The idea of a liberal rules-based international order has taken a beating lately, not just from the Trump presidency but also in the pages of academic and policy publications. The administration in Washington argues that the liberal order in the post-Cold War world no longer serves U.S. interests. While this argument deserves scrutiny in light of China’s spectacular rise within the order, academic writing has instead focused more on the fact that notions of the liberal order are simply “myth” and “nostalgia.” Critics allege that the liberal international rules-based order was never truly liberal, international, rules-based, or orderly. In this vein, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections is not a cause but rather a symptom of the longer-term decline in the various pillars of the order: capitalism, multilateralism, and democracy.
Category: Policy Roundtables
The presidency of Donald Trump is the strangest act in American history; unprecedented in form, in style an endless sequence of improvisations and malapropisms. But in substance there is continuity, probably much more than is customarily recognized. It is hard to recognize the continuity, amid the daily meltdowns (and biennial shutdowns), but it exists. In large measure Trump has been a Republican president, carrying out a Republican agenda. His attack on the regulatory agencies follows a Republican script. His call for a prodigious boost to military spending, combined with sharp cuts in taxes, has been the Republican program since the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. His climate skepticism corresponds with that of Republican leaders in Congress. On trade and immigration, Trump has departed most radically from Bush Republicanism, but even in that regard Trump’s policies harken back to older traditions in the Grand Old Party. He is different in character and temperament from every Republican predecessor as president, yet has attached himself to much of the traditional Republican program.
While campaigning for President in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump never missed an opportunity to attack the major foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, European Union, China, and Russia in June 2015 that halted Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Criticizing the deal had been popular among Obama’s detractors, but Trump’s denunciations were particularly vociferous. “My number one priority,” he declared, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He called it a “terrible” deal, one negotiated “in desperation,” which he vowed to rip up as soon as he took office. Iran came up, again and again, as yet another area where the Obama Administration had surrendered U.S. interests and initiative.
The U.S. government’s across-the-board hardening in pushing back against a range of Chinese challenges to American interests emerged erratically after the start of the Trump administration in 2017 but it has demonstrated remarkable momentum over the past year.
Since the start of the twentieth century, when the White House first became “a full-time propaganda machine,” the president’s relationship with the media has been in a state of constant flux. The underlying cause has been the media’s technological evolution, from its newspaper and magazine roots to the radio and television era, and finally to the modern landscape of cable broadcasting and the internet. With the addition of each new media form, presidents have faced fresh challenges related to coordination, speed, and packaging. But the more innovative among them—William McKinley in the newspaper age, Franklin D. Roosevelt in the radio era, and John F. Kennedy with the advent of television—managed to devise new ways of dealing with the altered landscape, which their successors then copied.
Popular support for extremist parties is on the rise in liberal democracies today. In both new and well-established liberal democratic states, extremists are gaining government appointments and seats in legislative assemblies. As they gain power, they are better situated to enact their illiberal and antidemocratic goals into law and even alter their constitutions. The Fidesz Party of Hungary and the Law and Justice Party of Poland exemplify this trend. Both parties have used their democratic mandate to dismantle fundamental features of liberal constitutionalism and entrench their rule. Most recently, Fidesz stated it will use its supermajority in parliament to amend the constitution to read that “The protection of Hungary’s self-identity and its Christian culture is the duty of all state organizations”—threatening religious liberty and minorities’ rights. The Law and Justice Party just passed a law that enabled it to purge judges who are critical of the party from the courts, including the Supreme Court—undermining the balance of powers. Wherever extremists have gained control, they have adopted these sorts of tactics to realize their political goals. Broadly speaking, these tactics include weakening checks by the judiciary and administration on the legislative and executive branches by purging opposition judges and officials and replacing them with loyalists; consolidating power by altering election laws and amending the constitution to favor parliament and the executive; bullying and silencing the opposition within the legislature; weakening the rights that enable civil society to challenge and check the legislative and executive branches; and, finally, stoking racist, xenophobic, and anti-pluralist sentiments to mobilize their electoral base.
As the Trump administration’s second year in office rolls onward, what is the state of the transatlantic alliance? Writing for H-Diplo last year, I argued that Trump’s first year in office saw the emergence of a “Trumpian NATO policy.” In brief, this policy encompassed significant continuity with the substance of prior U.S. policy towards NATO, coupled with highly conditional U.S. rhetorical backing for the transatlantic relationship. As Trump—in a break from his campaign rhetoric—emphasized through mid-2017, NATO provided value to the United States, even as he suggested the United States might exit the alliance should its allies not agree to U.S. demands in intra-alliance discussions.
Donald Trump’s potential to be a disruptive force in both national and international politics was fully in evidence during the 2016 election campaign and has been more than realized since his inauguration. The extent of the eventual disruption that will mark his legacy will depend on a combination of intended and unintended consequences of his actions. The way he stirs the international pot may lead other states to look at problems with fresh eyes and consider possibilities that they might otherwise have dismissed.
Geoffrey Roberts’s criticism of our discussion of Joseph Stalin’s personal role in facilitating the Soviet failure to correctly estimate the German threat prior to Operation Barbarossa of June 1941, focused on three main arguments. First, that his behavior on the eve of the attack was not the result of unique psychological elements but of a “political rationale.” Second, that the intelligence information concerning the looming threat was not unequivocal and that there was a foundation for Stalin’s suspicion that the war warnings were the product of British deception. Third, that Stalin should not be singled out for his mistaken estimate since there were other “Soviet decision-makers” who believed that war was not imminent. I briefly address each of these reservations.
As I noted the last time I took to this platform to express my views on the meaning of President Donald J. Trump for Canada’s relationship with the United States, there were at least a few reasons for optimism, amid the general sense of gloom and doom that descended upon Canadians in the immediate aftermath of the November 2016 election. Chief among those reasons was my expectation that, just as earlier Canadian forebodings about Ronald Reagan’s meaning for Canada and its relationship with its great neighbour to the south would turn out to be wildly misplaced in the years following the November 1980 American election, so too might the most recent bout of national neuralgia disappear, once Canadians got to know more about the new president, and grew, if not to like him more, then at least to dislike him a bit less.