If you think that the president of the United States is the most powerful individual in the world, then worry about Donald Trump is justified. If you think that America is still the world’s number one superpower — and that we still live in an age of superpowers — then carry on worrying. If you think that America is the world’s only policeman and that without deep American involvement the Middle East will descend further into chaos then worry some more.
But just suppose the world is not like that anymore. Suppose that the U.S., while still a giant economy full of dynamism and innovative vigor, has to share its power with a whole network of other international “actors,” groups and interests, and that merely spending seven times more on defense than its closest allies, seems not to be able to get its way or clinch settlements round the world.
Suppose that the U.S., in a totally connected global system, is just as constrained in its independent actions as almost every other country. And suppose that, anyway, the office of the president is designed, and has been from the birth of the U.S., to constrain presidential power in a maze of checks and balances, which are now vastly reinforced by the web.
The picture then begins to look very different. And furthermore it begins to look much nearer reality than the idealized and traditional image of America as the all-powerful guardian of the free world. For one thing the Americans, for all their massive defense spending and weapons wizardry have not actually won a single hot war since 1945, with the exception, perhaps, of the Persian Gulf War when they drove Saddam Hussain back to Baghdad in short order (but stopped short of polishing him off).
For another thing, the Trump stance is heavily inward looking. Although his views contain many contradictions and he would like to join others in wiping the Islamic State death cult off the face of the Earth, his main preoccupation is with his home backyard. He wants others to carry far more of the NATO burden of defending Europe, and others to take a much bigger lead in security in the Asia-Pacific region. This is not quite isolationism but it is certainly not the language of U.S. dominance worldwide.
All this means that while sound leadership of the U.S. is undoubtedly an important factor it is not the most vital issue for world stability and security that some have depicted. This is a world in which the center of both economic and political power has moved, is moving and is going to move further away from the Atlantic and more toward the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions.
What this also means is that all responsible nations should look on the new America certainly as a partner but not as the sole protector. The British are fond of talking about the old “special relationship” with the U.S., and some still do. But in today’s intensity of links between countries, interests and peoples, the truly special relationships have to be with all the networks, alliances and chains that offer the best protection against terrorism, drugs, water shortages, food and energy insecurity, corruption, tax evasion and pandemic disease, and indeed against the networks of evil and crime that threaten all free societies.
There is a further factor that should calm some of the almost hysterical fears which the Trump presidency seems to have aroused, especially in Europe. Power today is slipping away from established government hierarchies and their supporting apparatus. The victory of Trump himself, propelled by an all-out assault on Washington establishment circles, is an example of this. Put simply, hyper-connected people everywhere have more power to weaken and destabilize central governments than ever before — and are doing so already. This is populism, but it is populism of a new and more restraining kind.
The renowned international scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter has described (in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs) how the mindset of foreign-policy makers continues to resemble a chessboard, a game of advantage between sovereign and equal states. But in the digital age that world has given way to something different. She argues that “the shells of 20th century interstate organizations can become global and regional platforms for multiple types of associations.”
The conclusion can only be that today there are bigger international forces at work than Trump and his new administration, and that Washington is no longer the power center of the Earth. The very populism that put Trump in the White House is itself going to prevent him being too dangerous for the rest of us.
Wise countries and peoples should have stopped relying on America for their security and prosperity long ago and devising other strong defenses against today’s real threats. Wise governments should be spending less time playing on the old chessboard and more time learning to operate with, or sometimes curb, the new power centers that technology and information empowerment have brought to the fore.
These include the new empires of the network age such as Facebook, with a bigger “population” than China, as well as the countless citizens’ organizations and groups that have acquired new power and influence to shape events and safeguard interests.
The old barrier against anarchy and social collapse used to be simply a return to dictatorship under some new strong man — as under Napoleon or as in Germany in the 20th century. The new barriers are the networks themselves and the connectography of the globe. To hold power Trump will have to share power. To generate wealth he will have to spread wealth as never before. To maintain American influence he will have to share policy and power with the rest of the world.
Not a bad outcome when one comes to think about it. And certainly no cause for panic and excitable talk of worldwide catastrophe.