In the 1990s, then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright popularized the phrase “the indispensable nation” in reference to the United States of America’s role in the post-Cold War global order (Wilson Center, “Is the U.S. Still the ‘Indispensable Nation?’: A Conversation with Madeleine Albright,” 05.28.2015).
The gist is that only the United States possessed the military and financial resources necessary to ensure global security and economic prosperity. At times, this trope of indispensability has been invoked for just causes such as intervention against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the First Gulf War, but it has also been used to justify rash unilateral actions like, well, the Second Gulf War (the Iraq War). Three decades removed from its initial coinage, “indispensable nation” now seems like just another synonym for that tired phrase: “American exceptionalism.”
The notion of American indispensability has received a series of shocks over the years. The largest came from China’s explosive economic growth and its consequent position as an alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for development aid and foreign investment. China’s ambitious pursuit of the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), the foundation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) under Xi Jinping will only further entrench China as the center of a constellation of multilateral institutions and procedures relatively unbeholden to U.S. interests.
The latest blows to indispensability, of course, were dealt by President Trump himself when he refused to ratify the TPP, pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and demonstrated unremitting hostility toward NATO, NAFTA and the Iran Deal (JCPOA). The commander-in-chief tweet-ed last year: “We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada. Both being very difficult, may have to terminate?” (Twitter, [at]realDonaldTrump, 08.27.2017).
Democrats and “never-Trump” Republicans, aghast at these sentiments, have opined that a Trumpian refusal to lead the world and spread the gospel of free trade would result in global catastrophe. Roger Cohen wrote: “A disaster is unfolding whose consequences for humanity and decency will be substantial. America’s word, which has constituted the undergirding of global security for more than seven decades, is a fast-devaluing currency” (Spiegel Online, “Donald Trump and the Erosion of American Greatness,” 11.06.2017). On the contrary, the world is continuing to go about its business.
On April 21, the European Union and Mexico agreed on an updated free trade pact as a part of Mexico’s strategy to decrease its reliance on the U.S. economy. 80 percent of Mexican exports are sent to the United States, which gives the United States incredible leverage in any negotiation. By deepening its ties with trading blocs other than NATO, Mexico is giving itself room to maneuver (Reuters, “EU and Mexico Agree New Free Trade Pact,” 04.21.2018).
Last year at a campaign rally in a Munich beer hall, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Europe needed to take control of itself again.
“The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” she announced. “I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands” (CNN, “Merkel Reiterates Call for Europe to ‘Take Fate into Our Own Hands,’” 05.31.2017).
Merkel was making the case that Europe needed to take the initiative in its military security and deepening economic integration in the absence of unwavering American support. These words bore fruit this week when Germany pledged 1 billion in new defense spending to accomplish its heretofore unmet NATO commitments (The Telegraph, “Germany Plans 1 Billion Euros of New Defense Spending Amid Pressure on Nato from Donald Trump,” 04.23.2018). This is necessary now more than ever to deter Russia from continuing its pattern of destabilizing Eastern Europe. Russian-backed separatists continue to occupy the Eastern Ukrainian Donbass region (EADaily, “G7 Threatens Russia with More Sanctions Due to Situation in Donbass,” 04.24.2018) and the Baltic Republics face debilitating Russian cyber attacks (BBC, “How a Cyber Attack Transformed Estonia,” 04.27.2017).
In the Trump era, the world is more threatened by the prospect of American engagement than non-engagement. The new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has proposed bombing Iran (The New York Times, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” 03.26.2015) and North Korea (The Wall Street Journal, “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” 02.28.2018), a more certain route to Nuclear War than pulling out of the Iran Deal and refusing talks with North Korea ever could be. Better to have an isolationist Trump administration than the return of the neocons.
Yes, the United States can and should do a lot of good in the world. When the country is competently led, works through international institutions and devotes the proper resources, it effects positive change. However, in the absence of American will, other countries have shown that they can pick up the slack. The United States is a critical player in global affairs, but not an indispensable one.
So in these uncertain times, let us take cheer in the fact that, for the most part, countries across the world are building alternatives to reliance on American initiative. These alternatives are sometimes suboptimal and illiberal, but at least they function and provide a modicum of stability. At the moment, the only truly indispensable service the United States is performing on behalf of the globe is refraining from blowing it up.