Greatness. It was candidate Donald Trump’s central promise: He would Make America Great Again, or #MAGA for short.
But how does a nation achieve greatness? The expansion of territory, influence and power is a good historic measure of a nation’s drive toward greatness.
In the early 21st century, there are many nations actively seeking to achieve greatness. America, however, may be taking a breather.
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Today, large and powerful countries are striving to achieve a greatness that was previously unattainable. Once the United States began to retrench, however, and norms governing world order, borders and sovereignty were no longer respected, the rules of the global game changed.
In this relatively new global environment, the world is witnessing a series of earthshaking moves that enable force and power to rewrite acceptable international law and permit the rise of a Greater Russia, Greater Turkey and Greater China. Even a few minor nations are engaged in the assertive growth game and trying to take advantage of a potential power reshuffle – imagined places like Greater Hungary.
These nations are challenging the global status quo and seeking to grow their territorial influence and regional power in a manner that is further destabilizing the world order. Each of these countries is looking around its immediate neighborhood, claiming and coveting more land, people and resources that they want to possess.
The combination of a more assertive Russia, Turkey and China and a more isolationist and passive America is bad news for the world.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and China’s Xi Jinping are all looking to reclaim a historic greatness – or achieve a new greatness – for their nations by expanding borders, refining their concept of national identity, and enlarging the definition of their strategic and sovereign interests. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, is seeking to draw fixed lines and solid walls around the U.S. and shrink its global footprint.
Some may herald Trump’s general retrenchment of ambition and global presence, but as other countries act aggressively to achieve their own declared manifest greatness, this administration’s indifference and inaction threatens to make America less than great. The parochial interest of creating “America First” threatens to make her a second-rate global power and a self-absorbed bystander of a dangerously transforming world.
Those who favor a contemporary America First posture of withdrawal from the global commons justify Trump-era policies by pointing to past ill-considered wars in Vietnam and Iraq, CIA mistakes in Iran and Chile, and the general hypocrisy of America’s flawed Middle East policy. They claim a rigged international trade system and multinational institutions that have taken advantage of America’s largess. Partisans parrot Trump’s campaign rhetoric and say that past policies were a disaster that led to an American carnage.
America’s adversaries understand that these ill-considered, ruling radical ideas and arguments are forcing traditional American foreign policies and interests to take a time out.
The rest of the world, however, continues to play the geopolitical game. Some more aggressively than others.
Putin’s Russia is selling its citizens on greatness and executing on the promise. Putin’s envisioned Greater Russia is made up of all Russian-speaking territories, including lost Soviet lands considered strategically vital.
During the George W. Bush administration, the Russians encroached on Georgia and got away with not only murder but Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The occupation and annexation of Crimea and the launching of the ongoing hybrid war on Ukraine began in the Obama administration. Already during the Trump administration, Estonian fears of a diminishing American commitment to NATO and Putin’s growing appetite could make it the next course on Russia’s enlargement menu.
Turkey’s Erdoğan looks to the nation’s Ottoman past for inspiration and expansion as his troops continue to occupy Cyprus and regularly incur into Iraq and Syria. He recently challenged the historic treaty that defined his modern nation’s borders, and he boldly propagates the making of new maps of greater Turkey.
In China, greatness means bringing Taiwan into the fold, firming up Hong Kong’s fealty, and suppressing Tibetan and Uighur separatist movements. It also means expanding its territory by creating islands and defining sovereign strategic zones like the “nine-dash line” that turns the South China Sea into China’s exclusive waters, changing international maritime access and mineral rights in the process. A greater China is becoming bolder, bigger and badder.
Chess pieces are moving everywhere around the world but America. Statehood for Hawaii and Alaska marked the end of American territorial expansion in the 1950s. Hopes for Puerto Rico as the 51st state are dormant. American greatness will not mirror other nations’ active absorption of new territory.
Instead, America will continue to depend on the attraction of her system and the secure global world and alliances she built and defended over recent decades. America must rely on the power of her principles and ideas and, as in the past, on the virulence of her values and ideals.
They include a centuries-old constitution and functioning judicial system, a tuned and regulated free market, a tradition of fair elections and peaceful political transitions, a generationally steady movement toward maximizing individual freedom and the codified ideal of protecting minority rights. These ideas make up the greatest export America manufactures – a universal aspiration for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
All these things have lately been under greater assault, however. Justices are accused of racial bias or of being “so-called” judges. The Supreme Court is running on eight cylinders rather than the nine it needs to keep the Constitution humming along.
The list goes on and is growing. Previous administrations failed to act sufficiently in Georgia and Syria. Elections are contested and now meddled with by foreign powers colluding with Americans. The current president’s family and friends are swimming in corrupting seas of forgiven loans, sweetheart deals and, potentially, outright bribes. As a result, the export market for credible American leadership and partnership is rapidly drying up.
A great America is defined not merely by her territory and geography but by the strength of the economy, governing institutions, military power, population growth, the global alliance system, trade relations, and the multinational institutions she developed and nurtured.
They were great. They are still good.
What is unclear is if those things can survive the recent inattention, dysfunction and structural corruption to be made great again. In the meantime, the whole world is watching.
Markos Kounalakis is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.