America: where now?
This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm.
At the end of the Cold War, America was the one undisputed superpower in the world, but it now faces number of threats domestically and internationally. The US establishment is worried by the threat of domestic disorder and terrorist outrages and a range of economic and social problems including rising inequality, the burden of health care and obsolete infrastructure. Hardening divisions along the lines of identity are evident in the rise of Black Lives Matter and the Alt-right, with tensions bursting to the fore in Charlottesville. Meanwhile on the international front, not only has America been dealing with the rise of China as an economic and potentially geopolitical power but also increasing destabilisation in wider Asia and the Middle East. And Russia is back on the world stage and routinely portrayed as a threat, both on the international stage and in domestic politics.
In the context of an already uncertain outlook, Donald Trump was elected as president having won the Republican presidential nomination by discarding nearly every ideological tenet of the modern conservative movement in America. He slammed free trade, promised to invest in infrastructure and transform healthcare, while disparaging the so-called liberal world order and shunning the idea that American foreign policy should pursue regime change and promote democracy around the world. Yet after less than a year in office, Trump has already retreated his three key ideological pillars of closed borders, economic nationalism and an interests-based foreign policy. Progress on a border wall with Mexico has stalled, Ford elected to build new car plants in China rather than the US heartlands, while Trump has attacked Syria, threatened Iran and sent new troops to Afghanistan.
All this raises questions as to what sort of worldview actually drives Trump. And where America is headed under his presidency. In stark contrast to the old vision of building a ‘city on a hill’ where an ideal society in the New World set a shining example to the Old, Trump’s nationalist revival appears angry and defensive in tone – and looks to have potentially dangerous consequences. Many might worry over North Korea’s nuclear missile tests, but as America issues ever grander threats and conducts military exercises near the Korean peninsula, is Trump becoming detached from a sense of realpolitik and a workable geo-political direction? Can the USA’s global cultural influence help it to hold off the competition of the rising powers of East Asia or are we seeing the decline of the ‘Washington Consensus’? After hurricanes hurtled through southern US states in September, what should we make of America’s rejection of the Paris climate accords? Is there a political alternative that might overcome the exhaustion and paralysis that appears to have overtaken the American system and in the face of anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim tropes, what are the prospects for America recovering a unifying and democratic character? Are we witnessing the unstoppable decay that signals the end of an era – or can America be great again?