The two electoral shocks of 2016 – the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States – left observers aghast or elated.  For those who found themselves in the former category, the outcome of the Brexit referendum represented a crisis that dwarfed any other challenge the European Union had faced in recent years, while Trump’s victory was seen as a “profound shock to the west, one that calls into question the future of its democratic model and the liberal international order.”[1] For the latter group, Brexit was an enormous victory over an “arrogant, out-of-touch political class.”[2] Similar feelings could be found across the Atlantic, as Fox News claimed that the result of the 2016 presidential election was a “national rejection of both the traditional media and the Hollywood elite.”[3] The one shared sentiment among the majority of observers was surprise. Before polls closed on 23 June 2016, even Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a key figure in the campaign to vote Leave, said he thought Remain would win the EU Referendum.[4] Only a small minority had the prescience to know that the conditions for both outcomes had been building for some time.  Jonathan Haslam was among the few who thought that Trump’s election was “likely” due to “burgeoning blue-collar resentment and dissentient opinion among longstanding Democrats.”[5]

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At the time of writing, it is only six months since Joe Biden became President of the United States.  Yet there is already one notable contrast between Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, that deserves more attention.  In a nutshell, Trump promised an overhaul of U.S. foreign policy but couldn’t deliver.  Biden is trying to overhaul it, only under the cloak of traditional language.  Any attempt to fathom the behaviour of both leaders must navigate this mismatch between words and deeds.

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Evaluating the significance and effects of economic sanctions is a serious challenge for scholars.  For one thing, appraising the outcomes of sanctions raises the question of perspective: from whose vantage point do we observe their use and effects?  While U.S. policymakers often change their approach to sanctions, to targeted countries the continuities in attitude are often more salient than the transfer of power in D.C. from one presidential administration to another.  At the same time, the impression among Western capitals and U.S. allies has been that the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 marked a serious strategic shift for United States foreign policy.  Any fully global assessment of sanctions must integrate these simultaneous perceptions of continuity as well as change.

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We cannot calculate President Trump’s “legacy” for United States foreign policy simply by describing his diplomacy while he was in power.  Virtuous fathers can fritter away family wealth, and Mafiosi can leave ill-gotten gains to charity.  It is still too early to know what long-term consequences might emerge, and it is difficult to sort out what trends would have prevailed even with a less disruptive leader.  Happily, a one-term presidency is less likely to leave durable wreckage in terms of our international reputation than eight years would have done.  My own admittedly non-impartial view is that Trump’s domestic legacy was more damaging and dangerous than his international one.  With his wanton disregard for truth, his use of social media to spread vituperation and contempt, whether for opponents or supporters who fell out of favor, his winking at practitioners of political violence, he simply trashed the norms needed for a functioning democracy – and that is not to mention the continual challenges to the 2020 election results.  Still, H-Diplo has asked about the consequences for foreign policy, and those remain the focus here.

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The United States faces a host of strategic geopolitical challenges today, many of which have long been brewing as a result of structural changes and some of which have been self-inflicted by successive administrations, most recently and most especially the Trump Administration.  In An Open World, Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper deliver a lucid and incisive diagnosis of these multidimensional strategic challenges that is strengthened by their admirable restraint in dwelling on where any blame should be apportioned and is written in precise and elegant prose.  Their goal is to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the current geopolitical landscape facing the U.S. and to chart a strategy for how the U.S. should navigate the world it faces today in order to advance its national interests in a manner that is in line with its values — and they succeed, to a very large extent, on both counts.  An Open World is an important and timely contribution from two scholar–practitioners who wrote this immensely relevant book with the explicit aim of bringing rigorous research to bear on American foreign policy and are now positioned, as senior national security officials in the Biden Administration, to work to bring parts of their vision to fruition as they contribute to the new National Security Strategy and beyond.[1]

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Throughout his years in the public eye, former president Donald Trump has frequently said things that reveal his belief that the construct of ‘race’ is a valid measure of human difference and human worth.  In countless public utterances, he has used racist, derogatory language to insult, belittle, and abuse non-white people.  He has also conflated whiteness with American-ness, implying that the United States is a racial community of white people whose non-white residents cannot be incorporated into the nation because of their race.  After all, he rose to national political prominence primarily through his prolonged racist campaign against President Barack Obama, claiming that Obama had been born in Kenya and was also a Muslim.  And his announcement in June 2015 that he would seek the presidency featured the defining comment of what might be called Trump’s “racial panic.” Speaking about immigration to a group of cheering supporters, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.  They’re not sending you.  They’re not sending you.  They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”[1]

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President Joe Biden has called the current moment an “inflection point,” both domestically and internationally.[2] In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, some forces within the Republican Party have made clear that they no longer believe democracy is in the best interests of their party.  Rather than adjusting their message and policies to broaden their base of support, many in the GOP have doubled down in support of baseless claims of electoral fraud to enact voter suppression laws in the hopes of increasing their odds of success at the ballot box in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.[3]

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“It’s the economy, stupid!” While this phrase was initially coined by Democratic Party nominee Bill Clinton’s campaign to emphasize the importance of a struggling domestic US economy in the presidential race of the early 1990s, today, it appears applicable to the international realm as well.[1] For several decades, IR scholars have drawn a separation between the economic and security realms.  Concretely, the established “neo-neo synthesis” in IR literature posits that whereas considerations about relative gains characterize the security relations between states, the prospect for absolute gains informs economic interactions.[2] Recent developments in international politics, however, are putting in question the continued relevance of the neo-neo synthesis in thinking about statecraft.  China’s growing economy, for instance, was long viewed through the lens of economic opportunity by American policymakers.  Today, in contrast, China’s economic rise is increasingly seen by Washington as a threat to (American) firms, workers, and consumers.[3] In a similar vein, narratives about weaponized interdependence – the practice of “leveraging global networks of informational and financial exchange for strategic advantage” – are becoming increasingly popular.[4] More fundamentally, policymakers and pundits have raised questions about the orthodoxies of “win-win globalization,” and the underlying assumption that increased economic interdependence promotes “peace and cooperation by increasing the cost of conflict between states.”[5]

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It starts, of course, with the wall.  From its earliest moments, the campaign of Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States was predicated on hardening the border between the United States and Mexico, and by extension, between the United States and Latin America—the border where, as Gloria Anzaldúa wrote more than three decades ago, “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”[1] Rubbing salt in those borderland wounds, Trump began his campaign with a call to seal the United States off from supposed horrors emerging from the south, rendering ‘drugs’ and ‘crime’ as external threats carried across the border by people themselves deemed ‘illegal.’

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Audrey Kurth Cronin’s new monograph, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, makes a valuable contribution to the literature on terrorism, technological innovation, and the evolving nature of national security in the twenty-first century.  The book deserves to be widely read by scholars and policymakers.  Deborah Avant, Boyd P. Brown III, and Jennifer Spindel have supplied us with insightful reviews that interrogate, respectively, the book’s theoretical framework, its historical underpinnings, and its policy implications.  Cronin’s response helpfully answers some of her reviewers’ questions and acknowledges where more work is to be done.  In my introduction to this roundtable, I do not wish to recapitulate either Cronin’s or her reviewers’ arguments, since they all speak quite ably for themselves.  What I do want to do is take a step back and try to illuminate some of the broader issues at play.  In short, what does Power to the People tell us about the state of terrorism studies in 2021?

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