Does Trump presidency herald end of 'American Age', Wilsonian idealism?

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Century after Woodrow Wilson laid foundations for Western democracy-promoting trade and alliances, experts ask if 'American Age' is over

President Donald Trump's speech at his inauguration was marked by isolationism (AFP)
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Monday 3 April 2017 14:28 UTC
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NEW YORK, United States – What difference a century makes.

Back in April 1917, with Europe tearing itself apart, US President Woodrow Wilson urged lawmakers to tame their isolationist reflexes and fight a just cause in World War I. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” lectured the scholar from Virginia.

Things are different today. President Donald Trump eschews Wilson’s idealism and seldom mentions human rights or good governance. He plays fast and loose with the web of traders and allies that Washington engineered these past 100 years, critics say.

With the billionaire nationalist in the West Wing, history buffs are marking the centenary of Wilson’s speech by probing whether the academic’s legacy – a so-called “American Age” of hegemony – is running out of steam.

“For decades the US has been one of the lead institution-builders, advocates for grievance and cooperation on managing what we can call the commons, such as the sea and the environment,” Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas at Austin history scholar, told Middle East Eye.

“The hyper-nationalism of Donald Trump is an aberration from that Wilsonian tradition and whether it’s a momentary lapse, as we had in the 1920s, or a long-term lapse, that’s a question we have to ask.”

Back in 1917, the US watched the carnage of World War I from across the Atlantic Ocean, though the US mood for neutrality was shaken as German U-boats torpedoed merchant ships and killed Americans, such as the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915.

The hyper-nationalism of Donald Trump is an aberration from that Wilsonian tradition

- Jeremi Suri, history scholar

Wilson laid foundations for multilateral alliances

In a landmark congressional talk on 2 April, Wilson pressed his countrymen to take the lead in rallying the “free and self-governed peoples of the world” and promoting “peace and justice” in defiance of “selfish and autocratic power”.

It worked. Four days later, Congress voted overwhelmingly to declare war on Germany and the subsequent deployments of US forces broke stalemates on Europe’s muddy, bloodied front lines and helped end fighting the following year.

Wilson could not convince lawmakers to join the League of Nations, the first world peace body, and the US reverted to isolationism. But, historians say, he laid foundations for a Western order of democracy-promoting trade, military and cultural alliances.

For generations, the US has largely set the terms for the global economy, policed security threats and spearheaded response to crises like ebola and Haiti’s earthquake. It outpaced its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, and dominated with greenbacks, guns and Facebook.

'That is the past'

That mood changed during an inaugural address in January, when Trump said the US for too long has been invested in other countries’ industries, militaries, borders and infrastructure while letting its own fall into “disrepair and decay”.

“That is the past,” said the former reality TV star.

Once in the Oval Office, Trump pulled out of a pan-Asia trade deal and irked key allies in Britain, Germany, Mexico and Australia. He has called NATO “obsolete” and suggested that Japan and South Korea arm themselves with nukes.

His recent decision to sign an executive order to promote coal mining and undo former President Barack Obama’s climate-change rules has called into question Washington’s willingness to work with the world’s roughly 200 other countries to fight global warming.

“The whole concept of America First says were going to pursue our national interest, our needs and protect our citizens pretty much regardless of previous commitments the US has made internationally,” Gordon Adams, an American University professor, told MEE.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Trump bookends an era of “close and trusting trans-Atlantic cooperation based on common values”. At Davos in January, China’s President Xi Jinping said Beijing could take global leadership on trade and climate change.

According to Adams, it is not only China stepping into the breach. Russia, Iran and Turkey are flexing their diplomatic muscles in a “rebalancing” of global order away from US supremacy to multiple global centres of power.

“Trump’s rhetoric accelerates that trend in so many directions you can’t measure them anymore,” Adams said.

Bluster vs reality

Others draw a line between Trump’s bluster and the reality.

Though he talks of disentangling the US from costly Middle Eastern conflicts, Trump is hawkish on Iran, has slightly escalated operations against the Islamic State (IS) group and proposed a $54bn increase in Pentagon spending.

“The Wilsonian traditions, institutions, habits and behaviour are so ingrained that even when a president is ignorant of them or attacks them directly, they have a lot of resilience and don’t go away very quickly,” said Suri.

By appointing former hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary, former oil company boss Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and career soldier Jim Mattis as defense secretary, Trump’s team serves up a classic Republican cocktail.

The Wilsonian traditions, institutions, habits and behaviour are so engrained that even when a president is ignorant of them or attacks them directly, they have a lot of resilience

- Jeremi Suri, history scholar

“Because of the words and actions of his top leadership team in foreign policy since he became president, he seems much more consistent with modern mainstream thinking than I expected,” former CIA advisor and Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon told MEE.

For Suri, Washington elites have long grappled with America’s role in world affairs and its involvement in everything from World War II to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq have been contentious reasons for navel-gazing.

In this view, the US seesaws between opening its arms and pulling up the drawbridge. At the same time Wilson argued for global democracy-promotion, US lawmakers were adopting a sweeping Immigration Act to penalize Asian labourers.

Suri argues there is still “no substitute” for Uncle Sam. Four years of Trump will tarnish America’s image as a bastion of democracy for foreigners, but will also galvanize liberals into a “progressive awakening” that reasserts Wilsonian idealism at home.

“We will be seen as the leader of the free world again, but it won’t be the same. They will be a little less confident, a little more uncertain, because people will have seen the dark side of our society in a way they haven’t before,” Suri said.