The second was the trap of bumper stickers—the doomed search for a neat framework to replace the Cold War’s strategy of “containment,” which for decades had provided intellectual clarity and mobilized popular support. A strategy premised on “enlargement” of the coalition and ideas that had won the Cold War was enticing, although as one commentator pointed out at the time, the term sounded more like a prostate condition than a political rallying call. It was also a comfortable oversimplification, with inherent limits in a world in which challenges to regional order were bound to emerge, globalization would produce its own contradictions, and America’s temporary dominance would inevitably be contested by the rise of others.
The third trap was losing the connection between our global leadership and our domestic priorities. We were “in a moment in our history when many Americans will be preoccupied with domestic problems, and when budgetary constraints … are likely to be tighter than at any point in the last half century … It was relatively easy during the Cold War to justify national security expenditures and build support for American engagement overseas. It is infinitely harder now.”
Despite important diplomatic triumphs in the years that followed, we as policy makers and leaders stumbled into each of those traps. End-of-history triumphalism inflated our ambitions, clouded our judgment, fed our complacency, and militarized our diplomacy, especially after 9/11. We misread the landscape, assumed too much about our transformative powers in the Middle East, shoehorned foreign policy into the War on Terror and the “freedom agenda,” and lost the trust of much of the American public. Our optimism about globalization blinded us to the dislocations building alongside it, and our indiscipline and dysfunction brought about a global financial crisis that further polarized our politics and corroded America’s example and influence.
To regain our footing after the pandemic and avoid fumbling what’s left of our primacy, American leaders will have to avoid the snares and delusions of the post-pandemic world. Most dangerous among them is the Trumpian hubris of “America first,” the reckless conviction that American power is best served unilaterally, unencumbered by allies who only take advantage of us or the enlightened self-interest that has animated U.S. statecraft at its best.
In past global-health crises, such as the AIDS epidemic or Ebola, disciplined American leadership and strong partnerships proved an invaluable force multiplier. In this one, the Trump White House’s blend of arrogance and ineptitude, against the backdrop of more than three years of diplomatic disarmament, is a force divider—exposing our citizenry to greater peril.
Even if Americans decide against doubling down on President Trump’s destructive narcissism in November, the new administration will still have to steer through a fog of anxieties and uncertainties about America’s role in the world, in which Trump has been more symptom than cause. It will not be easy to persuade Americans, struggling through the human and economic wreckage of the pandemic, to resist the temptation to pull up our national drawbridges and retreat. Nor will it be easy to be honest about the colossal failings of the Trump era, as well as the shortcomings of all of us in the Washington establishment for many years before.