Jimmy Carter in 1979 made a speech which came in for considerable criticism because he hinted that the United States was limited in its power. What was called the “malaise” speech — in fact, he never mentioned the word — was considered apostasy by the American imperial establishment. Then George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign team touted his candidacy with a slogan that mocked Carter’s inexperience — “a president you don’t have to train.”
It also spoke to an America burned by the loss in South Vietnam and the recent Iranian Revolution. Ronald Reagan won an election on the slogan “Make America great again,” sounds familiar, and suddenly Empire USA was back in business. Or was it? In the 1980s the United States confronted new forces, won symbolic victories and strutted around the arena boasting of its comeback. All the while, Reagan pulled out of Lebanon and placed pressure on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
This pattern continued into the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the elder Bush proclaimed “a new world order.” Over time, a new order emerged, one unforeseen in 1993. By 2018, the People’s Republic of China, once 8 percent of the U.S. economy in 1988, was over 60 percent. India, Pakistan and North Korea possessed nuclear devices and Russia had become revitalized. Eastern Europe was beginning to be suspicious of pluralism and much of the world drifted in between the powers.
Much of this problem could be laid at the feet of George W. Bush, whose overreach created havoc in the world. The Iraq War enabled Iran, whose influence could be seen from Beirut, Lebanon to Sana’a, Yemen. Barack Obama tried to push back, but like Reagan did not like the situation. And even President Donald Trump, for all his bluster, has treaded lightly.
Which gets us to Carter’s speech in 1979 that predicted a world much like what we have at present. Despite the diminishing of old faces, new ones emerged. Trump, no doubt playing to his “base,” caterwauled and whooped over every symbolic strike on Syria, but nevertheless acted with restraint. His approach with North Korea seemed tough, but the main actor is China who, after all, share a border with Kim Jong Un. Iran has European backing, although the U.S. enjoys tremendous influence over its allies, and has legal cover. Note the Islamic Republic is not like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it does have friends — friends who are stronger than in 2003.
Politically, one cannot criticize Trump without chiding Democrats and neo-conservative Republicans. If anything, they are more aggressive — some sought a wider endorsement in Syria and indeed Obama’s policy toward Iran amounted to a not-so-passive aggressive strategy. Working behind the scenes they worked aggressively against Iran economic development, not to mention bolstering Saudia Arabia.
It would behoove Trump, and for that matter every American political leader, to recognize that limits are not a loss of power but a sensible consolidation of it. Carter’s warnings are no more than a caution against a red, white and blue representation of sound and fury signifying nothing.