© Doug Mills/The New York Times
A century has passed since President Woodrow Wilson, in his 14 Points speech of January 1918, set out an American plan for the world. He called for the removal of economic barriers to trade, an adjustment of colonial claims that respected “the interests of the populations concerned,” and the creation of a League of Nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states.” It was a program that announced America’s ordering intentions, and it was supposed to put an end to war. Wilson failed; Europe’s peace at the end of World War I would last but a generation. Still, having gotten into the global blueprint business, the United States, more powerful than ever by 1945, would not relinquish it — until 2017.
One hundred years is a good run. Countless people across the globe have gained or preserved their freedom through American power. Errors were conspicuous. Nations are no more infallible than the individuals that compose them. Yet, all in all, liberty, democracy and a rules-based order, protected by far-flung American garrisons, spread and prospered. Pax Americana was no rip-off. It delivered. But all things must pass.
That the world was ripe for a shake-up has been Donald Trump’s singular intuition and constitutes his singular gamble. A property guy who was raised in New York, he’s used to gambles and a values-free transactional universe. As his company once operated, so he now believes the United States should operate. He is at home with authoritarian thugs; he recognizes their ilk. His obeisance to the treaties, trade pacts, multilateral organizations and alliances that have advanced American interests in conjunction with the interests of America’s friends has been grudging at best. He thinks all that is hogwash.
In fact, he does not even believe he needs more than the bare bones of a State Department. American foreign policy has ceased. “The one that matters is me,” he tells Fox News. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.” Call it “Me-ism.” And so, in his slash-and-burn way, driven by instinct, Mr. Trump has already ushered in a new world order.
Or rather, he has ushered in a free-for-all, no longer shaped by American prescription, bereft of even the semblance of a moral compass. When it comes to the values of liberal societies, France, Germany and Canada will have to take up the mantle (Britain has gone on post-Brexit walkabout). The dangers of the new vacuum are chiefly offset (if often amplified) by the social networks of the 21st century, linking communities across borders; and by the eroding but not yet defunct architecture of the post-war order. Trump has not, so far, hurled the world over a cliff.
Sure, Russia and Iran won in Syria. Sure, you can get on a motorbike in Tehran and drive through territory mainly under Iranian control or influence all the way to Beirut. Sure, Saudi Arabia, recklessly embraced by Trump, stands somewhere between revolution and implosion under the fast-forwarding, grandstanding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Sure, Saudi-Iranian enmity could end in war (in Yemen, it already has). Sure, America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and from the Paris climate accord signal abandonment of responsibility — as surely as China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative binding countries to its expanding ambition signals confidence and engagement. Sure, Trump has honed nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea. Sure, he hardly knows, and cares less, where Ukraine is or what Vladimir Putin may be doing there.
The thing is, Trump thrives on all this upheaval. He believes the world does, too, within limits. As I said, he’s a property guy raised in New York. Property is a conservative business. That’s inside Trump, too: He walks to the edge but not over it. He wouldn’t want prices-per-square-foot to tumble. Markets, as he keeps noting, have soared since he took office. Wall Street loves an administration that looks after the rich (especially if it can pretend its real concern is the American worker).
The 21st-century world is a pyramid. Wiring everyone together did not so much empower everyone as connect the elites up at the tapering summit, the guys who had the view of everything and the means to turn what they saw into a geyser of cash. Busy with all that, sure of themselves, operating globally, benefiting from cheap labor and tax-lite impunity, they scarcely noted that they no longer had much connection with the masses below, whose view was still national, whose culture was still local, and who dimly suffered, with mounting anger, the transformative consequences of globalization.
Trump saw that he could be the vehicle of that anger. He grasped that nationalism, nativism and xenophobia were ripe for a rerun. Sovereignty is his mot du jour, even if — or more likely because — ever more of life is lived in a virtual reality where the nation is defunct. The ugly reactionary tide has not yet run its course. Trump will squeeze every last drop of political juice from it in 2018 and beyond. So will Europe’s rightist movements, still vigorous across the continent despite Emmanuel Macron’s uplifting victory in France. The neo-fascists of Poland, of Hungary, are on the march, their anti-Semitism not yet exhausted. In every Western democracy, Trump has helped unleash that which is most foul in human nature.
It’s the last stand of the white man, whose century this will not be. Demography is inexorable, as are movements in people’s minds. Wilson could still speak of colonialism as something to be adjusted, rather than the vile white exploitation of dark-skinned people that it was. Women, in his time, were mere adjuncts to men. The world moves on, but in zigzags, not straight lines. The front lines of race are no longer in British India. They are down the street, or over the tracks, within Western societies. Eurocentrism is over. Gender and sexuality are a battleground in the dismantlement of old ways of thinking. Yet the old, especially in male chauvinist form, never goes quietly. It digs in and it fights.
Of course, Trump’s reactionary politics do little or nothing for his white blue-collar constituency. What he offers is spectacle. This is the potent lifeblood of his movement: the appearance of action. Statesmanship is such a quaint word because spectacle has replaced it.
Trump’s proposed tax cuts are for the rich. Who else? Meanwhile, immigrants in New York and across the country are living in a terrifying dark age. Immigrant workers on farms are often too afraid to leave properties. Arrests of unauthorized immigrants by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency are up 43 percent over last year in the period between inauguration and early September. All over the United States, mothers and fathers are being ripped from their children. Young immigrants who thought they could dream of an American future have seen that future denied. The Trump administration has embarked on an all-out attack on the poor, be they recipients of food stamps, or Medicaid, or any federal cushioning of low-income existence and misery. Incompetence has been deified in his Washington. It’s not just the State Department that’s been eviscerated. The Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are not far behind. “Climate change” is now an unutterable phrase in official circles. Beneath all that Trump noise, ugliness and brutality spread in a fractured America governed by a man who thrives on division.
Storms are brewing. The weather itself is weird and violent. Fear spreads. Peace feels more fragile. Technology is a great connector; it is also a great isolator. Individualism lurches into narcissism. Truth and falsehood blur. Stupidity and vulgarity are on the march.
An American president tweets about revoking the broadcast license of NBC because its news division is not patriotic enough. This is Putin-Erdogan-Duterte territory.
People start to shrug. Some rejoice. This is the new reality. Trump actually tweets: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe some day that will happen!” The world will have to get along without America, taking a break in middle school, and without even the idea of America.
Good luck to it. The time was ripe; Pax Americana so 20th century. Chaos is stimulating, even revitalizing. It punishes lazy thinking. It occurs at the ending of something. That must inevitably be the beginning of something else. Of course, chaos can also end badly — before it yields its unknowable fruits.
Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times.
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate