MUNICH — Of all the empires and superpowers that have written the script of world history, only two remained at the close of the 20th century: the United States and China. There were the faded remains of British and French glory; the Ottomans and the Habsburgs had gambled away their empires; Imperial Russia vanished twice during the 20th century, first the Tsars then the Soviets – much like the German empire and the Nazi state.
But since China’s recent rise to the status of economic and political global power, many had called the 20th century the “American century”.
The notion was first used in 1941 by the the American editor Henry Luce, as the cover line of an article in Life magazine. Without the late entry of the U.S., we would most likely have seen different outcomes of both World War I and World War II. And throughout, no other country defined last century’s international politics like the United States – in both good and bad ways.
And America will continue to shape world politics in the 21st century. Still, the election of Donald Trump could be interpreted as a sign that the American century won’t have a sequel. Trump is a protectionist and nationalist who doesn’t understand a thing about international politics, who considers global institutions superfluous or even dangerous, where such American engagements such as establishing the United Nation as one big conspiracy of the establishment.
It must be said that the fact that a New York billionaire is somehow not seen as part of the establishment is proof that the showman Trump is the ultimate master marketer. The dark art of the populist includes an instinctive ability to read the moods of the public and to use aggressive rhetoric to transform it into one’s own power. That’s how Trump became Trump, and eventually president.
It is no wonder that we don’t know what Trump actually wants to achieve as president. His ideology is built anew every morning, based on what has made him popular and successful the day before.
Trump’s voters think his rejection of unruly organizations like the UN, the WTO, or NATO is right and justified. They want the world to be kept at bay with walls, custom tariffs and travel bans. Trump has promised to give that to them. Collective systems of security, diplomatic alliances, and, yes, even the dream of a united world, were the answers to the major catastrophes that had been brought on by an ideologically underfed nationalism of the 20th century.
Bird's-eye view, New York — Photo: ZeroOne
Even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s effort to regulate cross-national power through a League of Nations was an attempt inspired by Washington to oppose the supranational to the national.
Recent times have been shaped by the idea that in a world made smaller by technology and communication, common problems can being tackled by common effort. Europe’s experience with the devastating nationalism in the first half of the 20th century has led to the European Union. Even the NATO and the Warsaw Pact played off this idea, in the pre-1989 East-West confrontation.
In Europe nation-states have not vanished inside the European Union. The very different identities have survived, proof are the constant conflicts within the EU. Germany has occupied a special place, because its integration in the alliance in the first decades after World War II was also driven by a desire for a “re-civilization” of a country that had been propelled to a dark place by an aggressive war, the monstrosity of its crimes, and genocide.
There still exists a uniquely European sentiment for those who, even today, feel a responsibility to remember the cruelties of another generation, part of some sort of enlightened patriotism. The new right-wing extremism that is spreading risks corrupting that impulse.
Neo-nationalists, no matter if in the U.S., France or Germany, don’t see the EU or NATO as the consequence of and response to a past evil. Instead, they think those alliances are the cause of a new evil. No matter how different are their countries, a Trump, Orbán or Le Pen share several things in common, above all the disparagement of international institutions.
Europe’s retro-nationalists, contradictory as they often are, look at the EU and see both a convenient target for their ambitions and a bonafide threat to their way of life.
But the most dangerous thing about the nationalist Trump is something completely different. Because he will never stand to be seen as “weak” or a “wimp,” a national security crisis could quickly become very dangerous. Categories like these – saving face, posturing, bullying – have always played a central role in his life. There’s already a macho president with aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons in Russia. In January, another one will land in the White House. There is plenty to worry about.