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global leadership | trump administration | u.s. foreign policy

[I. H. Daalder & James M. Lindsay, The Empty Throne. America's Abdication of Global Leadership. Public Affairs. New York, 2018. 256 p.]


review / Salvador Sánchez Tapia

The Empty Throne. America's Abdication of Global Leadership

The arrival of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States in January 2017 has unleashed an important flow publishing house that continues to this day, and in which numerous pens question, in substance and form, the new tenant of the White House from different angles.

In this case, two authors from the field of American think tanks , close to Barack Obama - one of them served during his presidency as US ambassador to NATO - offer us a very critical view of President Trump and his management at the head of the US executive branch. With the solid support of numerous quotes, statements and testimonies collected from the media, and in an agile and attractive language, they compose the portrait of an erratic, ignorant - in one passage they highlight without palliation his "ignorance on many issues, his unwillingness to accept advice from others, his impulsiveness, and his lack of critical thinking skills" -, arrogant and irresponsible president.

The authors of The Empty Throne argue that President Trump's deeds and words show how he has broken with the traditional line of U.S. foreign policy since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, based on exercising leadership oriented toward collective security, opening global markets, and promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and which has result greatly benefited the United States. Trump, they argue, would have abdicated that leadership, embracing instead another purely transactional policy, made by a simple calculation of interest.

This new way of conceiving international politics, based on the logic of competition and domination, would be justified by the Trump administration with the argument that the old one has been highly pernicious for the United States, since it has allowed friends and allies to obtain important profits at the expense of American prosperity.

Paraphrasing Trump's America First campaign slogan, the authors argue that this new policy will result, rather, in an America Alone, and will instead benefit China, assuming that it will be to China that nations will look for a new leader.

To support their thesis , the authors take a look at the management of Donald Trump in the year and a half between his inauguration in early 2017 and the book's publication date in 2018. In their argument they review the management of presidents the nation has had since the end of World War II, and compare it to that put on internship by the Trump administration.

An important part of the criticism is directed at the controversial presidential style displayed by Donald Trump, exhibited even before the elections, and which is evident in facts such as the withdrawal of the label customary in the world of the International Office, especially hurtful in his relations with friends and allies; the lack of interest shown in coordinating with the Obama administration an orderly transition, or the making of certain decisions against his national security team or, even, without consulting its members.

Not to acknowledge these facts would be to deny the evidence and question the inescapable reality of the unease that this new way of dealing with nations with which the United States shares so many interests and values, such as those of the European Union, or others such as Japan, Canada or Australia, firm allies of the United States for decades, produces in many people. However, there is room for some criticism of the arguments.

First of all, and leaving aside the lack of time perspective to make a evaluation final of Trump's presidency, the authors make a comparison between the first year and a half of the current president's term and those of all his predecessors since the end of World War II to demonstrate Trump's return to the America First policy prevailing until Roosevelt. This contrast requires certain nuances because, based on the common denominator of the international leadership strategy that all of Trump's predecessors practiced, the country experienced in this time moments of greater unilateralism such as that of George W. Bush's first term, along with others of lesser global presence of the country such as, perhaps, those of the presidencies of Eisenhower, Ford, Carter and, even, Obama.

In Obama's case, moreover, the substantive differences with Trump are not as great as they seem. Both presidents are trying to manage, in order to mitigate, the loss of relative American power caused by the long years of military presence in the Middle East and the rise of China. It is not that Trump believes that the United States should abandon the ideas of global leadership and multinational interaction; in fact, while he is accused of leaving traditional allies to their fate, he is reproached for his rapprochement, almost complicity, with others such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Rather, what he intends is to exercise leadership, but, of course, dictating his conditions so that they are favorable to the United States. From inspirational leadership to leadership by imposition.

The question is, is it possible to maintain leadership under these conditions? According to the authors, no. In fact, as a consequence of this "abdication of American leadership", they offer two scenarios: the return to a world in which no nation leads, or the emergence of another nation - China, obviously - that will fill the vacuum created by this abdication.

The authors do not consider a third option: that of traditional allies adapting to the new style of leadership, albeit reluctantly, out of necessity, and in the confidence that one day, the Trump presidency will be history. This idea would be consistent with the premise set out in the book, and with which we concur, that American leadership remains indispensable, and with the very recognition at the end of the book that there is some substance to the grievances that Trump presents and that the president's attitude is leading many of America's friends and allies to reconsider their defense spending, to rethink the rules of international trade to make them more palatable to America, and to take a more active role in resolving major global challenges.

Time will tell which of the three options will prevail. Even considering the challenges of attention with the current White House incumbent, the United States remains bound to its traditional partners and allies by a dense network of common interests and, above all, shared values that transcend individuals and will outlast them.

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