But the resistance towards Washington’s policy preferences have been growing for many years. Indeed, even during the Cold War, such foot‐dragging emerged from time‐to‐time, despite the existence of a mutual security threat that fostered allied deference to the West’s superpower protector. Moreover, much of the world was either under Soviet domination or clung to neutrality, so Washington’s writ did not apply at all in those cases. The ability of the United States to entice and cajole a majority of nations to support its policy initiatives actually seemed to peak in the years between the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. That period, which Charles Krauthammer memorably described as the “unipolar moment,” existed only because of the Soviet Union’s decline and demise, which enabled the United States to exercise an extraordinary degree of global dominance. The key term in Krauthammer’s formulation, though, was “moment.”
Even during the 1990s, the world was continuing to become more multipolar economically, and that process was accelerating. Soon, the signs of greater political and diplomatic independence would follow. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted in 1998 that America was the “indispensable nation,” the unipolar moment was at its zenith, and it would begin to fade. The arrogance and national narcissism of Albright’s stance matched or exceeded anything Donald Trump has voiced. Her statement that “we stand taller and see further than other countries into the future,” did not encourage collegial decision‐making within the international community or imply U.S. respect for the views and interests of those “other countries.”
The leading NATO allies already were chafing at Washington’s policy dominance, and the push for an independent European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) within the European Union at the end of the 1990s reflected the desire for options outside a U.S.-dominated NATO. The 9–11 attacks short‐circuited that campaign, and led to a closing of ranks to meet the alarming terrorist threat. But as George W. Bush’s administration broadened the response to 9–11 into a global “war on terror,” and used it as a pretext for forcible regime change in Iraq, allied enthusiasm for the policy waned. Several key NATO states, most notably Germany, declined to participate in the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. Resistance to other Bush administration initiatives also emerged. When President Bush strongly pushed to give NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, both France and Germany pushed back, firmly refusing to adopt that policy. President Obama found no greater enthusiasm that move, since Paris and Berlin correctly feared that it would needlessly provoke Russia.
The Bush and Obama administrations also encountered resistance from the East Asian allies, especially Japan and South Korea, when Washington sought to broaden the purpose of the bilateral security treaties with those countries into a coordinated, multilateral effort to deal with other contingencies in the Asian theater. Japanese and South Korean leaders especially worried that Obama’s “strategic pivot” to Asia might be the initial stage of an implicit containment policy directed against China, and they were wary of such a mission. They appreciated the security insurance that an alliance with the United States provided, but enlisting in an anti‐China strategy was too high a premium.
Washington’s ability to get its way internationally has decreased during the Trump years, and the president’s abrasive style has played a role. But the notion that the United States has willingly “relinquished” or “abandoned” global leadership misses the mark. Even where the administration has taken a step back, it is primarily on peripheral matters, such as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Human Rights Council, and cutting ties with the World Health Organization. As fond as world governance advocates might be of such institutions, they are not central (or even terribly relevant) to strategic and geopolitical affairs. On most other matters, Washington’s activism (especially activism regarding security issues) is as great as ever.