Can the US really disengage from the world?

So many nations have come to expect a global order based on shared values, often under US leadership, that President-elect Trump may be indicating flexibility on his ‘America First’ stance. Just look at two of his top foreign-policy appointments.

AP Photo
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks in Orlando, Fla., in mid-November. President-elect Donald Trump says he intends to nominate Haley to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Since World War II, the mantle of global leadership has mostly fallen to the United States, not only for its military might but for its universal values – including an openness to work with other countries. President-elect Donald Trump has emphasized a strategy of “America First,” reflected in his doubts about US security alliances and trade pacts. Many nations are now asking if any country will stand for the common values of humanity.

That such a question is even being asked shows how much the world has come to cherish its relative unity around core ideas – something that was largely missing 70 years ago and even until the end of the cold war – and also in how it looks to one nation to lead. Soon after Mr. Trump’s election, for example, many leaders rushed to talk to him, hoping for clarity or change in his views.

One leader in particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even set conditions for cooperation with the US. “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man...,” she said. “I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”

Ms. Merkel also co-wrote an opinion piece with President Obama, published in WirtschaftsWoche news magazine, stating: “Germans and Americans have to seize the opportunity to shape globalization according to their values and ideas. We owe it to our businesses and our citizens – the whole global community, even – to broaden and deepen our cooperation.”

Then this week, in a speech to the German parliament, Merkel asked her country to stand for multilateralism, security, freedom, and “shaping globalization together with others.”

Her statements are a sign of both the widespread desire for global values and perhaps the possibility of Germany taking on more leadership in the world – at least in diplomacy if not in military prowess. In recent years, Merkel has shown strong leadership within Europe during crises over Greece’s debt, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the mass flow of migrants. Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has referred to Germany as a “reflective power.”

The pressure by Germany and other countries to maintain strong US engagement with the world may be working. Trump has modified a few of his foreign-policy statements, such as the use of torture, a ban on all Muslim migrants, and his denial of climate change. And in two key appointments – Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations – Trump has selected people who have spoken of the US as the linchpin of global order.

“There [are] all sorts of reasons why we should lead, and most of them are because the international community wants us to,” said Flynn last year on the “Charlie Rose” show.

For her part, Ms. Haley, who is the daughter of immigrants from India, recently said the US is the “last, best hope on Earth.” Her state is very engaged with the world as it has been very successful in wooing large foreign investments. And after the shooting in a black church last year in Charleston, she helped the local community recover, later describing that effort this way: “We turned toward God and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.”

By the time he becomes American commander in chief, Trump like others before him may have realized he has inherited a tradition in which the world expects certain high standards and values, many of them seeded and protected by the US along with others. The presidency is bigger than the person in the Oval Office. And so, too, are the values that have come to bind the world.

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