Apart, Atop, Amidst: America in the World


For much of its history, the United States kept itself largely apart from the world. While not as isolationist as often depicted, insulated by the oceans and blessed by bountiful land, Americans were able to selectively engage with the outside world when and where they chose.

During the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, the United States sat atop the world. Militarily, economically, technologically, diplomatically, politically, and ideologically, the United States was dominant by most every measure, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Today, though, with its insulation stripped away amidst globalization and its dominance disrupted as other countries assert themselves, the United States finds itself neither apart nor atop but rather amidst the world, both shaping and being shaped by global events and forces. As formidable as the policy challenges this poses are, the shock Americans feel to their sense of themselves and their nation is even more fundamental.

What happened to the international economic competitiveness to which the United States had grown so accustomed? Actually, it had been eroding long before the 2008 recession. For 77 consecutive years, 1894 to 1970, America had a trade surplus. In 1971 it ran a trade deficit — and has been in the trade “red” every year since, except one. What explains this? In part, it is a result of what other countries have done to increase their economic competitiveness. But we can also look to things the United States has not done to sustain its own competitiveness.

Wasn’t the whole world moving to democracy? For a while yes, but not for the past decade.  And isn’t the United States the shining example of democracy on a hill? With America’s own democratic system now under strain — the legitimacy of two recent presidential elections contested and a policy process mired in gridlock – the American model itself is tarnished.

What about the most powerful military in the world that Americans have counted on to keep the United States safe? All of that hard power didn’t stop al-Qaeda from launching devastating attacks on the homeland in 2001. The two longest wars in American history are ongoing with no victory in sight. Moreover, while U.S. military power remains vastly superior to any other, the military balance is much less determinative of the overall structure of the international system than during the Cold War strategic nuclear deterrence era.

Even so, doesn’t the world see that it was better off with the United States as the hyperpower and sole hegemon? It’s not that some other country is in line to be the new top dog. It’s that there are more states that have more relations with each other on a wider range of issues than ever before, with their own sense of their national interests and their own domestic politics.

It’s in this context that Donald Trump’s “America First” mix of reverting to being apart and re-asserting to be atop has been having its appeal to the national psyche. Pull back from many of those global commitments, he tells us. No matter that they help us, not just our allies. Let Japan develop its own nuclear weapons, he says. Who cares that the prospect of proliferation frightens many in the region beyond China? Impose costs on those allegedly taking advantage of us, he demands, as if they don’t have their own counter-strategies. Turn loose American power against ISIL — it’s all in that secret plan – and wherever, whenever, and however we so choose, he rails. Come home as we can, throw our weight around as we feel like it.

Yet Trump’s scorching of the field in the Republican primaries showed how out of synch neoconservatism had become. It’s one thing to use American power to make America great again. It is quite another to do it with run-the-world zeal of the neoconservatives. His general election defeat of Hillary Clinton then showed the limited appeal of liberal internationalism and its more consensual but still interventionist effort to stay on top.

An alternative to Trumpism must not only get the policy right. It has to resonate politically, connecting with Americans’ sense of self. There are three keys for doing that.

First, tap American pride by embracing American exceptionalism. For all its inconsistencies, this is a part of the core civic identity of the United States. But invoke it less as an anesthetic – glorifying the past as a way of soothing present anxiety – and more as a stimulant, building on traditional American strengths in ways that are more geared to the distinctive challenges of the present and future.

Second, be pragmatic about overall foreign policy strategy. Make a more realistic case for 21st century American interests than “apartists’” hardly-anywhere and “atopists’” almost-everywhere. Convey a willingness to wield American power that is neither trigger-happy nor gun-shy, and as strategic leverage not impulsive lashing out.

Third, provide a sense of shared purpose. Do not do this by bashing foreigners or inflating threats, but by a commitment to all being in this together. Create an economy that is open, but with fewer losers and more winners. Aspire to a society that bridges more of its cultural divides. Re-commit to a policy process that tempers political fights with a recognition of how competitive the 21st century world is and the reverberating consequences of gridlock, loss of civility, and other self-undermining of our capacity to succeed.

Pride, pragmatism, and shared purpose do not answer all or even most of the policy questions, but they do provide a sense of our national self both true to America’s heritage and fitting the world the way it is, not how it was, or some might want it to be.


Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor and 2015-16 Henry Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress Kluge Center, served in the Obama administration State Department (2009-11) as well as prior policy positions. He is the author of Transformational Statesmanship: Difficult, Possible, Necessary (W.W. Norton, forthcoming).

Image: White House