Barack Obama flunked on foreign affairs. And believe it or not, Donald Trump can do better.
Some Obama failures (Iraq, Afghanistan) have Bush roots, and can largely be laid at the feet of America's 43rd president. But that's hardly true for many of the messes around the globe. For but one example: European relations are weaker and worse than the day Obama took office. He has no right to sigh at Europe's malcontents, having taken European stability for granted and paying the price year by year. And now, the specter of European illiberalism has our global elites frightened that Trump's America will be too dysfunctional to keep darkness and chaos at bay.
But there is no evidence that continuing Obama's signature policies would work. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, recently warned that the end of "Pax Americana" has "been coming…for a while" — gentle language to describe what has been a poor American Peace indeed. Francis Fukuyama laments that the U.S. is now a "failed state" whose "political rot is infecting the world order." In his telling, the 2008 financial crisis (which, again, happened before Obama took office) and the ensuing recession (which Obama did preside over) bred angry anxiety among those who bore the brunt of economic failure — priming them for a reactionary appeal to nationalistic nostalgia around the world and, critically, in the U.S. itself.
"Instead of the sometimes overclaimed commitment to the spread of openness and democracy," Fukuyama writes, Trump "proposes an assertive and yet more insular politics, potentially creating the space for other powers — and who knows which — to fill. The world as a whole, then, could soon have to grapple with the consequences of America's retreat." Like other Western globalists, Fukuyama's fear can be distilled to a simple formula: If the U.S. can no longer keep Europe liberal, the West is dead; globalism is dead; illiberalism wins.
To be sure, there is some reason for despair. After all, there is always reason for despair! But reason alone is a bad way to summon confidence in political matters. And there are more reasons not to lose our nerve than the likes of Bremmer and Fukuyama might admit.
To begin with, although nationalistic nostalgia is indeed a false idol (as Yuval Levin details in his book The Fractured Republic) it is also plainly inaccurate to reduce "Trumpism" to that hollow doctrine. The passion and the interest of Trump and his supporters is not focused most intently on greater insularity, but its opposite. The "again" in Trump's slogan means getting back on offense, re-establishing a more physical presence on the playing field of the world. #MAGA is mainly a rallying cry for a return to American mojo or swagger — or elan or thumos, as Fukuyama might say.
Whatever today's still developing populist American nostalgia may become, it will not be a yearning for the days of Henry Cabot Lodge. Nor, as Angelo Codevilla recently made plain at American Greatness, is it a longing either for Reaganesque Cold War or Carteresque détente.
Barack Obama failed to cultivate strong enough allies to help sustain U.S. hegemony amid near economic collapse. And so, Trumpists aim to protect American self-respect, U.S. freedom of motion, and world order — not to throw Europe to the wolves.
With one big condition, chances are this swaggering approach can work better than zombie Obamaism. If some Europeans may never be able to fully shake the allure of being the wolves, Americans must remember that, here, the allure of visceral Old World pride as a lifestyle experience is a barren illusion. The straightforward Trumpist plan to recover from the Obama years is complicated by the marginal but growing trend of imitating an "ancient" identity that can never be authentic in the New World. Discourage that, without breeding more disillusionment, and Trump has a clearer field — and the West a firmer future — than it seems.