Policy Series: The “Global Order” Myth14 min read

During the Age of Trump, Year One, a single word has emerged to capture the essence of the prevailing cultural mood: resistance. Words matter, and the prominence of this particular term illuminates the moment in which we find ourselves.

H-Diplo | ISSF
America and the World—2017 and Beyond

The “Global Order” Myth[1]

Essay by Andrew J. Bacevich, Boston University, emeritus

Published on 13 July 2017 | issforum.org

Editors: Robert Jervis, Francis Gavin, Joshua Rovner, and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

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During the Age of Trump, Year One, a single word has emerged to capture the essence of the prevailing cultural mood: resistance. Words matter, and the prominence of this particular term illuminates the moment in which we find ourselves.

All presidents, regardless of party or program, face criticism and opposition. Citizens disinclined to support that program protest. Marching, chanting, waving placards, and generally raising a ruckus in front of any available camera, they express dissent. In normal times, such activism testifies to the health of democracy.

Yet these are not normal times. In the eyes of Trump’s opponents, his elevation to the pinnacle of American politics constitutes a frontal assault on values that until quite recently appeared fixed and unassailable. In such circumstances, mere criticism, opposition, protest, and dissent will not suffice.

Simply put, Trump’s most ardent opponents see him as an existential threat. As such, the stakes could hardly be higher. Richard Parker, who lectures at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and several Harvard graduate students, created what they call Resistance School, which in three months signed up some 33,000 anti-Trump resistors from 49 states and 33 countries. “It is our attempt to begin the long slow process of recovering and rebuilding our democracy,” says Parker.[2] Another group styling itself the DJT Resistance declares that Trump represents “Hatred, Bigotry, Xenophobia, Sexism, Racism, and Greed.”[3]

This is not language suggesting the possibility of dialogue or compromise. Indeed, in such quarters, references to incipient fascism have become commonplace. Comparisons between Trump and Hitler abound. “It takes willful blindness,” writes Paul Krugman in the New York Times, “not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.”[4] And time is running short. As the journalist Chris Hedges puts it, “a last chance for resistance” is already at hand.[5]

In the meantime, in foreign policy circles at least, a second, less explosive term vies with resistance for Trump-era signature status. This development deserves more attention than it has attracted, especially among those who believe that alongside the question “what values define us?”–that is what concerns the resistance–sits another question of comparable importance: “What principles define America’s role in the world?”

That second term, now creeping into the vocabulary of foreign policy specialists, is liberal, often used interchangeably with the phrase rules-based and accompanied by additional modifiers such as open, international, and normative. All of these serve as synonyms for enlightened and good.

So Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, describing what he refers to as the “twilight of the liberal world order,” worries about the passing of “the open international economic system the United States created and helped sustain.” Donald Trump’s misguided emphasis on “America First,” Kagan writes, suggests that he has no interest in “attempting to uphold liberal norms in the international system” or in “preserving an open economic order.”[6]

Commenting on Trump’s Inaugural Address, Nicole Gaouette, CNN national security reporter, expressed her dismay that it contained “no reference to America’s traditional role as a global leader and shaper of international norms.”[7] Similarly, a report in the Financial Times bemoaned what it sees as “a clear signal about Mr. Trump’s disregard for many of the international norms that have governed America as the pillar of the liberal economic order.”[8] The historian Jeremy Suri, barely a week into Trump’s presidency, charged Trump with “launching a direct attack on the liberal international order that really made America great after the depths of the Great Depression.”[9] At the Council on Foreign Relations, Stewart Patrick concurred: Trump’s very election, he wrote, “imperils the liberal international order that America has championed since World War II.”[10]  Thomas Wright, another Brookings scholar, concurred: Trump “wants to undo the liberal international order the United States built and replace it with a 19th-century model of nationalism and mercantilism.”[11]

In Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl and Hal Brands embellished the point: Trump’s strategic vision “diverges significantly from—and intentionally subverts—the bipartisan consensus underpinning U.S. foreign policy since World War II.” Failing to “subscribe to the long-held belief that ‘American exceptionalism’ and U.S. leadership are intertwined,” Trump is hostile to the “open, rule-based international economy” that his predecessors nurtured and sustained.[12] General David Petraeus also weighed in: “To keep the peace,” the soldier-turned-investment banker wrote in essay entitled “America Must Stand Tall,” the United States has established “a system of global alliances and security commitments,” thereby nurturing “an open, free and rules-based international economic order.”[13] To discard this legacy, he suggests, would be catastrophic.

Liberalism, along with norms, rules, openness, and internationalism: These ostensibly define the postwar and post-Cold War tradition of American statecraft. Allow Trump to scrap that tradition and you can say farewell to what Stewart Patrick refers to as “the global community under the rule of law” that for decades now the United States has upheld.[14]

What does this perspective exclude? We can answer that question with a single word: History.

Or somewhat more expansively, among the items failing to qualify for mention in the liberal internationalist, rules-based version of past U.S. policy are the following: meddling in foreign elections; coups and assassination plots in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua and elsewhere; indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns in North Korea and throughout Southeast Asia; a nuclear arms race bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon; support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Iran, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere–many of them abandoned when deemed inconvenient; the shielding of illegal activities through the use of the Security Council veto; unlawful wars launched under false pretenses; ‘extraordinary rendition,’ torture, and the indefinite imprisonment of persons without any semblance of due process.

Granted, for each of these, there was a rationale, rooted in a set of identifiable assumptions, ambitions, and fears. The CIA did not conspire with Britain’s MI6 in 1953 to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected president just for the hell of it.[15] It did so because shelving Mohammad Mosaddegh seemingly offered the prospect of eliminating an annoying problem. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson did not commit U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam because he was keen to fight a major ground war in Asia but because the consequences of simply allowing events to take their course looked to be even worse. After 9/11, when George W. Bush and his associates authorized the ‘enhanced interrogation’ of those held in secret prisons, panic rather than sadism prompted their actions. Even for the most egregious folly, in other words, there is always some explanation, however inadequate.

Yet collectively, the actions and episodes enumerated above do not suggest a nation committed to liberalism, openness, or the rule of law. What they reveal instead is a pattern of behavior common to all great powers in just about any era: following the rules when it serves their interest to do so; disregarding the rules whenever they become an impediment. Some regimes are nastier than others, but all are law-abiding when the law works to their benefit–but not one day longer. Even Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s USSR punctiliously observed the terms of their non-aggression pact as long as it suited both parties to do so.

My point is not to charge, that every action undertaken by the United States government is inherently nefarious. Rather, I am suggesting that to depict postwar U.S. policy in terms employed by the scholars quoted above is to whitewash the past. To characterize American statecraft as ‘liberal internationalism’ is akin to describing the business of Hollywood as ‘artistic excellence.’

“Invocations of the ‘rules-based international order’,” Politico’s Susan Glasser has rightly observed, “had never before caused such teary-eyed nostalgia.”[16] What is the cause of this sudden nostalgia for something that never actually existed? The answer is self-evident: It is a response to Donald Trump.

Prior to Trump’s arrival on the scene, few members of the foreign policy elite that is now apparently smitten with norms fancied that the United States was engaged in creating any such order. America’s purpose was not to promulgate rules, but to police an informal empire that during the Cold War encompassed the ‘Free World’ and became more expansive still once the Cold War ended. The pre-Trump Kagan, writing in 2012, neatly summarizes that view:

The existence of the American hegemon has forced all other powers to exercise unusual restraint, curb normal ambitions, and avoid actions that might lead to the formation of a U.S.-led coalition of the kind that defeated Germany twice, Japan once, and the Soviet Union, more peacefully, in the Cold War.[17]

The central claim is striking: the United States as a hegemon that forces other nations to bend to its will.

Strip away the talk about rules and norms and here you come to the essence of what troubles those who worry about the passing of “liberal internationalism.” Their concern is not that Trump will not show adequate respect for rules and norms. It is that he appears disinclined to perpetuate American hegemony.

More fundamentally, Trump’s conception of a usable past differs radically from that favored in establishment quarters. Put simply, the 45th President does not subscribe to the imperative of sustaining American hegemony because he does not subscribe to the establishment’s narrative of twentieth century history. According to that narrative, exertions by the United States in a sequence of conflicts dating from 1914 and ending in 1989 enabled good to triumph over evil. Absent these American efforts, evil would have prevailed. Contained within that parable-like story, members of the establishment believe, are the lessons that should guide U.S. policy in the twenty-first century.

Trump does not see it that way, as his appropriation of the historically loaded phrase ‘America First’ attests. In his view, what might have occurred had the United States not waged war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and had it not subsequently confronted the Soviet Union matters less than what did occur when the assertion of hegemonic prerogatives found the United States invading Iraq in 2003 with disastrous results.

In effect, Trump dismisses the lessons of the twentieth century as irrelevant to the twenty-first. Crucially, he goes a step further by questioning the moral basis for past U.S. actions. Thus, his extraordinary response to a TV host’s charge that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump retorted. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”[18] In offering this one brief remark, Trump thereby committed the ultimate heresy. Of course, no serious person believes that the United States is literally innocent. What members of the foreign policy establishment–to include past commanders-in-chief–have insisted is that the United States act as if it were innocent, with prior sins expunged and America’s slate wiped clean. This describes the ultimate U.S. perquisite and explains why in the eyes of Trump’s critics Russian actions in Crimea, Ukraine, or Syria count for so much while American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya count for so little.

The exercise in historical revisionism that now credits the United States with having sought all along to create a global community under the rule of law represents that establishment’s response to the heresies Trump has been spouting (and tweeting) since his famous ride down the escalator at Trump Tower.

Yet in reclassifying yesterday’s hegemon as today’s promulgator and respecter of norms, members of that establishment perpetrate a fraud. Whether Americans, notably gullible when it comes to history, will fall for this remains to be seen. As for Trump himself, with the exception of the cruise missiles launched against a Syrian airfield in April 2017 in response to images of suffering children, he has this far shown little inclination to take the bait.

Say this for the anti-Trump resistance. While the fascism-just-round-the-corner rhetoric may be overheated and a touch overwrought, it qualifies as forthright and heartfelt. While not sharing the view that Trump will rob Americans of their freedoms, I neither question the sincerity nor doubt the passion of those who believe otherwise. Indeed, I am grateful to them for acting so forcefully on their convictions. They are inspiring.

Not so with those who now fear the passing of the fictive liberal international order credited to enlightened American statecraft. They are working assiduously to sustain the pretense that world of 2017 remains essentially what it was in 1937 or 1947 or 1957 when it is not.

Today’s Russia is not a reincarnation of the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China is not Imperial Japan, and the Islamic State in no way compares to Nazi Germany. Most of all United States in the era of Donald Trump is not the nation that elected Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, not least of all in the greatly reduced willingness of Americans to serve as instruments of state power, as the failed post-9/11 assertions of hegemony have demonstrated.

The world has changed in fundamental ways. So too has the United States. Those changes require that the principles guiding U.S. policy also change accordingly.

However ill-suited by intellect, temperament, and character for the office he holds, as is doubtless the case, Trump has seemingly intuited the need for that change. In this regard, if in none other, I’m with The Donald.

But note the irony. Trump may come closer to full-fledged historical illiteracy than any president since Warren G. Harding. Small wonder then that his rejection of the mythic past long employed to preempt serious debate regarding U.S. policy gives fits to the perpetrators of those myths.


Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.

© Copyright 2017 The Authors



[1] This essay originally appeared in slightly different form in the May-June 2017 issue of The American Conservative.

[2] Email from Richard Parker to several dozen recipients, dated 4 April 2017, Subject: “Resistance School goes live tonight at 7PM.”

[3] Formerly located at https://www.thedjtr.com. (Ed. Note- On 8 July 2017, a “Website Expired” message appears when visiting this URL).

[4] Paul Krugman, “How Republics End” (op-ed), The New York Times, 19 December 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/opinion/how-republics-end.html.

[5] Chris Hedges, “A Last Chance for Resistance,” Truthdig, 19 March 2017, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_last_chance_for_resistance_20170319.

[6] Robert Kagan, “The twilight of the liberal world order,” The Brookings Institution, 24 January 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-twilight-of-the-liberal-world-order/.

[7] Nicole Gaouette, “Trump stakes out inward, protectionist vision for America,” CNN, 20 January 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/donald-trump-foreign-policy/.

[8] “Donald Trump’s whirlwind week in the White House,” The Financial Times, 27 January 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/1d843662-e4f8-11e6-8405-9e5580d6e5fb.

[9] Jeremi Suri, “How Trump’s Executive Orders Could Set America Back 70 Years,” The Atlantic, 27 January 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/trumps-executive-orders-will-set-america-back-70-years/514730/.

[10] Stewart M. Patrick, “An Open World Is in the Balance. What Might Replace the Liberal Order?,” (blog post), Council on Foreign Relations website, 10 January 2017, http://blogs.cfr.org/patrick/2017/01/10/an-open-world-is-in-the-balance-what-might-replace-the-liberal-order/.

[11] Thomas Wright, “The Foreign Crises Awaiting Trump,” The Atlantic, 20 January 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/01/trump-russia-putin-north-korea-putin/513749/.

[12] Colin Kahl and Hal Brands, “Trump’s Grand Strategic Train Wreck,” Foreign Policy, 31 January 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/31/trumps-grand-strategic-train-wreck/.

[13] David H. Petraeus, “America Must Stand Tall,” Politico, 7 February 2017, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/america-stand-tall-214748.

[14] Stewart M. Patrick, “An Open World Is in the Balance. What Might Replace the Liberal Order?,” World Politics Review, 10 January 2017, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/20868/an-open-world-is-in-the-balance-what-might-replace-the-liberal-order.

[15] See, for example, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1952-1954, Iran, 1951-1954, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1951-54Iran/comp1.

[16] Susan B. Glasser, “Trump Takes on The Blob,” Politico (March/April 2017), http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/trump-foreign-policy-elites-insiders-experts-international-relations-214846.

[17] Daniel W. Drezner, Gideon Rachman, and Robert Kagan, “The Rise or Fall of the American Empire,” Foreign Policy, 14 February 2012, https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/02/14/the-rise-or-fall-of-the-american-empire.

[18] Brooke Seipel, “Trump defends Putin: ‘You think our country is so innocent?,’” The Hill, 4 February 2017, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/317945-trump-defends-putin-you-think-our-country-is-so-innocent.