On a beautiful, bright morning sixteen years ago, much of what we previously understood was changed. What are the challenges today as America considers its global role under Donald Trump in an uncertain world?
In his final moments before leaving office in January this year, President Barack Obama wrote a letter to his successor. It read, in part: “American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.”
Sixteen years after the attacks of September 11 redefined how America saw the world – and just as importantly, how it thought about itself – we are approaching the end of the first year of the presidency of a candidate who campaigned on the slogan “America First”. And the debate over what exactly that means for the nation’s role on the world stage has intensified as international problems appear more intractable – and threatening – than ever.
Writing about the outcome of a conference organized this summer by the Council on Foreign Relations, Terrence Mullan said that “…participants agreed that the Trump administration’s disavowal of international institutions and skepticism of global governance will complicate international cooperation in 2017 and beyond. Trump’s “America First” policy abdicates US global leadership and endorses US unilateralism at a time when the globalized world demands more sustained, coordinated action to mitigate global challenges like climate change, terrorism, and cyber conflict, which can climb any border wall, no matter how high.”
Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, as Stewart Patrick writes at World Politics Review, believe that US sovereignty is “…under assault from relentless globalization, encroaching international organizations and uncontrolled immigration.”
In a thoughtful article for The Atlantic, Prof Stephen Sestanovich explores the “Brilliant Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy”, saying that the new President “is raising questions about the foreign policy of the United States – about its external purposes, its internal cohesion, and its chances of success – that may not be fully answered for years,” and arguing that “Trump rode to victory as the candidate who promised to do both more and less than Obama. He offered the voters a resolute call to arms and relief from the burdens of global leadership. The problem with American foreign policy, he suggested, was not a simple case of too-costly over-commitment. It was the result of something more ominous: the ill will of friends and foes, and the moral culpability of our own leaders.”
It’s hard to think of an American political figure who has ever put forward such a dark view of the world – or such a despairing picture of policy paralysis. To fix matters, Trump did not offer a conventional “Come Home, America”-style program of isolationism. Instead, he promised kick-ass confrontation. We had been “losing” for too long. The right response, the way to start and keep “winning,” was not to get out of the game but to play it better – smarter, harder, tougher. Trump was the candidate who, claiming to know more about ISIS than the generals, would “bomb the shit” out of it.
While that message has clearly resonated with a base of committed voters – which appears to remain unshakably loyal (Trump has a remarkable 98 per cent approval rating among self-identified supporters) even if it may be shrinking in number – it is also telling how people outside the US regard the President, and by extension, the country.
In the Washington Post this week, Suzy Hansen writes that Trump is “making Americans see the US the way the rest of the World already did.” She says:
“Trump has looked out of place as a world leader because he is a television personality, not a politician. He is also the crudest manifestation of some very American traits: recklessness, nationalism, contempt for history, an inability (if not utter disinclination) to inhabit a foreigner’s experience.”
As the administration wrestles with a series of increasingly fraught international situations, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Iran, as well as the broader Middle East, along with China and the Korean peninsula – not to mention the multi-layered relationship with Russia – it’s perhaps worth considering the argument that George W. Grundy puts forward in a new book on how the events of September 11 “led to the Trump presidency.”
“Because of 9/11,” Grundy writes, “Trump inherited the greatest war and executive powers commanded by an American president in history. Because of 9/11, most of these powers are exercised under a historically unprecedented shroud of state secrecy.” He continues: “For all of George W. Bush’s faults, even after 9/11 he never explicitly demonized minority groups in the US. In fact, Bush pointedly visited a mosque just six days after the attacks. But this time it’s different. Trump’s candidacy demonstrated that being anti-Muslim and racist can be a political asset, not a liability.”
Finally, in closing, I hope you’ll indulge me a personal recollection.
I was in the air that morning, on board a United Airlines flight from London, back to what was then my home in Hoboken, New Jersey – a zipcode that lost a disproportionate number of its wonderful residents.
About an hour out, it became clear that something was happening we knew nothing about – the captain announced simply that there was a “problem with US air traffic control” and we were turning back to Heathrow. As passengers started calling people in the US to rearrange their plans (there were phones in the backs of the seats in those days, although reaching any New York number seemed impossible) news started to emerge of what was unfolding, and whenever anyone got through to someone stateside, they would relay what was on CNN to the rest of the cabin. As we circled to dump fuel, the prevailing feeling was certainly shock, but mostly helplessness and, crucially, not knowing when whatever it was would be over.
It wasn’t until we arrived back to a chaotic airport and I got on the Heathrow Express into London that I saw the footage for the first time. I felt blessed to be on same side of the Atlantic as my kids.
Danny Lewin was not so lucky, and became that day’s first victim. This remembrance, by one of his friends, appeared in yesterday’s New York Daily News. It says, in part:
Danny was a complicated guy, with strong opinions that easily spanned the partisan spectrum and were never obvious or unreasoned, but I know he’d be outraged by seeing how rampant xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism and anti-Semitism have become in our nation, and I suspect he’d be baffled by the tendency, on the left and the right alike, to focus on the accidents of our birth instead of on our infinite human potential.
Identity politics, irrational prejudice, victimization, talk of trigger warnings and safe spaces — all those would seem ludicrous to a man who has spent his entire life engaging in vigorous debate, solving problems and proving there was no end to what we could do if we only put our minds to it.
Let’s put our minds to it.
Also published on Medium.