policy in late 2017 said with sadness, “The throne is empty.”25 Long accustomed to looking to Washington for direction, Berlin, London, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, and beyond now found that Trump had no interest in leading the Free World.
DONALD TRUMP WAGERED that the United States could secure the benefits of the world it created without bearing the burdens of leading it. That bet is unlikely to pay off. The world that America created after World War II was not inevitable. It was the result of conscious policy choices made in the pursuit of a vision of how cooperation and leadership, rather than domination and competition, could benefit the United States. Consumed with the costs of that rules-based order, many of which he exaggerated, Trump couldn’t appreciate its continuing and far greater benefits. Working with friends and allies multiplied American power far more often than constrained it. As a result, Washington, more so than any other country, got to be the rule maker in international politics and, with that role, won the power to shape outcomes to its liking. By choosing to act alone rather than mobilizing others in common cause, Trump was waging war on the world America had made.26 He was also committing the very mistake he had accused his predecessors of making: taking on burdens others could have shared and squandering American power in the process.
The biggest beneficiary of Trump’s decision to turn his back on American global leadership was China. It was the one country capable of filling the leadership vacuum he had created—and it was all too eager to do so. Trump “has given China a huge gift,” a Chinese general crowed. “The U.S. is not losing leadership,” a Chinese academic observed. “You’re giving it up. You’re not even selling it.”27 When Trump denounced trade deals and imposed tariffs, Beijing positioned itself as a defender of the open trading system it had exploited for years. When Trump abandoned the Paris climate agreement, Beijing strove to become the world leader in climate-friendly technologies. When Trump slashed US foreign aid, Beijing invested heavily in its “One Belt, One Road” initiative across Asia and beyond, looking to put China at the center of the global economy. When Trump undermined multilateral institutions, Beijing moved to set up competing ones. “The world needs China,” the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party boasted in January 2018. “That creates broad strategic room for our efforts to uphold peace and development and gain an advantage.”28 China’s vision for the world will not be friendly to the United States. The longtime rule maker could become a rule taker.
Even if China’s bid for the mantle of global leadership fails, Trump’s policies undermined America’s security, prosperity, and values. By questioning America’s alliance commitments, he emboldened foes and created uncertainty in the minds of friends about whether the United States would stand with them in a crisis. As he rejected multilateral trade deals, other countries forged ahead with writing their own. As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu. Without Washington’s involvement, the agreements they wrote put American businesses and workers at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. And by attacking democratic institutions at home and praising dictators and human rights abusers abroad, he encouraged antidemocratic trends the world over.
These are the dangers that Trump’s advisers tried to warn him about in the Tank on that summer day in 2017. He wasn’t impressed—or persuaded. As he said time and again during his first eighteen months in office, he didn’t believe what the naysayers had to tell him. He was the self-described “very stable genius” who had won the presidency on his first try against long odds.29 The experts hadn’t foreseen his victory or, in his view, much else either. He didn’t need detailed analyses or lengthy briefings. Those were for the weak, the timid, the indecisive. He had his gut. “I’m a very instinctual person,” he explained, “but my instinct turns out to be right.”30 He knew less but saw more. Yet for all his talk about how he enjoyed hearing different viewpoints, as his presidency progressed, he increasingly surrounded himself with advisers who confirmed his view of himself rather than challenged it. Their role, as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro explained it in March 2018, was “to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right.” This White House, Navarro went on, was like the New England Patriots football team: “The owner, the coach, and the quarterback are all the president. The rest of us are all interchangeable parts.”31
When Trump surveyed the world in June 2018, he didn’t see himself driving America’s friends and allies away or ceding ground to China. He saw himself winning. He had in his imagination accomplished more than any other president in history. He had defeated the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even if his generals had done so largely by following the strategy developed under Obama. America’s allies were spending more on defense, even though that too reflected decisions made before he came to office. He had been feted by the Chinese and Saudis, who had reviled the weak Obama. He had pushed a “maximum pressure” strategy that had compelled “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un to meet with him in Singapore and promise to give up his nuclear arsenal. He had ended American participation in the jobs-killing Paris Agreement to combat climate change, which he had called a Chinese-created hoax. He had imposed tariffs on countries that had cheated the United States and stolen jobs from American workers. Trump saw himself doing what he had promised: making America great again. But his actions were in fact setting America on the road to a less secure and prosperous future—and, ironically for a president who insisted he was defending American sovereignty, one in which Americans would have less and not more control over their destiny.
Present at the Creation
The world was in crisis as President Franklin Roosevelt took the podium on January 6, 1941, to address a joint session of Congress. Europe had been at war for more than sixteen months. France had fallen, and Nazi Germany dominated the continent. Britain alone had held out. It had endured months of large-scale daylight bombing. Now it faced the Blitz, a terrifying nighttime bombing campaign. Britons desperately hoped for help from the United States, help that had not been forthcoming. Roosevelt wanted to change that. As Congress was gaveled to order, he had a simple goal: to persuade his fellow citizens that “the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.”1
Roosevelt faced a hard sell. For a century and a half, Americans had believed that their security rested on being faithful to the founding generation’s admonition to stand apart from Europe’s battles. They had broken with that faith only once. Twenty-four years earlier, they had marched off to fight imperial Germany in a war President Woodrow Wilson promised would make the world “safe for democracy.”2
- "A lively and authoritative account of the Trump administration's turbulent encounter with the outside world since the president took office in early 2017."—Gideon Rachman, Financial Times
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages