To call President Donald Trump's meeting last week with European Union officials a failure would be misleading; it offered just the sort of political disruption he's staked his presidential career on.
In his trip to Europe last week, Trump reportedly called longstanding United States ally Germany "very bad" and pledged to ban German car imports.
Berlin has since suggested that Trump's fiery rhetoric highlights the decline of U.S. influence internationally. That message is echoed by world policy analysts.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel redoubled calls to distance Europe from the U.S. Tuesday. "Europeans must really take our fate into our hands," she said, following a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin. "Of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries," she added. Tuesday's remarks reiterated Merkel's comments over the weekend that Germany can no longer "fully rely" on the U.S. and must instead "take our destiny into our own hands."
Hours before Merkel's comments on Tuesday, Trump tweeted: "We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change"
Amid this war of words, Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel added that the U.S. was "dropping out as an important nation."
Gabriel was not the first to have predicted the impending demise of U.S. hegemony: Analysts have long cited moments that they have interpreted as harbingers of the fall of the American empire.
Fareed Zakaria's 2008 book The Post American World—perhaps infamously—suggested that things would end well for Washington—that the U.S. had successfully spread democratic norms internationally, pressuring autocratic governments to become accountable to their citizens. The foregone conclusion of this view is that the U.S. push for international democracy will engender the rise of other advanced nations with stable governments and booming economies would arise, creating several centers of gravity in this sort of political universe.
This particular theory of the U.S.'s demise as the world's policeman played to much criticism from progressives, who charged that Zakaria had taken an egregiously uncritical view of Washington's ostensible bid for democracy, particularly amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But now, with Trump continuing to embitter Washington's partners abroad, it seems there's no such Hollywood ending (one in which the war for forcefully applied democracy triumphs) in the cards.
Many experts predict that the present standoff with Germany indicates an embarrassing transition away from the era of U.S. largesse abroad. Merkel's declarations are "an important step toward the multi-polar world order in the making, that is irreversible," says Walter Mignolo, a professor at Duke University and one of the world's foremost scholars of decolonialism, who has spent his life tracking the rise and what he envisions as the impending fall of U.S. and Western hegemony. "For the mutation to multi-polarity to be smooth, the E.U. has to grow up, come to age as Merkel said. And Macron said also during his campaign: The E.U. has to take its destiny in its own hand and stop being the obedient child of the U.S., which is—and was—humiliating."
Mignolo believes the world is transitioning to one in which "there will no longer be one superpower calling the shot," one that is "multi-polar." But that era wasn't ushered in this week, nor did it start with Trump's inauguration, he says.
"That is the anti-Trump version by liberal and neo-liberal globalizers," he says. "Trump may accelerate the process, but the U.S. decline in world domination goes back to the end of the Bush-Cheney administration, and has much to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union."
The enormous cost—in both liquid and human capital—of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, for instance, helped the world along on its trek to multi-polarity, Mignolo argues. So too did Obama's numerous unfulfilled pledges made in Cairo at the onset of his presidency to revamp U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds—formally opposing Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories, for instance.
"Trump may accelerate the process, but the U.S. decline in world domination goes back to the end of the Bush-Cheney administration."
But it's not just the U.S. and the West's failure to lead that has ushered in this new era; so too has the East's success.
"By 2000 the shift to the Eastern Hemisphere was obvious," Mignolo says, citing China's rise. "The U.S. and Europe—before the E.U.—were no longer the beneficiaries of the wealth and labor of the world."
Trump campaigned on a platform of lessening Washington's footprint abroad, but Mignolo predicts that the U.S., as evidenced in Trump's trip to the Middle East and Europe last week, will struggle to maintain its waning importance abroad.
"U.S. would do all they can to maintain their self-appointed position to unilaterally decide on the world order. Kissinger said it, Brzezinski, Obama said it. Although several decisions in the past 15 years—the incapacity of the U.S. to share power—played against their will," Mignolo says. "The E.U. could indeed contribute to smooth out the mutation to multi-polarity, where the U.S. will remain as one important player, but one among them. Not the boss of the world order."
As Merkel and the E.U. re-chart their course, it is essential to note that China has long angled itself to rise to that challenge, internationalizing everything from its currency to its film industry as a kind of soft power.
While China has some ways to go, it has clearly already begun to rival the U.S. in multiple sectors, according to William Hurst, a Northwestern University political science professor and expert on Chinese politics.
"China is definitely better than the U.S. at mustering significant resources quickly to meet specific economic, development, or other policy goals, but this is not always a good thing," Hurst says. "China can build infrastructure faster than almost any other country, but not all of its infrastructure is optimally deployed, meets sufficient safety or durability standards, or contributes positively to economic growth or social development—and a great many people are displaced or disadvantaged by its development."
China is aware of the multi-polar model Mignolo describes; it is embracing this vision.
"The working assumption behind just about all strategic thinking in China since the mid-1990s is that the world is headed for a multi-polar balance of power system," Hurst says, "The decline of the United States, at least in relative terms, is only part of a larger set of processes leading to multi-polarity. In such a new order, China would not 'replace' the United States as a global hegemon. This is not what China wants and not something it thinks it could achieve. Instead, if Chinese strategists and theorists are correct, multiple powers around the world—including both the U.S. and China, along with other countries such as Russia, India, and perhaps a more united E.U. ... would balance each other in, hopefully, a new equilibrium."
The implication is that, in such a world, Merkel, together with a perfidy of powers, calls the shots; no single power finds it easy to impose its political agenda abroad. In a time where territorial (i.e. South China Sea) and ideological (the global populist wave) disputes abound, whether that multi-polar world can exist peacefully remains to be seen.