Free trade, liberalism, and, in our era, democracy and civil society are natural adjuncts to United States naval power. This has been a happy formula since 1945, culminating with President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, which formally completed the process of making the Pacific an American naval lake; and with the end of the Cold War in 1991, when the North Atlantic ceased being contested by American and Soviet submarines.
Now this formula is under great threat, mainly from the United States itself. President Donald Trump’s nationalist, protectionist, “America First” strategy fundamentally undermines Washington’s historic championing of free trade, human rights, and democracy: policies which are baked into the American brand, itself a consequence not only of America’s revolutionary ideals but of its very geography and maritime situation, which provide a deterministic basis for those ideals.
The United States may have overextended itself in Vietnam and Iraq. It may have practiced cynical power politics in support of authoritarian regimes during the Cold War. And it may not have always practiced free trade, as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 most famously demonstrates. But directionally, over the long term, it aspired to lofty values. Now there is an abrupt, directional reverse, with a President who doesn’t even rhetorically support the higher ideals that are the very complements of naval power.