How has the Trump presidency affected the status of the United States as the leader of the current international order? When Donald Trump assumed the presidency on January 20, 2017, few could have predicted what the next four years would mean for U.S. standing in the world. What was almost certain was that Trump’s approach to foreign policy would be different from his predecessors and that he would likely not be guided by the same rules, norms, and priorities that had shaped U.S. foreign policy after the Second World War. Four years later, we are in a position to take stock and think about the impact the Trump administration had on America’s role in the world and the challenges and opportunities it has revealed. In one sense, Trump’s foreign policy did not represent the radical departure that many feared when he first took office. While his rhetoric was mostly devoid of the outward commitment to liberal ideals that is characteristic of U.S. foreign policy discourse, there were no major wars, the U.S. did not wholly abandon its key allies, and the multilateral institutional order remains mostly intact. Nevertheless, the change in style and tone of his foreign policy represented a perhaps small, but not insignificant, change in U.S. foreign policy. Trump openly chastised allies, curried favor with dictators, and withdrew from international agreements. His brash, personalistic style eroded democratic norms at home and abroad. In short, Trump’s diplomatic style and choices have affected the standing of the United States in the world. Specifically, they worked to make America unrecognizable to the most important members of the international community for upholding American status, close allies and friends. As a result, questions have arisen about the norms and values that underpin American identity and thus about the status of the United States as the leader of the international order going forward.
Donald Trump’s final disgraceful weeks in office displayed him at his narcissistic worst, encouraging the storming of the Capitol by his supporters, and leaving a legacy of damaging claims about the electoral process that will take time to dispel. Though the manner of his going was shocking it was not surprising. Inflammatory rhetoric, extravagant promises, and disdain for convention, had all been present in his election campaign. They were at the fore in his January 2017 inauguration address. And so it continued. In the essay I wrote in the summer of 2018 I noted Trump’s “embrace of nationalist impulses, his contempt for his political opponents and the rule of law, his incessant boastful, malevolent, and false statements, his lack of empathy and curiosity.” There was no drift back to the center. His strategy for a second term involved enthusing his supporters by continuing as before rather than reaching out to doubters. It almost worked.
Donald J. Trump made no secret of his resentment toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As the Republican Party’s presidential nominee he tweeted hundreds of times about China’s unfair trading practices. As president he railed against China as a currency manipulator, dubbed COVID-19 “the China virus” and labeled China an enemy of the United States. But for all of Trump’s bluster – and the tariffs, sanctions, and export controls – it is misleading to paint Trump’s China policy as altogether deviant. In truth, the slide toward greater antagonism was, and is, a widely anticipated development in a relationship that is recognized by elites on both sides as a strategic rivalry. That rivalry has historical and structural roots, and is far bigger than any one president. Trump’s bombastic presidency consequently should not, and likely will not, reorient PRC elites’ fundamental views of the U.S.-China rivalry.
Agency is what we seek to understand as historians: the demiurge of that disciplinary holy grail, causality. Who or what stirs the cauldron of change? When and how? When we reflect on our own lives, the elusive nature of that power becomes even more palpable. How did I become this thing, a historian of modern Britain? Did I choose it, or did it choose me? And what kind of agency does my being a historian give me?
There is a persistent paradox in the literature (and policy-related discourse) on warlordism that spills over into the larger scholarship on political violence and state formation: while some observers regard warlords as insurmountable spoilers, too strong and sinister to be tamed, others characterize them as paper tigers that could be easily dismissed with the right kind of political will. Romain Malejacq has broken through this paradox and unraveled it once and for all, a task that required an exceptional combination of theoretical creativity and empirical labor. Based on rich and difficult qualitative field research conducted across northern and western Afghanistan, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan examines the trajectories of the country’s most formidable (and notorious) strongmen to ask the question “How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them?”
…it is now impossible to read a great deal of writing on international relations published in the US, including new books like these, without noting the prevalence of a bland indifference toward—if not total neglect of—questions of race, social justice, and hierarchy.
What are the legacies of President Donald Trump’s years for how we think about foreign policy and security? Many might point to the “American first” frame the former president championed, which has increased attention to national security and American advantage. Less obviously, though, the Trump presidency’s acceleration of polarization, racism, and dysfunction has generated greater scholarly awareness of the way that racism, sexism, and other tools for exclusion, which are designed to advantage some and dismiss others, have shaped many conceptions in the field. This latter trend, which I focus on below, has generated attention to the interconnections between human security, international security, and national security that promises a more realistic analysis of the U.S. role in the world and better strategies for managing its various relations.
In his video address before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2020, President Donald Trump summed up his views on the COVID-19 pandemic: the world must hold China accountable for covering up the virulence of the virus; the United States had effectively mobilized its resources to meet the challenge; and the world’s leaders should follow the example of the United States by putting their own citizens first and rejecting the pursuit of “global ambitions.” The president’s remarks, coming at a time when the virus was ravaging the world, and in particular the United States, were jarring but unsurprising. For several months, the president had blamed mounting U.S. deaths on collusion between China and the World Health Organization (WHO). He had also announced that the United States, which provided approximately 15 percent of the WHO’s total funding, would withdraw its financial support and terminate its participation in the organization over the WHO’s failure to undertake a set of unspecified reforms. And just prior to his UNGA appearance, the president confirmed that the United States would not participate in the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), an initiative sponsored by the UN and several international organizations to help vaccine manufacturers ensure equitable access to safe and effective vaccines for all countries.
I was born in 1948 and grew up in the north-east of England at a time when its two major industries – mining and shipbuilding – were in decline. My father had joined the Royal Navy in 1938 as a regular officer. This was quite an achievement for a working-class Jew. He served through the war as a naval aviator, including spending some tough months on the besieged island of Malta. After the war he went into business with his brothers, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. There were times when we were very short of money. My mother had shone at school but because of the war had not gone to university. These days she would undoubtedly have had a successful professional career as well as bringing up two boys. She never complained about this.
International relations is not, as former president Donald Trump would like us to believe, purely transactional. States, particularly great powers, often do things that follow a political rather than an economic logic. Great powers provide public goods for their allies, even if those allies sometimes free ride. They maintain a network of bases and military forces stationed in foreign countries, and offer allies and friendly states various trade deals. President Trump’s business approach to international relations often overlooked or ignored many of the nuanced norms of international politics. This was particularly visible when it came to the arms trade, where Trump’s focus on the bottom line ignored the political consequences of arms sales, which are one of the many tools in the foreign policy repertoires of states, and are often used to express political alignments. For example, in 2019 the U.S. sent Javelin missiles to Ukraine to express support for Ukraine and against Russian aggression, a message which was sent and received even though the missiles were never intended to make it to the front lines. Trump’s transactional approach ignored the political-signaling function of arms sales, which will have lasting effects on U.S. political relationships. The Biden administration will need to quickly consider how best to adjust U.S. arms sales policies to align with its foreign policy goals and reassure allies of continued U.S. commitment.
In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior issued a press release on the proposal to move the Red-cockaded Woodpecker from the list of endangered species to the list of threatened species. Efforts to protect the woodpeckers’ habitat, primarily on easily controlled military bases, have been underway for more than 30 years, so there was nothing remarkable about the proposal or press release, except for the campaign ad at the end. Rather than just summarize the proposal and the Endangered Species Act, the release heaped praise on the Trump Administration, reporting that in its first 3.5 years it had delisted more species than the three previous administrations had in their first terms. The release also emphasized that in proposing the down-listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “guidepost for the multi-year, public process was President Donald Trump’s overarching effort to reduce regulatory burden without sacrificing protections for the environment and wildlife.”