How Worried Is the World About Trump’s Abdication of Leadership?

Parag Khanna sees the president as little more than a bystander. Fred Kaplan argues he is reminding the world of America’s importance.

American president Donald Trump speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 summit in Hamburg, July 6, 2017
American president Donald Trump speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 summit in Hamburg, July 6, 2017 (Bundesregierung)

How worried is the rest of the world about Donald Trump’s abdication of American leadership?

Not as much as is commonly assumed, argues Parag Khanna. He sees Trump’s presidency as merely continuing the demise of American hyperpower in favor of a multipolar world.

Fred Kaplan disagrees. He argues that by his very abrogation of leadership, Trump has shown just how important the United States remain.

Parag Khanna

Khanna argues in Politico that all the accusations now leveled at Trump were made about George W. Bush around the time of the Iraq War and about Barack Obama for neglecting Europe in favor of a “pivot” to Asia.

If one man alone could bring down an empire, America would have collapsed several times over in just the past two decades.

The world system is underpinned by more powerful forces than either the whims of America’s president or even the country’s enormous military and economic weight, Khanna adds.

Globalization has turned the world from a pyramid with America at the top into a spiderweb.

Trump, like Obama before him, is really just an accessory to what has been happening for at least the past quarter century: the rise of a truly multipolar world.

Fred Kaplan

Kaplan writes in Slate that rather than shrug, adjust and move along, many of the world’s leaders have reacted to Trump’s hostile insularity with dismay and alarm.

  • The Asian leaders who signed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) have formed their own trade agreement since Trump withdrew, but it’s unclear if they can withstand Chinese pressures without American support.
  • The Europeans have held more talks on self-defense since Trump wavered on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, but no one believes the EU can and will turn into NATO.

For better or worse, argues Kaplan, there is no country other than the United States that has the resources, breadth of interests or experience necessary to preserve and protect the global order.

By squandering those resources, disavowing those interests and decimating the ranks of diplomats and bureaucrats who have built up that experience, Trump threatens to implode that order. This is why so many of our allies are anxious — and why some of our foes are so gleeful, though even some of them are a bit nervous: Russia and China, for instance, aren’t exactly powers that savor the unpredictable.

My own view

As I wrote here in December, Trump is not undermining American hegemony all by himself, but he is needlessly accelerating it and making the world less safe and possibly less prosperous by doing so.

  • The question about European defense cooperation is not if it will rival NATO, but if it won’t reignite the sort of national rivalries that American policy has helped keep in check for more than half a century.
  • In Asia, Trump has squandered an opportunity to preserve liberal trade rules by withdrawing from TPP.
  • In the Middle East, he could similarly squander an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran. He has done nothing to stop Egypt restoring its alliance with Russia. He has heightened Arab and Israeli apprehensions by ceding postwar planning in Syria to Iran, Russia and Turkey.

The world is becoming more multipolar. A wiser president would be working to avoid America becoming just one of many poles and rather — to borrow from Khanna’s metaphor — the spider in the center of the web.