There is a persistent paradox in the literature (and policy-related discourse) on warlordism that spills over into the larger scholarship on political violence and state formation: while some observers regard warlords as insurmountable spoilers, too strong and sinister to be tamed, others characterize them as paper tigers that could be easily dismissed with the right kind of political will. Romain Malejacq has broken through this paradox and unraveled it once and for all, a task that required an exceptional combination of theoretical creativity and empirical labor. Based on rich and difficult qualitative field research conducted across northern and western Afghanistan, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan examines the trajectories of the country’s most formidable (and notorious) strongmen to ask the question “How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them?”
…it is now impossible to read a great deal of writing on international relations published in the US, including new books like these, without noting the prevalence of a bland indifference toward—if not total neglect of—questions of race, social justice, and hierarchy.
What are the legacies of President Donald Trump’s years for how we think about foreign policy and security? Many might point to the “American first” frame the former president championed, which has increased attention to national security and American advantage. Less obviously, though, the Trump presidency’s acceleration of polarization, racism, and dysfunction has generated greater scholarly awareness of the way that racism, sexism, and other tools for exclusion, which are designed to advantage some and dismiss others, have shaped many conceptions in the field. This latter trend, which I focus on below, has generated attention to the interconnections between human security, international security, and national security that promises a more realistic analysis of the U.S. role in the world and better strategies for managing its various relations.
In his video address before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2020, President Donald Trump summed up his views on the COVID-19 pandemic: the world must hold China accountable for covering up the virulence of the virus; the United States had effectively mobilized its resources to meet the challenge; and the world’s leaders should follow the example of the United States by putting their own citizens first and rejecting the pursuit of “global ambitions.” The president’s remarks, coming at a time when the virus was ravaging the world, and in particular the United States, were jarring but unsurprising. For several months, the president had blamed mounting U.S. deaths on collusion between China and the World Health Organization (WHO). He had also announced that the United States, which provided approximately 15 percent of the WHO’s total funding, would withdraw its financial support and terminate its participation in the organization over the WHO’s failure to undertake a set of unspecified reforms. And just prior to his UNGA appearance, the president confirmed that the United States would not participate in the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), an initiative sponsored by the UN and several international organizations to help vaccine manufacturers ensure equitable access to safe and effective vaccines for all countries.
I was born in 1948 and grew up in the north-east of England at a time when its two major industries – mining and shipbuilding – were in decline. My father had joined the Royal Navy in 1938 as a regular officer. This was quite an achievement for a working-class Jew. He served through the war as a naval aviator, including spending some tough months on the besieged island of Malta. After the war he went into business with his brothers, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. There were times when we were very short of money. My mother had shone at school but because of the war had not gone to university. These days she would undoubtedly have had a successful professional career as well as bringing up two boys. She never complained about this.
International relations is not, as former president Donald Trump would like us to believe, purely transactional. States, particularly great powers, often do things that follow a political rather than an economic logic. Great powers provide public goods for their allies, even if those allies sometimes free ride. They maintain a network of bases and military forces stationed in foreign countries, and offer allies and friendly states various trade deals. President Trump’s business approach to international relations often overlooked or ignored many of the nuanced norms of international politics. This was particularly visible when it came to the arms trade, where Trump’s focus on the bottom line ignored the political consequences of arms sales, which are one of the many tools in the foreign policy repertoires of states, and are often used to express political alignments. For example, in 2019 the U.S. sent Javelin missiles to Ukraine to express support for Ukraine and against Russian aggression, a message which was sent and received even though the missiles were never intended to make it to the front lines. Trump’s transactional approach ignored the political-signaling function of arms sales, which will have lasting effects on U.S. political relationships. The Biden administration will need to quickly consider how best to adjust U.S. arms sales policies to align with its foreign policy goals and reassure allies of continued U.S. commitment.
In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a press release on the proposal to move the Red-cockaded Woodpecker from the list of endangered species to the list of threatened species. Efforts to protect the woodpeckers’ habitat, primarily on easily controlled military bases, have been underway for more than 30 years, so there was nothing remarkable about the proposal or press release, except for the campaign ad at the end. Rather than just summarize the proposal and the Endangered Species Act, the release heaped praise on the Trump Administration, reporting that in its first 3.5 years it had delisted more species than the three previous administrations had in their first terms. The release also emphasized that in proposing the down-listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “guidepost for the multi-year, public process was President Donald Trump’s overarching effort to reduce regulatory burden without sacrificing protections for the environment and wildlife.”
From about the time I was twelve, my father and I would stay up late during summer nights discussing politics. As an immigrant to the U.S., he focused our conversations around international relations, although I didn’t quite realize it at the time. Our talks ranged from the political to the personal. I remember clearly a common refrain. Whenever I would complain, he would reassure me that things would change. “Slowly and slowly,” he would say, it would all work out.
If one tries to imagine the future of U.S. foreign relations following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, two broadly opposed possibilities present themselves. Trump’s single presidential term may have been an historical hiccup or parenthesis – “an aberrant moment in time,” as President Joseph Biden hopefully put it – following which there will be a resumption of a normal internationalism in which the U.S. returns to its seat at the head of the table, i.e., business as usual. The second and more likely possibility – a more pessimistic scenario – is that the Trump administration sounded the opening bell of an extraordinarily challenging new era. This eventuality presents rather different choices for American policymakers. One option would be to continue down the nationalist path charted by Trump. Another would be to create a turbocharged version of internationalism – a crisis internationalism, if you will – to address the formidable problems of globalization that lie in store. Whether and how a crisis internationalism will be adopted will require a workable consensus to address the looming threats to globalization. The need for energetic action is glaringly obvious to some people, but not everyone agrees. The nationalist direction may be taken by default because, if nothing else, the Trump years made clear that gaining the approval of the American public for more vigorous internationalist policies will be extraordinarily difficult for policymakers to pull off. It may in the end prove to be impossible.
I suppose it goes without saying that any account of Donald Trump’s presidency, whether concerned with foreign or domestic affairs, must now begin with the grim and brutal events of January 6th, 2021. The insurrection at the United States Capitol was clarifying. We can now see just what Trump stands for, in the last instance. His actions that day, or in the months preceding the assault, may or may not fit the legal definition of “incitement,” but they fall squarely in that moral region. Incitement, they reveal, was the motivating force at the heart of his entire campaign for semi-absolute rule. He stoked the fears of the disconnected and precarious, supercharging our fragmented media ecology of misinformation, ginning up a mob to install himself as what his most fervent supporters call “GEOTUS,” or God Emperor of the United States. Trumpism is, it turns out, what it always appeared to be. It is a corrupt cult of personality riding on a sea of lies. It is a long con expertly worked to pervert and subdue democracy by manipulating resentment and fear—and all to satisfy one man’s vanity.
“Do they do the Cold War in Utrecht?” was the first question I was asked after braving a cloud of volcanic ash to arrive at the prestigious International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War in Washington DC in April 2010. Such was my enthusiasm to join, that I took my suitcase to Amsterdam Airport on a daily basis to ensure that KLM’s crew would let me onto the first intercontinental flight that was allowed to leave the airport after the notorious eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. Having barely finished my MA-degree in Comparative History, while still working as a Classics teacher at a Dutch gymnasium, I relished the opportunity to share my ideas with such Cold War icons as Odd Arne Westad, Bernd Schäfer and James Hershberg. Although most Europeans – including the entire faculty of the LSE – had not managed to cross the Atlantic, I had gone to great lengths to arrive in Washington exactly to “do the Cold War in Utrecht.” Retrospectively, that seemed a long shot – I had a Classics degree from Cambridge and had only recently embarked on a study of the Cold War – but I did it. In this essay, I will explain how.