Very few people recall this, or at least they don’t mention it anymore, but George W. Bush was elected as President of the USA after running a campaign which was very isolationist. Bush Jr. spoke during his election campaign of bringing American troops home from Europe, closing bases overseas, and expecting other countries to do a lot more to provide for their own security. I was a subscriber to The Economist at the time and I remember much wailing from the Europeans and other progressives that this backward cowboy didn’t understand the complexities of the world outside Texas and that America under his presidency would abandon its responsibilities around the globe. I recall the Germans being particularly incensed that US bases on which the economy of entire towns depend might close, and the criticism was neither polite nor restrained.
9/11 changed all that. Bush had little choice but to go after the Taliban once they’d refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, and pretty quickly Bush realised that America could not isolate itself from the world in the way he wanted. And once this turnaround occurred and the US military machine built up momentum…well, we had Iraq and any memories of Bush being an isolationist keen on keeping the military at home disappeared completely.
Not that this meant much to Bush’s earlier critics: the complaints went from his being a backward Texan cowboy wanting to abandon the USA’s security responsibilities to his being a backward Texan cowboy who was too ready to use American military power overseas. The ease with which the same people switched reversed their criticism said a lot more about them than Bush. Effectively – and this is the basis of a lot of the criticism the US had regarding Iraq and the Gulf – Europeans want the USA to shoulder the lion’s share of global security (including safeguarding their own countries) in terms of money, men, and material but wish to dictate exactly how the Americans should go about doing that.
Well the world doesn’t work like that. The world’s elite didn’t want the Americans to invade Iraq in 2003 but – as P.J. O’Rourke pointed out – when Kuwait got invaded in 1990, nobody called Sweden. So by default American earned itself some say in how it goes about fulfilling the task that the whole world has dumped on it, regardless of the attempts made in the UN to get America to pay the price of containing Saddam Hussein while the likes of France and Russia went about normalising relations with him.
The problem the Europeans now have with the prospect of a Trump presidency is a serious one as he appears to be keen to adopt similar isolationist policies to those that Bush originally campaigned on. The isolationism espoused by Bush was popular enough among Americans at the time, but they quickly changed their minds after 9/11. Now they have had over a decade of vitriolic abuse and universal condemnation for having used their troops overseas in a manner not approved by Europeans, any wailing from Europe about America abandoning them might well fall on deaf ears indeed.
I often thought those that vehemently opposed the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq might rue the day when the US military decides it will stay at home and let nature take its course. If Trump wins the presidency in November, that day might be closer than I thought.