As President Donald Trump’s administration begins, relations between the United States and Russia make the headlines almost every day. No one seems able to agree on what Russian President Vladimir Putin did or did not do to try to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, much less on what his ultimate aims are. Trump’s own cabinet picks, not to mention the U.S. Congress and Senate, are split on whether the U.S. should try yet another ‘reset’ with Russia, or instead punish Putin further for his actions. Meanwhile European countries allied with the U.S. in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are undergoing their own wrenching debates about Russia, with some leading politicians believing that Russia intends to break NATO or perhaps even invade the Baltics, while other European political parties openly cooperate with Putin. Business interests in both North America and Europe seek an end to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but human rights groups argue to the contrary that even stronger sanctions are warranted.
A number of the essays in this series have grappled with the question of how big a departure Donald Trump’s presidency is from the theory and practice of American foreign policy and international relations more broadly. Having published a book on presidential deception not too long ago, I have been reflecting on this theme with particular reference to Trump’s strained (perhaps broken) relationship with the truth. Trump’s carelessness with the truth is by now well known. The fact-checking site PolitiFact awarded Trump’s statements “Lie of the Year” in 2015. As of 3 February 2017, it had rated fully 69% of his statements either “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.” By comparison, Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election campaign, was charged with making “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” claims 26% of the time.
As with other aspects of the Trump presidency, it is impossible at this stage to predict how the day-to-day conduct of foreign policy will actually work out. But in his campaign rhetoric, and also in earlier statements over the years, Donald Trump made it clear that his predispositions are at odds with the orthodoxy that has shaped U.S. foreign policy for the past seven decades. The conjuncture of his accession to the Presidency with a decline in both America’s margin of economic pre-eminence and the public’s appetite for overseas military interventions raises the possibility that we are about to witness the most profound change in the structure of world politics since 1945. It is easier to understand this if we recognize that the nature as well as the scope of the global role that the United States has played in the last seventy years has been a departure from the norms of inter-state relations.
Making sense of the present is a difficult undertaking at the best of times. It seems more especially so at the current moment. The tumult of 2016 was of a kind not seen since the ‘spring of the peoples’ in 1848. Power no longer seems to be what it was and where it was thought to be. In the West, a wave of anti-establishment populism threatens to bring down the given order, and, in part, has succeeded in upending established verities. Elsewhere, the world seems in turmoil, too. Migratory movements along Europe’s soft Mediterranean underbelly are placing unprecedented strains on European societies and the continent’s political structures; a restless Russia is intent on a policy of imperial reconstitution, however partial; in East Asia, the rising power of China and a defensive United States are eying each other warily; and Islamist terrorism continues to widen the internal and geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and to export violence abroad. The speed and spread of change has left commentators perplexed at how what, until very recently, appeared firm and unshakeable has proved brittle and shallow-rooted. Some see Western democracy imperilled and point to parallels with the 1930s. Others draw analogies with the inquietude of Europe on the eve of the First World War. Whether any such parallels exist today, we shall know for certain in a hundred years’ time. Perceived analogies are never exact. Often, indeed, they are misleading, and reveal more about contemporary sensibilities than about ‘objective’ realities. But rather than look back wistfully at the simpler times of the post-1945 world, it is worth remembering that instability and impermanence are the hallmark of international affairs. They are, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed, “a fluid element, which will coagulate temporarily under certain circumstances but which, at a change in the atmosphere, will revert to its original aggregate condition.”
Defining scientific progress in terms of the cumulation of knowledge, predictive power, and an “approach-to-consensus” regarding the best explanation when intellectual disputes arise, Fred Chernoff raises the critically important questions of why is there relatively little progress in the field of security studies as compared to the natural sciences, and why is there more progress in some areas of security studies than in others. He argues that one important answer to these questions is that scholars in security studies, unlike those in the natural sciences, use different philosophy of science criteria of evaluation and are rarely explicit about what those criteria are. Chernoff finds support for his argument in an empirical examination of how security studies scholars make judgments about the quality of competing explanations regarding three important research questions in the field—nuclear proliferation, balance of power and alliance formation, and the democratic peace. With respect to the latter, he argues that scholars have explicitly stated their criteria, reached agreement about the appropriate criteria, and moved towards consensus on the validity of a liberal explanation (though which particular liberal explanation is still contested). Chernoff includes a discussion of alternative explanations for the lack of scientific progress in security studies, including the fact that some scholars are answering different questions rather than providing different answers to the same question. He concludes with some useful reflections on the role of metatheory in international relations research programs.
The election of Donald Trump seems to many to mark the death of liberal internationalism. Given the President-elect’s failure to give clear guidelines regarding what he intends to do in so many areas, however, we may be surprised by the things he chooses to do because he has yet to devote much time and attention to thinking about them. But one wonders whether U.S. relations with Latin America will change all that much. Latin America may have remained an area which the United States assumes it can dominate, but in general there has been a lack of a clear direction in U.S. policy for the most part.1
Donald Trump presents the most formidable challenge to the foreign policy consensus that has prevailed in the United States since World War II. We do not yet know what U.S. foreign policy will be like under the Trump administration, and it is possible it will exhibit greater continuity than many people now expect. Trump ran for president pledging a radically different approach towards the rest of the world, however, and some of his early appointments and pronouncements suggest that this is what he will try to do.
El Salvador’s civil war claimed 75,000 lives, lasted 12 years, and devastated the country in ways felt to this day. Even so, U.S. counterinsurgency scholars often point to El Salvador as a success story and source of lessons for wars to come. Through military and economic aid, and the deployment of 55 advisers to assist with the counterinsurgency effort, the United States helped the San Salvador regime survive the onslaught of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the early 1980s, undergo a process of democratization, reform, and military professionalization, and navigate eventual peace talks, leading to a resolution of the conflict in 1992. To many, the fact that FMLN’s armed revolution failed, that the peace held, and that the regime survived, and better yet democratized, without the United States ever engaging directly in combat, provides a tantalizing illustration of what Washington could achieve, again with limited effort, in other insurgency-threatened parts of the world.
I am only guessing, since no one has said as much to me, but I suspect that I was asked to participate in this policy roundtable because of my remarks about Donald Trump to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, which appeared in the 26 September 2016 issue: “I think we’re just at a point in our history where he’s probably the right guy for the job. Not perfect, but we need someone different, because there’s such calcification in Washington. Americans are smart collectively, and if they vote for Trump I wouldn’t worry.” Yes, there it is, I am an academic who, like sixty-three million Americans, supported Trump for President. Indeed, as both a Republican and a political realist, I am not only untroubled by his election, I look forward to the next four years with great expectations. “This is,” as Daniel Drezner put it, “realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.”
Can IR theory help us understand what is about to happen? Can it help get us through the Age of Trump? Or, will Trump destroy IR theory in the same way that he eviscerated most accepted theories of electoral politics? In a cage match between Trump and Theory, the smart bet might be on Trump, but perhaps this says more about the fragility of IR theory than it does about Trump.