From Wilson to Trump: How the ‘American Century’ of global leadership ends with ‘America First’
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In 1917 Woodrow Wilson, leading the United States to war against Germany, declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” In 2017 Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly MORE, in his inaugural address, proclaimed, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

Wilson’s embrace of internationalism marked the beginning of what publisher Henry Luce dubbed the “American Century.” Trump’s rejection of internationalism signals, quite possibly, the end of that remarkable period of American global leadership.


To be sure, words alone don’t make policy. American troops tipped the balance in favor of democracy in World War I, but the Senate rejected Wilson’s postwar plan for American membership in the League of Nations. Not until Pearl Harbor did the country as a whole accept Wilson’s argument that America’s peace and prosperity required consistent engagement with the world beyond American shores. 


Nor do words alone unmake policy. Although Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords, suggested that America will think twice about defending laggard NATO members, and threatened punitive tariffs against China and Mexico, he has not pulled the United States out of NATO, and no tariffs have been levied.

Yet damage has been done. America’s role in the world has been diminished.

From the moment Wilson launched his crusade for democracy, other countries looked to the United States for inspiration and leadership. Wilson was the popular hero of the Paris peace conference, even if he didn’t get his way on every point and the Senate spoiled his result. The European democracies sought American help against 1930s fascism, and though that help was tardy — on account of the resistance of the original “America First” movement — Franklin Roosevelt came through with Lend-Lease in 1941 and U.S. troops after Pearl Harbor.

American leadership gave rise to the United Nations, the heir to Wilson’s League of Nations, and NATO, the embodiment of the Wilsonian principle of collective security. The United States committed itself to ever-freer trade, in the belief that countries tend not to go to war with their best customers.

The American president became known as the “leader of the Free World.” The concept lost a bit of meaning after the collapse of communism at the end of the Cold War, for the Free World had been defined in opposition to the communist world.

But the president remained the indispensable figure in world politics. From FDR to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's finishing what Obama started with early learning Cotton tells Garland: 'Thank God you're not on the Supreme Court' Budowsky: Vote for Terry McAuliffe: The midterms have begun MORE, every president adopted the Wilsonian view that America can be truly secure only when the world is secure; that America cannot prosper unless the world prospers; that, in the long run, the interests of the global community are American interests. 

Trump takes the opposite view. Trump speaks of the world in zero-sum terms; a gain for one country is a loss for others. This is striking, indeed almost incomprehensible, coming from a businessman, since the justification for market economics is that both parties gain in transactions.

Trump’s bite may prove less than his bark. His provocative statements are often followed by efforts by those around him to explain that American policy really hasn’t changed.

Yet one thing has definitely changed, perhaps irreversibly. The world no longer looks to the United States for leadership.

While Trump was trashing globalization and the Paris accords, China’s Xi Jinping asserted his country’s commitment to both. After Trump undermined NATO by refusing to endorse Article 5, Germany’s Angela Merkel responded by saying that the Europeans needed to prepare to fend for themselves.

The American Century couldn’t last forever. Its underpinning was the economic hegemony that peaked in 1945, when America’s industrial output matched that of the rest of the world combined and the dollar’s dominion let American negotiators dictate rules for the world economy. America’s economic edge was bound to erode as Germany and Japan recovered from the war. It lost additional ground after China ditched one-party socialism in favor of one-party capitalism.

American presidents had to adjust. The World Trade Organization bent less readily to American will than the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, its predecessor. Antitrust actions by the European Union mattered as much to multinational firms as decisions by the U.S. Justice Department. The dollar, once the anchor of global finance, floated on the same uncertain sea of hopes and fears as other currencies.

Yet if the American Century rested on American economic strength, it also rested on American leadership. Wilson staked America’s claim to leadership; every president from FDR to Obama confirmed it.

And Trump threw it away. Thus the American Century ends, not with a bang but a tweet.

H. W. Brands is a presidential historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of “Woodrow Wilson” and other works of American history and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @hwbrands

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