Leo Ribuffo should be writing this reflection on the four years since Donald Trump’s election.  Diane Labrosse kindly asked me to contribute after reading my 2017 remarks celebrating Ribuffo’s pathbreaking 1983 The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.  Andrew Hartman put together the roundtable that took place just weeks before Ribuffo unexpectedly passed away and made sure the papers, including Ribuffo’s, were published.  But Labrosse’s kind invitation to contribute to H-Diplo gave me a chance to revisit the Old Christian Right, Ribuffo’s 2017 essay on Donald Trump and the uses and abuses of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” and what I wrote less than a year into the Trump Administration.[1]

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Building on and revisiting their acclaimed study of German unification and the end of the Cold War,[1] in To Build a Better World Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice set this subject in a broader framework.  They draw not only on their own perspectives as policy-makers, but on contemporary accounts and documents from multiple countries, and look not only at the tumultuous events of 1989-91, but the subsequent reconstruction of the international system. Our reviewers find that some of this account gives too much praise to the policies of George W. Bush, but agree that the book is more than that: Zelikow and Rice are scholars as well as participants, and they seek to explain as well as describe what happened.

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It is interesting to look back on the predictions made by contributors on the eve of the Trump administration.  They run the gamut from seeing him as a radical departure from previous presidents in his policies to someone radically different in style but not markedly different from his predecessors in his policies.  Most assume that he will to a considerable degree constrained and restrained.  Looking back on 2016 it is evident that I was both wrong and right.  I was wrong in thinking it unlikely that Trump would get elected but quite right in my expectation that he would deviate in the most dramatic ways from his predecessor in style and substance.

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Introduction from the Editors

General Editors: Robert Jervis, Stacie Goddard, Diane Labrosse, and Joshua Rovner

Donald Trump’s election forced international relations scholars to reassess our views of international politics.  In the quarter-century between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Trump, scholars took some big things for granted.  They assumed there was a durable bipartisan commitment to a large forward U.S. military presence, and that any U.S. leader—Democrat or Republican—would remain committed to the liberal international order.  Debates about democracy, trade, and institutions would go on, but no U.S. president would challenge the foundations of the post-World War II global order.  Politicians who tried to do so seemed destined for the fringes of American political life.

And then came Trump.  The new president did not accept these deeply embedded assumptions about international politics; he mocked them.  Trump criticized institutional cooperation, which sacrificed flexibility for predictability, and called for a transactional approach to foreign policy.  He blasted democratic alliances, which he saw as vehicles for smaller countries to exploit the United States, and heaped praised on authoritarian regimes. Perhaps most importantly, he took aim at the U.S. organizations that are responsible for implementing U.S. grand strategy, especially the intelligence community and the State Department.  Trump played on declining U.S. public faith in government.  Indeed, he encouraged Americans to doubt the legitimacy of their own institutions.

Critics worried that Trump’s campaign rhetoric foreshadowed a bleak future for international politics.  Undermining the liberal international order meant a return of the vicious great power rivalries of the early twentieth century, which had led to global depression and two world wars.  Hollowing out U.S. institutions would leave the country unprepared to compete in a multipolar world.  This was the worst of all worlds: a weaker United States in a more dangerous world.  A flood of commentary followed in the deeply unsettling months after the election.

In 2017, the H-Diplo/ISSF editors sought to broaden the discussion, commissioning a series of essays on the effects of the election on the liberal international order.  Our goal was to put Trump’s election in context by soliciting essays from a range of political scientists and historians.  We asked them to reflect on the state of international relations and America’s role in the world.  At a basic level, we wanted to know if theories scholars argued about after the Cold War were still relevant in the age of Trump.  A selection of those essays were published in Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2018).

H-Diplo/ISSF is now launching a second series of analyses that will focus on the effects of the Trump presidency on the United States’ standing in the world.  Did Trump weaken the liberal international order, or did he simply expose problems that were always lying beneath the surface?  Did he ruin the U.S. reputation by treating politics as a zero-sum game, or did he simply confirm foreign suspicions that the American-led order was always a façade for American power?  Will the Trump presidency have lasting consequences for international politics, or will we remember it as a bizarre and temporary detour?

We will also explore the prospects for the new Biden administration.  What do diplomatic history and international relations theory tell us about the future of the U.S. in the world?  What tools and insights can the H-Diplo/ISSF community provide to make sense of this evolving situation?  What assumptions about a range of topics – including alliances, multilateralism, nuclear policy, regional dynamics, international law, civil-military affairs, escalation, human rights, and globalization – demand attention in the aftermath of the 2020 election?  We do not seek instant analyses of the 2020 election; instead, we seek to put the Trump presidency in historical and theoretical context and to chart out the possibilities of the Biden administration.

The series will feature a range of essays.  Our original contributors have been invited to assess their contributions to the first series and to reflect on their first impressions of Trump, with the benefit of hindsight.  We have also commissioned new essays to address the effects of the Trump presidency, from a range of different perspectives, and in light of the events of the Trump years, including the rise of global movements for women’s rights, racial justice, and environmental protection, and a global pandemic that put international cooperation under tremendous strain and revealed the domestic structural damage that was done during Trump’s term.  Whether the international order can bear the pressure remains an open question.

—Robert Jervis, Stacie Goddard, Diane Labrosse, and Joshua Rovner

The study of bureaucracy as an influence in the formulation and conduct of foreign and defense policy has receded in popularity since its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the limits of bureaucratic processes, the influence of the decorum generated by organizational culture or even the constraints created by the overall structure of government itself are rarely identified as much of a contributing factor in policy success or failure.  Instead, the world seems focused on a vicious partisan politics that demonizes the opposition and reduces issues of specific policy selection and implementation to little more than an afterthought, as if ideological purity can substitute for bureaucratic acumen and political savvy.  Nevertheless, as Robert Art noted in his survey of the first-wave of the bureaucratic politics literature, how we make decisions influences the types of decisions we make.[1]  Organizational processes and bureaucratic culture can frame opportunities, challenges, and options in sometimes surprising ways.

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Are China and the United States on a dangerous collision course, and if so, is there any hope of avoiding a Sino-American conflagration over the future of the international order?  As important as such questions may be, their ubiquity threatens to render them banal.  Steve Chan’s new book elevates the discourse around these common questions by compelling readers to see them in a new and distinctive light.  With Thucydides’s Trap?  Historical Interpretation, Logic of Inquiry, and the Future of Sino-American Relations, Chan interrogates frameworks commonly used to address such questions without losing sight of their practical significance or the practical consequences of asking and answering the questions in conventional ways.

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NATO’s enlargement after 1999 to include fourteen new member-states from Central and Eastern Europe remains among the most consequential and controversial policies of the post-Cold War era.  In an effort to deepen the debate over enlargement, we edited a special issue of the journal International Politics that included twelve articles by leading scholars representing a diverse array of thinking on the merits of expansion.[1]  A subset of those authors have written for this H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable, highlighting the continued interest in the topic.

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Nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from other military tools.  The technology is familiar and yet still exotic; the ability to split nuclei and fuse them together remains one of the most extraordinary technical milestones of the last century.  And the yields of nuclear explosions are orders of magnitude greater than those of conventional weapons, making the effects of a hypothetical nuclear war hard to comprehend.  In a clash between nuclear-armed states, the devastation might overwhelm the value of any imaginable political goals.  Such a conflict may not be unthinkable, but it is hard to think about.

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In his review of Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb, Marc Trachtenberg reminds readers that “it is important to see the past for what it was.”  This, as both Trachtenberg and Robert Jervis agree, is the overwhelming merit of The Bomb, a remarkable history of one of the wonkiest niches of U.S. national security strategy—the operational planning of nuclear wars.  In the book, Kaplan takes readers across six decades of nuclear planning and, in doing so, reveals a remarkable consistency throughout America’s nuclear history: despite numerous attempts by many presidential administrations, U.S. nuclear strategy has never been able to escape the impetus for first strike.  Kaplan makes a compelling argument that the U.S. has been imprisoned by its own operational planning requirements, unable to draw down its nuclear arsenal largely because of path dependencies that were set in motion by service cultures which Kaplan traces back to World War II.

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The participants in this roundtable had planned to discuss Xiaoyu Pu’s Rebranding China at the 2020 meeting of the International Studies Association in Honolulu, Hawaii.  COVID-19, however, intervened to cause the cancellation of the conference.  We are grateful that we still have this opportunity to have an online conversation on Pu’s book in the form of this H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable.

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