In February 1998, Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, went on NBC’s The Today Show to defend America’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Iraq. “Let me say that we are doing everything possible so that American men and women in uniform do not have to go out there again,” she said. “It is the threat of the use of force and our line-up there that is going to put force behind the diplomacy. But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
“Indispensable nation” was a brand-new phrase then, though not of Albright’s invention. Presidential fixer Sidney Blumenthal claims to have suggested it to her, after coining it with historian James Chase “to describe the concept of the United States as the guarantor of stability as the sole superpower within the framework of multinational institutions.”
The phrase went on to become a bipartisan political cliche, and took on new salience in light of Donald Trump’s isolationist, “America First” campaign. Hillary Clinton said in August that “we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us, and follow our lead.” President Barack Obama, days before the election, told HBO’s Bill Maher, “We really are the indispensable nation.... America is not just a great nation in the sense that it’s powerful, but that our values and ideals actually matter.”
Trump’s victory, consequently, was seen as potentially the end of America’s indispensability. In a post-election Financial Times column titled “Trump marks the end of America as world’s ‘indispensable nation,’” historian Robert Kagan feared “a return to national solipsism, with a much narrower definition of American interests and a reluctance to act in the world except to protect those narrow interests. To put it another way, America may once again start behaving like a normal nation.”
That prediction loses credence by the day, as Trump’s diplomatic moves as president have been anything but normal. And yet, Kagan’s headline remains no less accurate because Trump’s bizarro foreign policy is accomplishing what many thought his isolationist platform would do: make America dispensable again.
“The Syria strike, that Strangelovian bomb in Afghanistan almost no one even knew the Pentagon had, a flashpoint in Northeast Asia, and, as of late Wednesday, Secretary of State Tillerson’s uninhibited attack on Iran and the accord governing its nuclear program: This is not a collection of one-offs. This is not the indispensable nation rushing to put out the world’s flash fires,” Patrick Lawrence wrote last month at The Nation. “This is the ever-less-welcome nation lighting them, fair to say.” Other writers have gone so far as to anoint new “indispensable” nations, such as Germany and China.
Trump has ushered in a new era of American hegemony, one in which the hegemon is adrift, mercurial, and utterly irresponsible. Without a firm American hand at the wheel, the liberal international order will crumble and the world will descend into regional conflict—and, eventually, a global one. Or so says the “indispensable nation” theory. But what if a diminished America is a positive development for the world? What might countries accomplish when they can’t rely on anyone else?
Some argue that America was never an indispensable nation, that the concept itself is a myth. “If you consider everything encompassing global affairs—from state-to-state diplomatic relations, to growing cross-border flows of goods, money, people, and data—there are actually very few activities where America’s role is truly indispensable,” Micah Zenko wrote in Foreign Policy in 2014. He cited myriad foreign policy failures, from the persistent atrocities in Syria to the Nigerian schoolgirls still held by Boko Haram, before eventually concluding:
The reason that the United States is not the indispensable nation is simple: the human and financial costs, the tremendous risks, and degree of political commitment required to do so are thankfully lacking in Washington. Moreover, the structure and dynamics of the international system would reject or resist it, as it does in so many ways that frustrate the United States from achieving its foreign policy objectives. The United States can be truly indispensable in a few discrete domains, such as for military operations, which as pointed out above has proven disastrous recently. But overall there is no indispensable nation now, nor has there been in modern history.
The appeal of the “indispensable nation” theory to American politicians is easy to understand. It neatly—and arrogantly—encapsulates the core belief that elites of both parties have shared ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor: that America is the cornerstone for global capitalism, the linchpin holding together every nation committed to free trade, collective security, and international law.
Let us accept that while the indispensability of America is often overstated, there’s no question that many countries count on the U.S. for all sorts of reasons—military, economic, humanitarian, and otherwise. That assistance, as Zenko noted, is not always productive in the end, but no nation is more interconnected with the rest of the world than America is. That alone creates a sort of indispensability.
No matter: The world is about to discover whether the U.S. is indeed indispensable. Whether Trump fully implements his “America First” foreign policy vision, or continues to be unpredictable and unstable in ways that worry America’s closest allies, he represents a test to this longstanding international system. As Foreign Policy
reported in February, “The president of the European Commission, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk ... said that Washington is ‘seeming to put into question’ 70 years of American policy, placing the United States alongside Russia, China and terrorism as a source of instability for Europe.”
The so-called “axis of adults” who are supposed to check Trump’s isolationist tendencies (establishment stalwarts like Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H. R. McMaster) might be pushing back against Trump’s erratic and isolationist impulses, but this only makes America’s foreign policy intentions murkier and harder to rely on. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake provided a vivid example of this last week:
Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president’s threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.
Reading a report like this, South Koreans officials would be hard pressed to know if they should trust McMaster’s reassurances, or expect Trump to act on his professed agenda.
But the chaos of Trump’s foreign policy might well be an opportunity for the rest of the world. We’re far removed from Nazism and Stalinism, when the U.S. provided a clear-cut leadership role that no other nation could. Many of today’s international problems require regional cooperation, which could easily be taken up by local alliances without America’s aid.
In January, after Trump called NATO “obsolete,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands.” Trump’s isolationism, and the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union, is proving Merkel’s words true. “U.S. allies are resigning themselves to the likelihood that Trump’s administration will remain unpredictable and often incoherent, if not downright hostile, in its foreign policy,” noted the Foreign Policy report. “And they are beginning to draw up contingency plans to protect their interests on trade and security, as they adapt to a world where strong American leadership is no longer assured.”
Trump’s unreliability is likely to increase the ongoing push for European military integration, which would create a formidable force that could work independently of the U.S. to face challenges like Russian aggression. A more independent Europe could also take a stronger role in the Middle East—not just taking in refugees, as it does now, but using military and diplomatic force to solve the region’s problems. A more active European involvement in the Israel/Palestine negotiations could be a boon, since the Europeans, seen as more sympathetic to the Palestinians, could provide a counterweight to America’s pro-Israel policy. This might help break a stalemate that has lasted decades. At worst, it can’t be less productive than the status quo.
The same logic applies in other regions of the world, where promising new alliances are emerging as a response to Trump’s foreign policy. Earlier this month, in an implicit rebuke of Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, the finance ministers of China, South Korea, and Japan signed a statement stating, “We will resist all forms of protectionism.” Historically, these three countries have been rivals, but here we see the seeds of a new alliance system. South Korea has been the victim of both Chinese and Japanese colonialism in the past, but in the new era they might find their Asian neighbors more trustworthy in dealing with North Korea than Trump’s America. Japan, for its part, now has an incentive to overcome its own isolationism, rooted in its defeat in World War II, and become a regional power.
A more isolationist America could also be a boon to Africa. The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama brought a regrettable militarization of American policy towards Africa, with the creation of the United States Africa Command in 2008. Under the sway of AFRICOM, the continent has become the newest theater for America’s counterterrorism policy, to the determent of development aid. If African nations learn to distrust U.S. intervention under Trump, they won’t become dependent on American military spending via AFRICOM and end up with the top-heavy armies found in other U.S. satrapies.
Latin America offers a model for what a post-American world might look like. “After 9/11, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America,” the journal Foreign Affairs lamented in 2006. “Since then, the attention the United States has paid to the region has been sporadic and narrowly targeted at particularly troubling or urgent situations. Throughout the region, support for Washington’s policies has diminished. Few Latin Americans, in or out of government, consider the United States to be a dependable partner.” But considering America’s long history of supporting coups and death squads in Latin America, this recent disinterest qualifies as benign neglect. Central and South America have enjoyed an era of often tumultuous and contentious politics—the winding down of a guerrilla war in Colombia, the botched socialist experiment in Venezuela, a presidential impeachment in Brazil—all taking place within a broadly democratic framework. It hasn’t been a perfect era, as Venezuela descends into authoritarian chaos, but it has experienced far less violence than earlier periods. Free from American interference, Latin Americans have proven they can tackle their own problems better than the U.S can.
What Latin America has learned this century, the rest of the planet could discover in the Trump era: The world doesn’t need America, and can work to solve its own problems free from the shadow of American hegemony.
Proponents of the “indispensable nation” argue that the U.S. protects the world from the rise of a more hostile superpower. If America cedes the throne, the theory goes, then Russia or China will fill the vacuum.
The risk of this is unclear. China is a status-quo power, eager to enlarge its sphere of influence in Asia and establish trade with Africa, but no desire to radically alter global politics. Under Putin, Russia has been increasingly adventurist, but it’s not obvious that the U.S. is the best nation to check Russia behavior. A more independent Europe is likely to have a stiffer spine in resisting Russian interventions in Eastern Europe (where, in any case, Russia is increasingly unpopular).
Others who argue that America is “indispensable” fear a return to the cutthroat global jungle of the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, in warning against America’s becoming a “normal nation,” Kagan wrote:
Americans after 1920 managed to avoid global responsibility for two decades. As the world collapsed around them, they told themselves it was not their problem. Americans will probably do the same today. And for a while they will be right. Because of their wealth, power and geography they will be the last to suffer the consequences of their own failures. Eventually they will discover, again, that there is no escape. The question is how much damage is done in the meantime and whether, unlike in the past, it will be too late to recover.
But having the stability of the world depend on one nation—and thus, on one democratically elected leader—is itself an inherently risky system, as we’re seeing with Trump. Learning to live without America might be the best way for the other leading nations of the world to create a more durable international order—one held up not by a lone Atlas, but the shoulders of many nations.