America's Isolation: Inevitable But Necessary

Barack Obama famously wanted to lead from behind. Donald Trump wants to lead front and center but is having a hard time getting other countries to follow him. As much as Mike Pence and the pundits of Conservatism, Inc. like to boast that “America is Back” on the world stage, the reality is that our country has become increasingly isolated, as demonstrated by recent events. Only a handful of Latin American countries have followed our lead to move their respective embassies in Israel to Jerusalem. Despite Trump threatening that he would take “personally” a vote in favor of a UN Resolution condemning his decision to declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital, the best our NATO allies could manage was to abstain, while the rest voted against us, including the UK with which we supposedly have a ‘special relationship’. America’s isolation was also obvious when "our allies" did not follow our lead in supporting the Iranian protests -- except for Israel (which has its own reason to oppose the mullahs). America may be back, but our allies don’t seem to be paying attention.

There are two prevailing views regarding the foundation of American leadership in the world. On the right, a view prevails that spending trillions in military equipment and talking tough earns the respect and obedience of our allies. On the left, the prevailing view is that America leads by virtue of moral authority. Both are views are mistaken. American leadership in the world has been built on two pillars: first, providing military protection; second, allowing our allies to run trade deficits to enrich them. It is not a coincidence that now that America has a president who insists that our allies pay for their share of the military tab and refuses to incur trade deficits, suddenly America finds itself alone.

It would also be mistaken to blame Trump for America's current isolation, as the pundit class has done ever since the acrimonious conclusion of the recent G-7 meeting. The president is simply carrying out what Americans have voted for for the last two decades. In 2000, George W. Bush promised a more "humble" foreign policy, and ran on ending America's role as the world's policeman. The terrorist attack on 9/11 caused Americans to back a more interventionist foreign policy, but it was a temporary reprieve. In 2008, Barack Obama was able to defeat the Clinton machine and war hero John McCain by promising to bring the troops home and renegotiate NAFTA. Eight years later, and again the candidate who pledged to end free trade and military interventions prevailed over candidates who defended the status quo. If not Trump, someone else with the same foreign policy and trade views would have come along eventually. Washington cannot ignore the will of voters for eternity.

As Trump pushes to redefine the terms of America’s alliances, the reactions will vary. For some allies, the temptation will be to hope that the next president will return to the old arrangements, and in the meantime issue threats  – as Macron did when he tweeted that a G-6 could be formed, leaving the United States out. Others have already taken steps to adjust to the new reality. South Korea, when faced with the prospect of having to pay for American military presence, has opted to pursue peace with its northern neighbor. Italy - sensing that a new world order is on the horizon - immediately backed Trump’s call to bring Russia back to the G-7 table . Of course, it would have been preferable if America could transition to a new role and redefine relationships in a less abrupt manner, but that’s not realistic. A world order that has been in place for 70 years cannot be upended without periods of uncertainty, isolation, and wailing from those who benefit from the status quo.