Over breakfast recently, my daughter asked whether things would ever go back to normal. She dropped the question a few days after Donald Trump incited the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration was still a week or two away. I like to tell myself I’m good in these moments, and I started a story about the star-spangled-banner, thinking she would be comforted by the knowledge that the country’s national anthem was penned after the original Capitol’s destruction. Rough patches come and go, I explained. She stared silently into her cereal as I talked. The pandemic lost its novelty a long time ago, Mom has cancer, and I was obviously missing the point of the question. A few days earlier, somebody tore down the “We Believe” sign in our front lawn. My daughter was asking about normalcy because she feared that some of the people she had seen on television might live in our neighborhood. We pumped the breaks on Francis Scott Key. Instead, we talked about heroes in the books she likes to read. I gave her a hug eventually and then I lied, promising that everything would go back to normal soon.
Much like its predecessor, the Trump administration came into office rhetorically committed to reducing the American military and political footprint in the Middle East and left office with the American role in the region largely unchanged; like its predecessor, it came into office ready to engage diplomatically on Arab-Israeli questions, with an eye toward a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and it left office with little progress on that core conflict of the Arab-Israeli arena. It succeeded in expanding the number of Arab countries that diplomatically recognize Israel, but those recognitions did little to change the immediate geopolitical dynamics of the Arab-Israeli issue. They were more a testament to the enduring centrality of the United States in the Middle East, a backhanded acknowledgement that Trump’s initial desire to de-emphasize the region in American foreign policy had failed. Unlike its predecessor, the Trump administration increased pressure on Iran, in the failed hopes of either renegotiating the 2015 nuclear deal or, more ambitiously, bringing about regime change in Tehran. The new Biden administration is seeking to restore dialogue with the Islamic Republic. The Trump administration privileged relations with Saudi Arabia even beyond what previous administrations had done, but with the result of making Saudi-American relations a more toxically partisan issue than in the past.
The era of Pax Americana—ushered in by President Harry Truman, put on steroids during the neoliberal wave initiated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and seemingly cemented by the profound changes in Europe after the Cold War—led many to proclaim the arrival of a final stage of global democratic peace and liberal order. This teleological view of history has, in recent years, proved an illusion. While progressives would like to believe otherwise, “in geopolitics, as in biology, mankind remains susceptible to new strains of old maladies.” And so a world that had grown accustomed to thinking of progress as inevitable and irreversible is now being rocked by old toxic patterns previously thought crushed by the march of progress—the outbreak of a global pandemic, the rise of authoritarian alternatives to democracy, and the return of great-power competition. The comeback of these old system disturbances conforms with the twenty-first century’s wider theme of “back to the future.” Their reappearance also introduces risks and complications into the international system that threaten to overwhelm the institutions of domestic and global governance. Indeed, order of any kind is becoming increasingly scarce in today’s politics of mounting chaos and randomness, traits associated with rising entropy. History is accelerating, not ending.
“Wednesday, January the sixth two thousand and twenty-one—a date which will live in infamy—the United States Capitol was suddenly and deliberately attacked by a mob incited by President Donald Trump”—with just a few words substituted, this sentence repeats what President Franklin Roosevelt said when he asked for a declaration of war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “Infamy” perfectly characterizes this deliberately provoked assault on one of the most hallowed sites and institutions of American democracy.
War is a complex and chaotic business that persistently confounds the attempts of frontline forces, junior officers, field commanders, campaign commanders, policy elites, and others to understand what is happening amidst the smoke, noise, violence, and confusion. This has not, however, stopped war’s many participants from trying to discern the ebbs and flows of battle and use whatever information can be gleaned to chart the most propitious path forward. Information technology has always been a central component of this effort; as the Chief of the Prussian General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, noted soon after the employment of the telegraph in battle, the goal of reliance on tools ranging from human and animal messengers to the most sophisticated, integrated satellite-based communications networks has been to improve a military’s ability to estimate and respond to the current and likely future combat situation.
In a speech at Mount Rushmore on 4 July 2020 President Donald Trump stated that the United States was under threat from a “totalitarian” “cancel culture” which was eroding American liberty, “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” Trump’s invocation of ‘totalitarianism’ speaks to the lasting hold this highly flexible and powerfully evocative concept retains on American political discourse. Political commentators and politicians brought totalitarianism out of its brief retirement in the post-Cold War era to be deployed as a weapon in the ‘war on terror,’ as I show in my research on the life of this concept after its mid-century heyday. In the early 2000s, totalitarianism was invoked by pro-war liberal intellectuals and the George W. Bush administration to link the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the ‘good fights’ of World War II and the Cold War. In this construction, ‘Islamofascism’ took the place of Nazism and Communism as the ideology perceived to represent an ‘existential’ threat to Western civilization.
In a previous essay, I set out the thinking of political philosophers in the ancient Mediterranean concerning the differences between what they termed aristocracy and what they termed oligarchy. These thinkers defined the characteristics of these political regimes, and gave them the names we still use for them: both “aristocracy” and “oligarchy” derive from this ancient political conversation. Writers from Plato (380 BCE) to Polybius (150 BCE) to Sallust (40 BCE) described aristocracy as rule by the few, but in the name of the general populace, and sincerely in their interest. Oligarchy was by contrast its evil twin: rule by the few but driven only by the oligarchs’ unrestrained appetites, with no thought for the good of the people.
Four years ago I was asked to address whether IR theory might help us understand the coming Trump presidency. I answered “no” for several reasons. IR theory is better at explanation than prediction. Even if it was reasonably good at prediction, its theories were completely outmatched by Donald Trump. Most IR theories are premised on rationality assumptions, but Trump exhibited little rationality. There were those who thought that he would be tamed by “adults” in the room, but I dismissed this as wishful thinking. Trump had demonstrated the ability to escape almost every single constraint he ever met. Trump would be Trump. All we could know is that he would act in ways that met his needs, however he defined them at the time.
I have to confess that when the editor asked me to provide my thoughts about the effect President Donald J. Trump has had upon Canadians and, by projection, upon the quality of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Canada, my memory flashed back to the early 1960s, when I first read Joseph Heller’s incredible antiwar satire, Catch-22. There are two reasons for the flashback. First is the strikingly bizarre impact (satirical were it not so sad) that the Trump presidency appears to have had upon what is usually considered to be the world’s platinum standard for sensible bilateral relationships. Just as Heller’s characters managed to make such a hash of warfighting, so too has Donald Trump seemingly accomplished the impossible – to lead a goodly number of Canadians actually to think of the United States as an “enemy”! For sure, this enemy image is far from reflecting a majoritarian perspective among Canadians – we are not yet a country populated by Russians or Iranians – but the mere fact that some 10 percent of those surveyed recently could have such a dismal view of their American neighbor speaks volumes about the depths to which the affective quality of the bilateral relationship has plunged since Trump became president.
In the presidential election of 2020, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was given a reprieve from what could very well have been a death sentence in the four years to follow. Reelection of Donald Trump would have given the anti-NATO American president the opportunity to cancel the American commitment to the mutual defense provision of the alliance and pull U.S. forces out of Europe, both of which had been suggested as possibilities during his first term.