Policy Series 2021-36: Globalization and U.S. Foreign Relations after Trump72 min read

If one tries to imagine the future of U.S. foreign relations following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, two broadly opposed possibilities present themselves.  Trump’s single presidential term may have been an historical hiccup or parenthesis – “an aberrant moment in time,” as President Joseph Biden hopefully put it – following which there will be a resumption of a normal internationalism in which the U.S. returns to its seat at the head of the table, i.e., business as usual.  The second and more likely possibility – a more pessimistic scenario – is that the Trump administration sounded the opening bell of an extraordinarily challenging new era.  This eventuality presents rather different choices for American policymakers.  One option would be to continue down the nationalist path charted by Trump.  Another would be to create a turbocharged version of internationalism – a crisis internationalism, if you will – to address the formidable problems of globalization that lie in store.[1] Whether and how a crisis internationalism will be adopted will require a workable consensus to address the looming threats to globalization.  The need for energetic action is glaringly obvious to some people, but not everyone agrees.  The nationalist direction may be taken by default because, if nothing else, the Trump years made clear that gaining the approval of the American public for more vigorous internationalist policies will be extraordinarily difficult for policymakers to pull off.  It may in the end prove to be impossible.

H-Diplo | ISSF Policy Series
America and the World—The Effects of the Trump Presidency

Globalization and U.S. Foreign Relations after Trump

Essay by Frank Ninkovich, Emeritus Professor of History, St. John’s University

Published on 4 June 2021 | issforum.org

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii


If one tries to imagine the future of U.S. foreign relations following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, two broadly opposed possibilities present themselves.  Trump’s single presidential term may have been an historical hiccup or parenthesis – “an aberrant moment in time,” as President Joseph Biden hopefully put it – following which there will be a resumption of a normal internationalism in which the U.S. returns to its seat at the head of the table, i.e., business as usual.  The second and more likely possibility – a more pessimistic scenario – is that the Trump administration sounded the opening bell of an extraordinarily challenging new era.  This eventuality presents rather different choices for American policymakers.  One option would be to continue down the nationalist path charted by Trump.  Another would be to create a turbocharged version of internationalism – a crisis internationalism, if you will – to address the formidable problems of globalization that lie in store.[1] Whether and how a crisis internationalism will be adopted will require a workable consensus to address the looming threats to globalization.  The need for energetic action is glaringly obvious to some people, but not everyone agrees.  The nationalist direction may be taken by default because, if nothing else, the Trump years made clear that gaining the approval of the American public for more vigorous internationalist policies will be extraordinarily difficult for policymakers to pull off.  It may in the end prove to be impossible.

The problem resides in the inability of too many Americans to understand globalization, which may seem a dubious assertion at first, but bear with me.  This incapacity was epitomized by the statements of the Trump administration, whose dislike of globalism and globalists was a recurring theme in its approach to international relations.  One should not jump to conclusions here, for such declarations did not constitute an “obsession with globalization,”[2] a word that Trump mentioned hardly at all.  Strictly speaking, Trump did not so much ignore globalization, which would imply that he was somehow aware of it, as demonstrate his ignorance of it.[3] While Trump was undeniably anti-globalist, he was not a purposeful or principled enemy of globalization because he was incapable of grasping its significance as a historical reality.

Admittedly, Trump’s anti-globalist hostility was impossible to miss, as one can see from the following riff delivered at one of his rallies.

“You know what a globalist is?  You know what a globalist is?  A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much.  And you know what, we can’t have that. You know they have a word.  It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist, and I say really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am?  I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist.  Nothing wrong.  Use that word.  Use that word.”[4]

As an avowed nationalist, Trump repeatedly singled out globalists as the villains responsible for America’s economic decline, sprinkled with a garnish of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.  In White House meetings, he reportedly mocked “gloobalists,” stretching out the word for effect.  Public examples also abound.  In a 2016 campaign speech, he laid into “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”[5] Stephen Bannon, a short-lived Trump consigliere, used saltier language to describe the problem: “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f**ked over.”[6] Apart from their destruction of American jobs, globalists were also accused of eroding the nation’s political independence and provoking military adventurism.  In Trump’s mind, the globalist coterie had penetrated deeply into the nation’s military establishment.  This reproach, normally heard from left-wing critics, surfaced when he accused the U.S. military of being responsible for plunging into a series of “endless wars,” describing their behavior as “one cold-hearted globalist betrayal after another, that’s what it was.”[7]

In a notable appearance before fellow heads of state at the UN General Assembly, reading from a scripted speech that was far more coherent than his usual off-the-cuff excursions, Trump vowed that “We will no longer allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated and our wealth to be plundered and transferred.” Globalism was likened to a cult that “exerted a religious pull over past leaders, causing them to ignore their own national interests.” After dredging up the bogeyman of world government, Trump promised that “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination.” “We reject globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” he added.  “The future does not belong to globalists …The future belongs to patriots.  The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” The result?  Trump predicted that “we will find more beautiful friendship and more harmony among nations than ever before.”[8]  To summarize his global perspective: not only the United States but the entire world would profit from a return to nationalism.

Trump offered no evidence to back up his claim that the world would be a better place if all nations followed his lead.  But his policy preferences seemed easy enough to implement: emasculate the globalizers, use protective tariffs as a bludgeon to negotiate favorable trade deals and to stimulate domestic job creation, and well-being would reign. This brings to mind the thinking of Saint-Simonian utopians in early nineteenth century France who believed that if nations could overnight rid themselves of kings and nobles, society would continue to function undisturbed in all important respects, because the parasitic aristocrats, the “idling class,” were useless and therefore dispensable creatures. Once society was cleansed, technocratic leaders who based their programs on solid knowledge would enact policies that would benefit society as a whole, not just the privileged few.[9] Though Trump had little use for technocrats, the similarity was clear. The nation’s workers would find deliverance once the global swamp was drained.

At first blush, this point of view appeals to my democratic sensibility.  An internationalist noblesse has indeed profited handsomely from globalization even as middle and working class incomes have stagnated or regressed. Unfortunately, however seductive it is to begin with, the crippling difficulty with this conception is that the plight of American workers was demonstrably not the handiwork of a parasitic globalist elite.  To a far greater degree it was the byproduct of an impersonal social process.  Trade is a negotiable matter, but one cannot negotiate with globalization, Trump was not exactly the mad Queen of Hearts dashing about shouting “off with their heads!,” but there was still a touch of madness to his method. For in suggesting that the solution to America’s problems was for an ultrasmart nationalist leader like himself to put repugnant globalists in their place, Trump blithely neglected a villain that could not be decapitated by doing deals.

To my mind, globalization carries three principal meanings.  It can refer to an evolving historical process, i.e., it is a shorthand term for a wholesale concatenation of past events that have unfolded over time throughout the planet.  It can also be seen as something that exists in the here and now as a social fact or social structure whose characteristics need to be understood and dealt with at a practical level.  And it can be viewed as an idea, an intellectual construct that can help us to think more clearly about our place in the narrative of historical development.  At its simplest, globalization is a way of appraising how humankind has gotten to where we are now and where we are going – our past, present, and future.  As far as one can tell, none of these connotations entered or left Trump’s cranium.

Viewed historically, globalization is not a recent arrival.  In reducing national problems to the dark designs of globalists, Trump failed to recognize that globalization has been going on for at least a few hundred years and, depending on the historians telling the story, much longer than that.[10] Along the way, humankind abandoned an overwhelmingly local and agrarian way of life in favor of an industrial and post-industrial global civilization.  This change, the greatest transformation of human societies since the invention of agriculture and settled societies more than ten thousand years ago, was far too massive, protracted, and complex to have been the product of a small company of unscrupulous globalists.  Nevertheless, members of the president’s circle seemed to believe that globalization first arrived on the scene circa 1980.  Some saw it as a still more recent occurrence.  For example, at the 2020  Republican National Convention former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell laid the nation’s problems at the doorstep of “globalization fanatics,” who after the Cold War” bought into the illusion that the whole world would start to resemble America. And so they started to pursue unlimited globalization.”[11] This was, and is, historical nonsense.

My complaint is not about faulty periodization – it is a multiple-count indictment.  If we stop to consider globalization as an idea, it quickly becomes clear that it is a sophisticated concept about the trajectory of world history that, once encountered, can drop us into the rabbit hole of ideologies and philosophies of history, an underground warren from which many academics never return.  I know, I’ve been there. It is fair to say that the incurious Trump never suspected that such intellectual hazards existed.  There is no one-size-fits-all conception of globalization, but as a quick elevator definition I am partial to the idea put forward by Milovan Djilas more than a half-century ago: “the tendency toward the unification of the world is the basic characteristic of our time.”[12] This was a striking idea, and still is, but it is only a provocative starting point.  The natural follow-up is to ask “How?,” which gets us into discussions of the deep historical currents that carried the process along. Politics, warfare, economics, the environment, science and technology, culture, ideologies and their entanglements, and much more – all these sides of the story developed in intricate ways that will never be apprehended in their entirety.

For the moment, it is the here-and-now reality of globalization as a social fact that I want to emphasize.  It is an important reality that touches on nearly every facet of our lives – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive, our vacations, our jobs, the air we breathe, the climate that sustains us.  In each of these aspects it is complex and complicated, an intricately contrived phenomenon with many negative effects juxtaposed with some enormously beneficial consequences for life expectancy, health, personal wealth, world peace, and global well-being.  Globalization is an example of what Émile Durkheim called a social fact.  In 1895, Durkheim published The Rules of Sociological Method, a book that sought to establish the scientific validity of the then fledgling social science of sociology.[13] To my knowledge, Durkheim did not mention globalization as a social fact, even in the idiom of his time, but if he were alive today I am convinced that he would do so.[14] Durkheim’s work was a manifesto that sought to convince readers of the existence and importance of “social facts whose defining attribute was a “power of external coercion which it exercises or is capable of exercising over individuals.” Social facts were “A category of facts consisting of ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion by means of which they control him.[15] At the time, there was much resistance to this new discipline that many commentators considered weird, a skepticism that resonates to the present day.  But sociology is still with us, and for good reason, though still far from universally appreciated.

For Durkheim, social facts were powerful things that exist outside of us.  He insisted that “Social phenomena must be considered in themselves, detached from the conscious beings who form their own mental representations of them.  They must be studied from the outside, as external things, because it is in this guise that they present themselves to us.” In other words, you cannot presume to comprehend it by consulting only your beliefs or presumably infallible instincts, as Trump has boasted of doing.[16] Because globalization exists outside of any individual, it has emerged largely independent of political forethought.  No one planned it, no one person created it or sought to claim credit for it, and no one presumed to be able to overturn it.[17] In the nineteenth century, many believed it to be so powerful as to be unstoppable.  Newly emerging ideologies like liberalism and Marxism piggybacked on it and claimed to be in tune with its historical direction, on the assumption that globalization was a process over which politics exercised only limited control.  Indeed, some who hewed to the new perspective believed that no political control at all was possible.  If anything, the process controlled politics. Such intellectuals rejected what Ernest Gellner once described as “the logic of the agrarian age, which decreed that power trumped wealth.”[18] In so doing they assumed that globalization could not be simply reversed, in the manner of a Roman emperor in the Coliseum conveying a decisive thumbs up or thumbs down verdict.  That being the case, one had to go with the flow rather than try foolishly to swim upstream against the current of history.  The contemporary successor to such views, while not downright determinist, conveys an awareness that we now inhabit, as one scholar put it, a “runaway world” where we are uncertain about how to control the social juggernaut that we have collectively created. [19]

Durkheim was making a simple but profound point.  Social facts were real things that could be studied objectively and even quantified with statistical methods.  Imperialism was a fact in the nineteenth century and for much of recorded history.  Crime is a social fact.  High rates of suicide and illness are social facts.  So are wealth and poverty.  Likewise with social structures, those durable and powerful forces for channeling human practices – marriage, corporations,  churches, schools, the U.S. government, European Union (EU), the dog pound, venereal disease rates, credit rating agencies, the UN, etc. –  all these are social facts. Public opinion polling is a statistical attempt to pin down a slippery social fact, the state of public opinion at any given time.  Durkheim was seeking to found a discipline, but the need to recognize and grapple with social facts had enormous practical implications for a host of non-academic pursuits, including foreign policy, which is my concern here. The idea that the world we humans have created should so forcefully dominate us comes intuitively to many people who feel trapped in “the system,” but for others it can be a difficult idea to swallow.  At the extreme, inner-directed types like Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand have questioned whether such social constraints exist at all – and if they do exist, then by God they deserve to be abolished.  And yet, free market ideologues also tend to be true believers in one of the most constraining social facts of all: the economy, which rewards and punishes according to its well-known laws.  Thus no matter how industrious the population in a market society, in a depression there will be unemployment. That’s a fact.

Though we all live with globalization every day, we cannot appreciate it solely on the basis of that limited experience. Getting a sense of what it is requires education, usually a combination of formal schooling, time spent abroad, and wide reading.  Without such inputs, it easy to overlook or to take for granted because it operates inconspicuously in the background, like the legal waivers we all sign heedlessly when downloading computer or phone apps, where, as John Oliver once noted, all of Das Kapital might be buried in the boilerplate and unthinkingly accepted as part of an agreement that we never bother to read.[20] In like manner, Trump failed to discuss it because he had no inkling that it was there, nor did his adoring fans. That he was not alone was partly due to a contemporary cultural shortcoming.  On the whole, nineteenth century Americans were more attuned to the reality of globalization than they are today because they had witnessed the striking transformation of society over the course of their lifetimes, whereas all this remains concealed from us as part of our normalized cultural background. Social and cultural changes have come even more rapidly in recent decades, but people have become so accustomed to the constancy of change that it is now considered normal.  Nevertheless, globalization is a real world fact in the way Durkheim meant because it exists and exercises influence even when we don’t notice it. Too many people remain unaware of it.

It is also difficult to see globalization as a thing because it is not a discrete fact that one can isolate scientifically as an independent variable.  We like to think of facts as demonstrable things, and they are, but they are not always obvious and immediately perceptible.  Oftentimes we have to look very hard to find them, which is what historians try to do. Globalization is a case in point, a conglomerate fact compounded of layers upon layers of facts, of which we can take snapshots with lenses of various focal lengths, but it is also a large scale moving target. It is, for want of a better term, an overarching historical fact that sums up a wide swath of human development.  Before one can begin to fathom what it is requires that information be gathered from everywhere and somehow assembled in a coherent way, tasks that are not easily accomplished. The discrete facts of which it is composed do not organize themselves readily or neatly into a complex whole, for they are capable of being interpreted in conflicting ways, but when taken as a whole they do not negate the factual status of globalization. This should not come as a surprise.  Science and social science (and history, too, I should add) are instruments that allow us to discover, investigate, and understand facts that would otherwise remain mysterious to us.  Too many people remain unaware of this learning process, too.

Although the overwhelming bulk of the world’s activity takes place outside the individual, for Trump politics was only about the individual and individuals like him.  Trump’s world as he perceived it was a political entity in the narrowest sense, a personalized world that was akin to his personalized view of domestic politics.  If domestic politics revolved around the narcissist-in-chief, then the rest of the world revolved around dealing with people who resembled him.  Confident in his negotiating abilities, Trump was a devotee of face-to-face diplomacy, which produced ballyhooed but inconclusive meetings with Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, strongman types whom he respected and made sure to flatter lavishly.  His unconcealed  admiration for authoritarian characters like  Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orbán,  Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Mohammed bin Salman, supplemented by like-minded democratic camp followers like Boris Johnson and Benjamin Netanyahu, was further evidence of a view that saw the world from the top-down and not from the bottom-up. This personalized approach only further obscured the deeper social processes that make the world go round.  One might go farther: it is not preposterous to argue that, by definition, clinical narcissism is a denial of globalization, an inability to recognize something important outside oneself.  Thus the weightier and more complex the fact, the greater was Trump’s inability to recognize it.

If Durkheim was right, to ignore or deny globalization’s existence and potency meant that there was a price to pay.  One can choose to run red lights at every opportunity, but the odds of doing this persistently without suffering a nasty crash are minuscule.  If you are an American driving in England, motoring on the right-hand side of the road is not a good idea, as is driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street (though I have seen Italians do it).  Being a polygamist in a Christian society is also not wise, nor is turning up at a job interview with a whiskey flask in hand, etc. etc.  Inventing facts as an historian or falsifying experimental results as a scientist can have disastrous career consequences, though not necessarily so for politicians.  And so on.

But is globalization the kind of social fact that actually possesses the ability to compel? Obviously not, at least not in the same way that social compulsion works in collectivities that are more commonly recognized as societies.  Despite its ubiquitous reach, it cannot rely on the culturally internalized standards and legitimate authority that regulate the functioning of domestic institutions.  Globalization’s lack of such enforcement mechanisms is an indicator that the evolution of global society has outdistanced the capacity of the state system to control it.  Nevertheless global society can and does impose sanctions of varying degrees of severity. The most obvious examples come from the nineteenth century, when it became clear to traditional societies that their unique ways of life were endangered from western nations who demanded forcefully that they be “opened” to civilization.  Japan, China, and Korea come immediately to mind, but many others could be added to the list.  Some struggled for a time without success to maintain their traditional social forms while others quickly relented after concluding that resistance was futile.  More recently one could point to conscientious objectors like Myanmar, or even an ostensibly ecumenical society like the USSR, that largely sequestered themselves from the world, only to realize eventually that they had little choice but to join the party.  For most nations and peoples, less dramatic piecemeal changes, especially the seductive introduction of new technologies, resulted in creeping transformations whose cumulative impact became obvious only over time.  The whys and hows varied according to the particulars of each case, but the process of globalization rolled on.  In due course, and not without a great deal of international turmoil, participation in the globalizing process came to depend less on physical force than on cooperation – which might be described as an internalized form of compulsion.

Plainly, a robust social system will exact a price if it is disregarded or openly dismissed.  Thus if a nation defaults on its debts, it will be punished, for a time at least, by the bond market. But what happens if the system is fragile?  Social facts can be precarious things, seemingly all-powerful at one moment and surprisingly vulnerable to disruption at another.  In such cases, the costs of defying the system will be reckoned by the damage done from its malfunctioning or collapse; the more pervasive the system, the more dire the consequences. Trump myopically claimed that his approach would make things better, for Americans at least.  Repeatedly the public was told that his results would be “beautiful” and “terrific,” though he neglected to spell out in any detail how his policies would affect global society.  Unsurprisingly, he took no interest in repairing the international system, for one cannot fix what one cannot understand, which in this case happens to be the most far-reaching social force in existence.  Neither did Trump contemplate its complete collapse, at least not in the deliberate way that Japan and Germany went about undermining the international order in the 1930s.  But systems can also be inadvertently destroyed.  In this respect Trump calls to mind a mechanically inept person who pops opens a watch in need of adjustment only to have the gears and springs pop out, with no idea how to put the escapements back together.  Trump was a social Luddite, who instead of wrecking  real machines tinkered recklessly with the institutional mechanics of our world by promising a return to a past that existed only in his historically barren imagination.

All this was alien to Trump’s mental powers because his lifeworld was never connected to what is.  As a historical phenomenon, globalization for Trump was history in Henry Ford’s benighted definition, “bunk,” over and done with, unworthy of one’s time.  As a social fact, it was never considered a thing.  And as a conceptual tool, it was never given the time of day.  But globalization is indeed a thing, no less factual because it is social scientific, and no less scientific because it is not transparent to common sense or susceptible to direct observation.  Indeed, it is for this reason that workaday consciousness is false consciousness.  Like science, whose denial is a form of self-delusion, globalization can also be counterintuitive and its functioning difficult to appreciate.[21] Even so, it is a depressing irony that something that so profoundly forms the social background of our lives remains alien to so many people because its everyday invisibility allows them to implicitly deny its very existence – they don’t know enough about it to do so explicitly. A few examples: the belief that trade disputes with China and Europe are merely bilateral matters, global implications be damned; that nationalism is a viable foreign policy ideology in today’s world;  that governments run by strongmen are to be admired; that global warming and environmental concerns are a hoax and, by extension, that globalization is also unreal. All of these can be condensed into a single overarching political principle: that objective reality, even scientifically proven reality, can be managed by adroit public relations.  Though that may seem cynical, more likely it reflects the childish philosophical position that all of reality is subjective: if it’s true for me, or for people whom I can get to think likewise, then it’s true.

Unfortunately, Trump is too easy a target.  However much guilty pleasure it would bring, one should not follow in his footsteps by personalizing events.  His cognitive shortcomings were also the failings of a large segment of the American public and the American political class that represents them, as evidenced by the substantial number of voters who bought into his cockamamie version of how the world worked.  If one agrees that Trump did not know what he was talking about, what does this say about the world view of his sizable and loyal base?  If nothing else, at least in this respect Trump was truly representative of his followers.  To the degree that his supporters comprehended foreign policy at all, they did so at a limbic level in which emotional triggers substituted for rational discourse.  The ignorance of Americans about geography was seemingly inexhaustible, as was their meager knowledge of history and science[22] – all of which applied in spades to their president.[23] Assuming that this cognitive deficit is not simply transient, this suggests that the harmful foreign policy consequences inherent in Trump’s myopic world view will not be solved by his removal from office.  The public’s failure to recognize globalization for what it is will continue to have fateful consequences.

If globalization is indeed a social fact, then its ability to exact costs indirectly through the prospect of system failure needs to be taken into account.  Like any complex social entity, over time globalization has accumulated some serious problems.  The years that followed the end of the Cold War witnessed the traumatic eruption of international terrorism, followed by the Great Recession and a resurgence of nationalist sentiment.  The signs came from all directions: international terrorism, Brexit, the shakiness of the EU, the concomitant rise of China as a power and the rise of Chinese nationalism, tariff wars, publics  fed up with too much immigration, the decline of working-class manufacturing jobs in highly developed nations, unchecked corporate power, a staggering accumulation of global wealth by a small number of billionaires, the imposing challenges associated with climate change, a growing vogue for authoritarianism, and, currently, the realization that globalization provides a welcoming environment for deadly pandemics. Indeed, humankind itself has been portrayed as a disease that has overspread and endangered its host, our planet earth.[24] Even once-enthusiastic boosters of globalization now acknowledge that it has gone too far too fast and threatens to spin out of control.  More recently, the bullishness about the future that was the calling card of liberals and radicals in the nineteenth century has given way to a more gloomy view that globalization is in danger of undoing itself.

To get an idea of the pitfalls that await if we continue to look at issues wearing nationalist blinkers one needs only to look at how the world has dealt with the coronavirus outbreak.  The connection between globalization and the COVID-19 upsurge should be obvious because the pandemic was not simply a national matter but a disease of civilization.  The ability of the virus to maintain itself was dependent on the existence of a global host: an interdependent global society in which an expanding chain of infection showed little respect for national borders.  For more than a century, the growth of an expanding world economy, the spread of consumerism, the democratization of societies, the emergence and spread of human rights, the ease of travel, and the creation of cooperative international institutions have helped to spread the belief that globalization was  the ticket that guaranteed universal access to The Good Life. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic cast a menacing shadow over all these achievement by providing a foretaste of how globalization might begin to break down.  Worse still, it also forces us to consider whether existing approaches for dealing with globalization can forestall such a disaster.[25]

America’s handling of the COVID-19 virus was a train wreck, but a look at the international reaction to the spread of the virus makes clear that the behavior of the United States was not markedly worse than that of many other economically advanced countries.  Governments and political parties responded to this global crisis by embracing nationalism as if globalization did not exist.  In effect, the virus added intersocietal distancing to interpersonal social distancing.  Instead of trying to put together a coherent international effort, states across the world confirmed that nationalism was in the driver’s seat as they competed for scarce medical supplies, Asians were scapegoated, immigration was brought to a dead stop, and travel cratered.  Instead of seeking cooperative solutions, finger-pointing was in fashion, especially between the United States and China, as each country sought to deflect attention from its bleary-eyed response when the wake-up alarm first sounded.  Trump tried to pin the blame on China (the “kung flu” and “China virus”) while China touted its success in suppressing the outbreak as proof of the superiority of its authoritarian system.  Vaccine research became the latest arena for waging an espionage war and scientific arms race, raising the prospect of “who gets the vaccine first” and “whose vaccine is best” donnybrooks.  In each case this blame game was aimed at bolstering the government’s political standing at home, the international implications be damned.

By channeling some of the worst impulses of nationalism, policymakers succeeded only in making a bad situation worse.  How so?  If, for example, one tries to assess the impact of nationalism on how the coronavirus crisis was likely to play out, in the absence of international coordination even the most conscientious national efforts of a single government to test, isolate, and treat citizens could not prevent the virus from continuing its advance across the rest of the world.  Given the need to maintain a high level of international trade and movement of people, the virus remained free to survive, move around and find new uninfected hosts, and occasionally proliferate.  Thus the adoption of self-isolating virus-free “bubbles” of the kind put in place by Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan worked well as temporary expedients, but they were not a long-term answer, short of outright secession from the family of nations. Even the few countries that successfully reduced their caseloads to minuscule levels were unable to drop their guard and remained susceptible to renewed waves of infection until other nations brought their cases under firm control, many of whom were incapable of doing so.  With the rush to inoculate their own citizens first, a huge epidemiological gap was opening up between advanced and less-developed nations, further mucking up the situation. However dysfunctional the handling of the pandemic within the U.S. or (choose a country), there was more than enough blame to go around.  On balance, too few countries acquitted themselves well.

The coronavirus pandemic was an alarm bell suggesting that the global system is vulnerable to atrophy and degradation if not necessarily to immediate collapse.[26] The free movement of people and goods is already at risk, as on-and-off travel bans confirm.  Supply chains are being disrupted and shortened.  Shortages of medical supplies have already led to a rethinking of the wisdom of the just-in-time manufacturing model; products once readily available have already become scarce and more expensive; needed migrant laborers have returned home; motivated and in some cases indispensable immigrants have stopped coming; tourism has dried up; scholars and scientists no longer meet at conferences to exchange ideas; governments have imposed all sorts of restrictions on who comes, goes, and stays.  Then too, recovering from the domestic shutdowns seems unlikely without a simultaneous recovery from a global downturn.  Think of the ripple effects of a prolonged international slump on major tourist-dependent city economies like Paris and New York City, the far-flung Disney operations, Boeing and Airbus, the airlines, and then imagine the multiplier effect of jobs lost in related manufacturing and hospitality sectors.  Over time, economies will become less dependent on foreign partners and foreign goods; maximum self-sufficiency will become the watchword; and political nationalists may take charge, many of them likely to be seduced by authoritarian temptations.

One should not neglect the cultural damage that is just as important but difficult to quantify, most notably our still-deep faith in human progress, without which optimism about our prospects and any incentives to invest in the future, whether financially or in the desire to have children, might be extinguished or seriously dampened.  At the moment, we can no longer take for granted what only recently were certainties of modern life. For starters, economists agree that the domestic economy is unlikely to revive fully without a restoration of an atmosphere of security, which means that many economically beneficial activities will not resume until the safety of participants is once again subconsciously accepted as part of an ordinary, everyday lifestyle.  Until people no longer feel endangered by disease, they are unlikely to frequent restaurants, attend concerts and sports events, or travel in anything resembling past numbers.[27] The same holds true for international society, which is also based on this kind of non-intimate trust in the safety and reliability of distant but opaque institutional transactions.

The coronavirus drama, far from being simply a preview of things to come, suggests that our future will probably be even more problematic.  The Biden administration clearly plans to take global environmental issues more seriously, but how seriously?  “Folks, we’re in a crisis,” asserted the president-elect.[28] He was not wrong, but he was wrong-headed in comparing impending climate change to the challenge posed by COVID-19.  Serious as the coronavirus plague is, a subsequent pandemic (“the big one”) could be far more lethal.  But plagues, however deadly, are likely to be more transient than a long-run accumulation of climate-related catastrophes in which readily observable perils will appear sometimes in isolation, sometimes closely sequenced, or even bunched together.[29] In such circumstances, the role of science will be quite different.  Science will be able to furnish us with predictions and advice, and technology will offer partial workarounds, but there will be no vaccine to protect us from climate change.  Not least, dealing with such eventualities will encounter the obstacles of nationalism and public opinion.


The world’s political leaders have been sensitive to the need to rein in unbridled globalization.  Once the issue of whether the Communist or capitalist brand of globalization would prevail was settled three decades ago, the question of the day became the extent to which the ill effects of globalization could be controlled.  In 1999, President William J. Clinton spoke confidently about “harnessing the forces of globalization.”[30] Nowadays leaders like Chancellor Angel Merkel of Germany continue to believe that “globalization ought to be shaped in an open-minded way.”[31] China’s President Xi Jinping expressed the same idea in a celebrated 2017 speech at Davos in which he urged nations to “adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impact, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations.”[32] President Biden’s heart seems to be in a similar place. [33] The Paris climate accords testify to the existence of an international consensus, while the historical record amply illustrates the efficacy of political action. Considered over the span of millennia, politics has always called the shots in economic policy, even during periods when it took a back seat to the market and was reluctant to have the final say.  Consequently it would be a mistake to see globalization as an inevitable or irreversible process impervious to political intervention. So if it can be channeled as a matter of principle, can we be confident in assuming that it will be done in practice?

If we look to the past for illustrations of how a crisis of globalization might be politically managed, the best example – perhaps the only example, for we have very little experience with this kind of thing – is how the United States got through the Cold War.  For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it may be comforting to learn that we have survived a crisis of globalization once before.  Much of the history of international politics in the twentieth century – from the Great War, World War II, and the Cold War that followed – was prompted by the fear that modern liberal civilization contained within itself the seeds of self-destruction.  That threat was double-barreled: the growing realization that the catastrophic damage caused by modern warfare had ruled out its usefulness for settling international disputes, coupled with the fear that authoritarian and totalitarian government might well become the international norm, with fateful consequences for the American way of life.  The United States played a leading role in pulling the world through this century-long crisis, first by joining to decisive effect major wars on two occasions and then by organizing a global community to weather the storm.  For seventy-five years, a long time in international relations history, the trust that underlies any working society was underwritten by an America that promoted the ongoing process of knitting together the world into a single fabric.  Considering the alternatives, until recently the internationalist order overseen by the United States after 1945 worked surprisingly well.  It has to be chalked up as a major achievement that U.S. foreign policy muddled through a century that featured two world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Why not a repeat?  If we did it once, surely we could do it again. Alas, some weighty reasons argue against it.  To start, a rebuilt world order would need political leadership.  All human societies, including global society, need leadership to function effectively, as do a host of many non-human mammalian societies.[34] But leadership is not simply a top-down relationship.  To be effective, it requires a followership, which in turn implies trust.  If past performance is any indication, our memories about the high degree of trust enjoyed by the U.S. during the Cold War and after may be faulty.  On some high profile issues – Korea, Vietnam, Euromissiles, the second Iraq war, for starters – America’s allies have often been unenthusiastic, sometimes rebellious, and far less supportive than Washington would have preferred. Perhaps Dean Acheson correctly appraised the Zeitgeist of his time when he quipped that a leader without followers is preferable to followers without a leader.  But a policy rooted in that kind of hegemonic complacency, the product of a brief and unique moment in the history of foreign relations, would be impossible to pull off in an increasingly multipolar world.  Such trust as there was, laboriously accumulated and husbanded over time, has been recklessly squandered in the past four years.  Thus Trump’s delusion of a return to greatness has an internationalist corollary that also needs to be acknowledged as a lingering fantasy: America’s hegemonic moment has come and gone. If there is to be a crisis internationalism, it would have to function within a cooperative order – whatever shape that might take – on a scale not yet seen.

That is just one of many obstacles.  While leadership, allies, and cooperation are vital, domestic support is absolutely necessary.  Without it, no viable foreign policy is possible.  When one looks back to see how America was able to generate support for the Cold War, the story makes the heart sink.  The first turning point was Japan’s December 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a fortuitous event that in a flash created a clamorous public demand for U.S. participation in a global conflict among a public that only days earlier didn’t seem to give a damn. Republican and Democratic politicians quickly formed a new consensus that the security of the United States was intimately bound up with the fate of a globalized planet, only to have the issue reemerge in a threatening new form shortly after the war’s end.  Following the breakup of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, the Truman administration sought and received the public’s seal of approval for its policy of containing the USSR that would have been politically inconceivable only a few years earlier.

These developments were providentially helpful, but in the long term, the irrational way in which the pubic endorsed Cold War policies would become a serious problem. The support of a public that only recently was isolationist materialized so suddenly that it should have raised questions about whether its about-face was truly the result of an internationalist epiphany.  Giving credence to such a conversion would be like believing in the sacramental power of the nationalist Chinese warlord who Christianized his troops by baptizing them with a fire hose.  As it turned out, no profound change of heart had taken place.  The mass public were not instantly transformed into devout internationalists.  The nation’s striking turn away from wartime admiration of Stalin as a stalwart ally and the Soviet peoples as a heroic lot was made possible only by the imagined fear of imminent domestic subversion by Moscow’s American Communist puppets.  Although the Cold War is commonly described as a struggle of ideologies or a contest between two different ways of life, most people at the time, some of them highly placed, knew little or nothing about Communism, the Soviet Union, or the kind of threat that the USSR realistically posed.  Policy intellectuals always want crises to be rationally managed, but the Red Scare, however absurd in retrospect, demonstrated that fanciful threats can sometimes be more frightening than real perils and politically useful to boot.

The public and the policymakers each had very different dangers in mind.  At the rarefied level of high policy, the Cold War was not an existential crisis for the United States.  It was, instead, a contest over which version of globalization would overspread the world and rearrange how societies were organized.  Strategic metaphors like the domino theory that Washington policymakers floated as a helpful way of understanding this problem were far removed from the public’s parochial obsession with the possibility of an imminent Communist takeover.  Stated bluntly, domestic political hysteria licensed policies that were founded on an elite preoccupation with global problems, policies that otherwise would not have received public support.  This compound was not the product of scientific political chemistry, but of accidental alchemy.  For a time, this odd-couple relationship worked well.  A booming postwar economy and consumer revolution, aided by a military Keynesianism that provided additional economic oomph, made for an American working class that never had it so good.  But that horn of plenty emptied out in the 1970s, after which most Americans made little or no progress while high income types profited disproportionately from the economy’s gains.  That disenchanting turn first became manifest with the Great Recession of 2008 and after, but it translated into outright political disaffection only with Trump’s astonishing victory in 2016.

One of the eye-opening revelations from the 2016 campaign was that the American people, despite having lived with 75 years of internationalist foreign policy, had not been converted to internationalism.  One would think that internationalism should have been internalized over that ample stretch of time, but the election results suggested that isolationism remained the default temper of the American people.  A revival of this parochial bent was something that Cold War policymakers had long dreaded but managed one way or another to stave off.  With the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the sudden disappearance of obvious strategic threats worried policymakers for a time – would the public continue to support a huge military establishment in the absence of a reliable enemy? – but Islamic terrorism and the 9/11 attacks replenished the store of public credit that allowed for some questionable new interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other terrorist hot spots – though only for a time.

Neglecting the home front is always a peril for internationalism, whose cosmopolitan frame of reference makes it easy to lose touch with changes in one’s own culture.  As the fear of global terrorism ebbed, Trump was presented with an opening to attack internationalist policies whose essentials now seemed suspect.  His sales pitch attracted a surprisingly sympathetic audience and a willingness to go along with his policies.  What it did not do, however, was to awaken a dormant public hostility to globalization, for no such sentiment existed.  Public attitudes continued to be moved more by a bottom-line concern with well-paying jobs than by a reasoned opposition to a poorly understood historical process.  Still, this underlying indifference tilted the table toward isolationism if only because political internationalism presupposed a good deal of knowledge about the external world.  Isolationism, by contrast, required little in the way of intellectual resources other than the local knowledge on which the mass public relied.

In one fundamental respect, this was a new isolationism.  Political isolationism prior to the 1930s was anchored in two pillars: solid footing in the political and military geography of its time and a tacit public approval that flowed from the economic growth made possible by active participation in a globalizing world.  In this respect, the old isolationist elite – think 1920s Republicans – were the kinds of globalists reviled by Trump.  They believed that globalization (which they actually understood!) was a positive historical trend that required no major political commitments by the U.S. while at the same time they agreed that ad hoc international cooperation on important issues like German reparations, disarmament, and  attempts to outlaw war was desirable. By the late 1930s, as the situation in Europe and Asia worsened, a “Fortress America” mentality among some leading Republicans challenged that optimistic outlook, only to be blindsided by Pearl Harbor.

Trump did not go to that fatalistic extreme.  On the surface, his view resembled the protectionism of William McKinley or Calvin Coolidge, save for one critical exception.  His insensibility to globalization and his willingness to upset the global apple cart constituted a historic departure from the Republican Party’s long-standing friendliness to globalization.  His political minions in Congress averted their eyes to this retreat even as they silently abandoned their former devotion to free trade.  Meanwhile, his supporters among the mass public were tacitly abandoning their former indifference to globalization in addition to their former acceptance of internationalism as something normal.  There was no spontaneous groundswell from below that demanded such changes.  Rather, as is often true of transformations of public opinion, it was the political pied piper who led away the children.  The turnabout of the Republican establishment, when added to the worsening economic prospects of the faithful, combined to create a new isolationism that was unabashedly vacuous in its disregard for the state of the world.  Russia and China managed to excite some concern, but much of this was rhetorical, as Trump was mostly allowed to have his way in cozying up to the autocrats.  Unlike 1947, the likelihood of generating a bipartisan consensus was slender, especially given the growing tribal hostility between the two major parties.

Fatefully, traditional leadership had failed to anticipate the impact of a public opinion that was roiled by the kinds of irrational ideas that now course uncontrollably through the internet – the national id unconstrained by a superego.  In 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously advised President Truman to “scare hell out of the American people” if he wanted to sell the new policy of Cold War containment.  Today many Americans are already fearful, though in this case about a host of post-Cold War issues.  While the bogus menace of domestic socialism has continued to play well to the faithful, it was elbowed aside by a grab-bag of newer perceived threats: fake news, global warming as hoax, ditto for COVID-19  (even from some seriously afflicted patients), allegedly rigged elections, the so-called deep state, traitors at the FBI and intelligence services, black U.N. helicopters as ominous symbols of world government, the Democratic party as a satanic cult trafficking in children and their blood, wild talk about a coming civil war, and so on. This flood of imaginary concerns stood in stark contrast to real problems that were being ignored.  This conspiratorial mind-set created an internet offspring of Gresham’s law in which bad ideas drove out the good, with the result that the cognitive distance between populist opinion and the reality of globalization was rapidly expanding.  Unlike the Cold War, such wacky views were impossible to mobilize for internationalist purposes.

When one looks at public opinion as a whole, the problem in the U.S. was not a coherent nationalism. Indeed, nationalism in the Trump administration was scarcely worthy of the name.  This is too large a topic for this paper, but a few themes might be suggested.  An articulate opposition to globalization does exist, but Trump’s version of nationalism, with its unstudied indifference to globalization, did not come close to clearing that low bar.[35] For one thing, it was for the most part anti-interventionist, featuring more bombast and bluster than bombing.  The reluctance to use federal power was also evident on the domestic front, where executive authority was used principally to constrain federal power.  Trump’s refusal to use his presidential authority to mobilize a coordinated response to the COVID-19 virus was explicitly anti-nationalist.  To the degree that Trump embodied a bona fide nationalism, it was a minority white nationalism that was incapable of producing national unity.  Measured by polling numbers and electoral results, Trump was never popular with the majority of the U.S. public and in the end he alienated more voters than he attracted. Moreover, given the minoritarian bias chiseled into the U.S. constitution, his was not a truly representative national government.  Nevertheless, the nearly fifty-fifty political balance meant that for internationalists, life without Trump would not be easy.  Though Trump was the loser, the 2020 election results made abundantly clear that a sizeable segment of the American public now embraced his preachments.

Even in the absence of such handicaps, national unity has always been difficult to come by in the United States.  If one looks for historical examples of what it took to produce national solidarity in the past, certain episodes stand out: The explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, German U-boat sinkings of U.S. merchant ships in 1916 and 1917, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1961, the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  These galvanizing events all led to war save for the case of Cuba, which came perilously close to doing so.  In each case, it was a foreign military attack or fear thereof that moved public opinion.  So-called wars of choice, on the other hand, most notably Vietnam, have turned out to be more problematic.  A survey of domestic issues, fails to reveal any comparable galvanizing examples, with the arguable exception of the New Deal. Despite the calculated but ham-handed resort to war metaphors, Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty and Richard M. Nixon’s war on cancer failed to generate a comparable degree of public passion.[36] Tellingly, occasional reminders of the death toll from the pandemic’s invisible enemy, whose numbers surpassed the equivalent of one hundred 9/11’s, or more than the losses suffered in World War II, did little to quell public discord.  As a rule, such statistical facts carry little political weight in the popular imagination.  Thus it should come as no surprise that for politicians, optics matter far more than metrics, which poses a serious problem for the future of the republic.

Democracies are clearly capable of wars, but given the country’s divisions it is difficult to see anything but a spectacular crisis generating the public support needed to deal aggressively with global warming. Where is the drama in global warming?  No one pays to watch a movie in slow motion, which is for NFL referees.  If global warning turns out to be an incremental multi-generational crisis, in the absence of a jolting scare, real or imagined, the outlook for effective action is not good.  The threat of military attack obviously works as a mobilization tactic, but the counterattacks by Mother Nature not so much.  Raging wildfires in California and Australia?  More frequent and dangerous hurricanes?  Deadly heat waves in Europe?  Rapidly melting glaciers and sea ice?  Rising greenhouse gas emissions?  Species destruction?  Meh.  It is by no means certain that another public scare campaign would do the trick.  Globalization without a clearly defined enemy will be a hard sell for an establishment seeking an internationalist revival.  In the absence of a comparably robust internationalist public opinion, the elite world view is likely to be in for a rough ride.[37]

To find fault with the American people for its ill-formed views is a political taboo, even though distrust of an uncontrolled vox populi is embedded in the structure of the U.S. constitution, especially Article II, section 1, which spells out the working of the Electoral College system.  The founding fathers devoted considerable attention to a problem that was first articulated in classical times in which democracies were considered mobocracies, “spectacles of turbulence and contention” that were destined to end in tyranny.  Famously, James Madison’s Federalist #10 played up the threat of a popular tyranny of the majority that would ride roughshod over smaller factions or interest groups.  The idea of interest groups, particularly economic pressure groups, still constitutes a respectable approach to understanding how government operates.  But my guess is that the founding fathers would have been flummoxed by the kind of reality inversion one sees nowadays, with its disregard for evidence, science, truth, rational argument, and even objective self-interest.  Judged by Madisonian standards, Lincoln’s inspiring phrase extolling “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is something to be dreaded.  For those anti-populists, myself included, who are also suspicious of elitism and continue to have faith in the potential of the demos, the solution lies in a vastly improved  system of education that awakens people to existing global realities, accompanied by a more equitable economy and a broader safety net that will take the air out of populist discontents. Much easier said than done, obviously.

In short, while the history of the Cold War offers an example of the ability to withstand a challenge to globalization, the providential way in which such vastly dissimilar views came together tells us little about how to surmount a future global crisis.  The question is whether the U.S. will be capable of constructing a more potent version of internationalism – a crisis internationalism – that meets the objective demands of our times before the penalties of ignoring social facts kick in.  There is mounting evidence that those facts have already begun to make themselves felt, because we have already compromised the future to a significant extent.  But even though some of the unwelcome repercussions of climate change have already introduced themselves and will become permanent uninvited guests in our lives, substantive political responses remain as huge political question marks.[38] Because politics is a reactive business – always chasing after the train of social change leaving the station, catching up only after there is a train wreck – envisioning a politics of the future that can respond decisively to anticipated dangers is a pipe dream. So at the moment, we are limited to an unappetizing menu: a Trumpist position that unknowingly subverts the global system, and a faint-hearted normal internationalism that is unable to cope seriously with the world’s looming problems.

Dealing effectively with climate change will require fundamental alterations in society and culture.  Some measures, such as the transition to renewable energy sources, will be relatively easy to put in place, while others that bring economic pain and social disruption will be far more challenging.  Stopping the rise in global temperature will require massive readjustments in transportation and travel, food production and consumption, urbanization, energy use, and forest and ocean management.  In future, floods, droughts, forest fires, storms, rising sea levels, disappearing ice caps and glaciers and shrinking water supplies, species destruction and other “natural” disasters will take their toll.  Not least, such problems will have to be tackled without the help of an external enemy, for unlike the Cold War the adversary will be ourselves.  A quest for victory over Mother Nature cannot be a winning strategy.  In sum, recognizing and addressing the dysfunctions of globalization while taking care not to intensify them will require a degree of political finesse and public support far greater than anything that U.S. foreign policy has achieved in the past.

Well, then, what if our political first aid kit is limited to some meager Band-Aids?  If so, giving up on efforts to steer the course of events would leave each nation to go its own way, not unlike the strategies that many governments have adopted in response to the pandemic.  This would amount to a triumph of nationalism by default, in which case there will be a reassertion of unilateralism – on trade and immigration, initially, with other major restrictions sure to follow – coupled with an unraveling of the already less than robust  international institutions that were long ago tasked with managing global problems. In turn this would invite a return to old school great power politics – with the proviso that nuclear proliferation will make it difficult if not impossible to settle disputes by military force.  As happened in the Cold War, other means would take the place of clashing armies.  We have an inkling of this in the current use of cyberwarfare by some countries – just add computers to Bismarck’s famous speech about the unavoidable reliance on “blood and iron.”

Though in modern dress, this would be a return to an ageless way of doing business, a classical power-based approach already evident in the writing of Thucydides.  Such a turn of events would seem to confirm the truth of the realist creed that has long been the dominant school of thought among historians of foreign relations and I.R. theorists, an interpretive framework that assumes a schizophrenic alternation between hard-headed realism and wooly idealism in the history of U.S. foreign policy.  Trump’s revival of nationalism fits nicely into that narrative, with the nationalists posing as the clear-eyed realists, of course.[39] To globalization’s nationalist critics, its shortcomings underscore the need for people to huddle together with their own kind, to return to a primal source of solidarity, one’s own people.  However, to think that nationalism is somehow “natural” is historical baloney – in many cases, governments created nations.  On this score, China’s rulers, with their own reliance on parochial nationalism, are equally culpable.  To adopt this view is in effect to shrug one’s shoulders and accept that, after thousands of years of human social evolution and extraordinary change, international relations still come down to a system in which we are powerless to check the operation of power other than to forcefully oppose it.  Should events take us down this road, the history of internationalism, when it is written, will be seen as only a brief interlude in the never-ending human pursuit of power.

This glum view of the future is what passes for realism.  For my professional self, it is an example of the impoverished conceptual models that we continue to rely on to explain foreign relations.  Unfortunately, far too many historians and I.R. theorists continue to think of internationalists as naifs.  It is true that internationalism cannot boast of the ancient pedigree of realism – but then again it might be time for hoary ideas to start earning their titles of nobility.  In contrast, the emergence of globalization as an object of study is relatively recent.  What is increasingly clear from the ongoing research, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, is that political internationalism, far from being idealistic, was rooted in an urgent appreciation of the hard realities of power, though not the kind of power that realists prefer to talk about.  Power assuredly resides in military strength, at least in part – no argument there.  But, to return to Durkheim, power is also inherent in social facts, in our case global facts.  Any realism that hopes to live up to its name requires that all of reality be looked at.  Measured by that standard, political realism as applied to international relations is a reductionist undertaking that shortchanges our ability to make sense of the world.  As for the allied presumption that realpolitik is a reliable guide to policymaking, its indifference to the revolutionary transformations brought about by globalization reveals it to be a form of intellectual defeatism.  Its only apparent concession is that power politics, which used to be played out locally and regionally, now take place on a global stage, i.e., just more of the same on a larger scale.[40]

Internationalists, often criticized for being idealists, are more deserving of the honorific title of realists.  Internationalism is but the political counterpart to globalization.  Far from being stuck in the playpen of childish idealism, internationalism is rooted in a historical reality that has been building for centuries.  The starting point of most internationalists is not to create an imagined world, but to navigate the world as they find it.  That is the saving grace of American internationalism in the twentieth century, which had little to do with abstract idealistic preferences or an overweening American exceptionalism, as many accounts of America’s rise in the world would have it.  Quite the contrary, it was a historically informed response to global problems that erupted volcanically in a global society.  It was not entirely successful, as the burgeoning problems of globalization make quite clear.  But when we try to imagine alternative roads that might have been taken in the past, clearly we could have done much worse.

Historians like myself tend to be thrown off balance when challenged to make a case for the practical relevance of their discipline because, plainly, we know no more about how to grapple with the present than anyone else.  In most cases, we know less.  We are at a particular disadvantage with pundits who are au courant in their knowledge of current events.  But this does not mean that we are irrelevant.  Among other things, we know what has not worked well in the past and we know that social practices that have outlived their time have zero chance of success.  Would anyone care to make a case for resurrecting slavery?  Restoring absolute monarchies?  Rolling back women’s suffrage?  Reviving the practice of wife-beating?  Torture?  Blood sport?  Raise your hands, please.  This is unfair, I admit, because these examples, with the exception of monarchies, illustrate the power of modern moral sentiments. By comparison, internationalism cannot arouse a visceral feeling of rightness or wrongness, even when it comes to enforcing a powerful value like the belief in human rights.  If it is to succeed, it would be enormously helpful if it were able to mobilize the kind of moral fervor that one finds, say, among many contemporary vegans and vegetarians.

But this is a practical, not a moral, issue.  Would one, for example, prefer a sundial to a Rolex or a chain smoking doctor who can recommend a good funeral home to a practiced heart transplant surgeon? The calls for nationalist solutions show a comparable lack of awareness of nationalism’s outdated role in history.  No doubt a living Karl Marx would view contemporary nationalism as a caricature of the original version, but that would be too optimistic a view.[41] If I had to offer an analogy, nationalism today can be likened, imperfectly, to a childhood disease like measles and mumps, once-deadly afflictions that have since been domesticated.  Unfortunately, this simile might appear to minimize the problem, for haven’t we all learned to live indulgently with childhood diseases as commonplace ailments? Nevertheless, though such diseases, while they have typically have evolved and moderated over time, if left uncontrolled they remain dangerous to children and adults alike.

Viewed pragmatically, today’s rekindled nationalist sensibility is in many ways the opposite of pragmatism, equivalent to insisting that if something hasn’t worked in the past it nevertheless remains an eminently sensible option. But we can no more go back to the past than we can reclaim our youth, for history is a non-stop journey whose point of no return is reached in its very beginning.  Nationalism is a time-bound historical creation, a way of organizing societies whose day has come and gone, a historical failure that despite its inability to ultimately solve the problems of its own day is somehow expected to rescue us from our more complex current difficulties.  While nationalism as a political slogan continues to stir the hearts of many, it no longer presents a sensible scheme for coping with a globalized world.  At one time it served as an ideal type that was useful for orienting policy, but it has lost its connection to the real world and is now but an atavism, a survival that has outlived its usefulness.[42] Today the only realistic choice on the foreign policy menu is a greater degree of internationalism; the internationalism that we have inherited from the Cold War is no longer up to the job.  This is not a case for heeding the lessons of the past, which are always disputed; it is an argument about the impossibility of recreating the past, and a mythical past at that, which is not debatable.  There is a huge difference between the two.  It is also a case for recognizing the value of a present that has been long in the making and has some life left in it yet, provided that we don’t delude ourselves. For If we don’t deal with global society as a fact, we will pay the price.

This is a cheerless assessment, but it is not fatalistic.  It is riddled with uncertainties.  As John Kenneth Galbraith said, when it comes to predicting the future there are two kinds of people, those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know. One might add that the first group can be divided into those who know what they don’t know and those who don’t. As an historian, I cannot even predict how the past will be understood in years to come.  Others in the knowledge industry fare no better.  While we do know some important things about the future, we are all in the dark when it comes to political auguring.  Some unpredictable event(s) might occur.  Political realignment may be in the offing.  If the educational system rises to the occasion, a succession of catastrophes might not be necessary to rouse us in order to convince future generations of the need to address climate change. Some galvanizing leader may step up.  New technologies might ameliorate the situation or save the day.  Public ignorance might, alas, conceivably play a salutary role by making it easier for canny leaders to shape mass opinion.  So we may muddle through.

That said, we are far from operating in the dark.  One consequence of being modern is that we have learned a good deal about globalization’s evolution and the myriad factors that have contributed to its historical trajectory.  We know where we have been, we understand its present importance, and, like good weather forecasters, we can see with a fair degree of certainty what is headed our way.  Or we are like car travelers, without the benefit of a GPS to guide us, hurtling at high speed down a new highway toward an unfamiliar destination.  We can see clearly down the road and know the general direction in which we are travelling.  Given the inevitable twists and turns, detours, and unforeseeable roadblocks, the precise details of the journey are unpredictable.  But we do know enough about our location and route not to lose our way.  And we know enough to avoid experiencing the classical Greek meaning of tragedy as an outcome that had to happen because of the arrogant ignorance of humans.  Of necessity, we are more modest, but also more knowledgeable about what may lie in store in store.  The worst tragedies are those to which we surrender beforehand when we reject the knowledge at our disposal.


Frank Ninkovich is professor emeritus of history at St. John’s University, New York City, who resides in lovely Placitas, New Mexico.  Stimulated by the questions raised in this essay, he is currently mulling over whether he has the energy to write a history of U.S. foreign relations since the year 2000.

© Copyright 2021 The Authors



[1] For a more detailed discussion of “normal internationalism” and “crisis internationalism” in the twentieth century, see Frank Ninkovich, The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[2] Robert Samuelson, “Globalization Much More Complex Than Many Believe,” (Worcester, Mass) Telegram and Gazette, July 6, 2016.

[3] I have found only two instances where Trump has used the word since October 2016, one of them likely scripted, whereas “globalists” and “globalizers” have been employed more often.  In the more prominent case, Trump referred to “this wave of globalization [that] has wiped out our middle class.” Nevertheless he reverted to blaming a small group of people as the source of the problem, viz., “our corrupt political establishment that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people.” Remarks at the South Florida Fair Expo Center in West Palm Beach, Florida October 13, 2016, APP.  Similarly, in a more recent comment, Trump contended that “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization, moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas…these are the globalists….  Globalization has made the financial elites, who donate to politicians, very wealthy, but it’s left millions and millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache and our towns and cities with empty factories and plants.” Remarks at the Whirlpool Corporation Manufacturing Plant in Clyde, Ohio, August 6, 2020, APP.

[4] Remarks at a “Make America Great Again Rally,” Houston Texas, October 22, 2018, the University of California Santa Barbara online American Presidency Project, hereafter cited as APP.  Perhaps I am reading too much into these remarks, but here Trump sounds as if he has just discovered that he is a nationalist, not unlike M. Jourdain, Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, who was pleasantly amazed by the revelation that he has always been speaking prose: “By my faith!  I have been speaking in prose for more than forty years without knowing it.” Frederique Michel and Charles A. Duncombe, Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman (2011) Act 11 Scene IV, 34. Who knew?

[5] Remarks at the South Florida Fair Expo Center in West Palm Beach, Florida October 13, 2016.  Donald J. Trump, APP.

[6] Quoted in Blake Hounshell, “Trump vs. the Globalists,” Politico, February 13, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/donald-trump-vs-globalists-dubai-214776.

[7] The president’s News Conference, September 7, 2020, APP.

[8] “Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City,” September 25, 2018, APP.  For a video of the speech, https://youtu.be/g9eOLbNgODE?t=5.

[9] Arthur John Booth, Saint-Simon and Saint-Simonism: A Chapter in the History of Socialism in France (n.p.: Sagwan Press, 2015) 50-53; Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 648.

[10] For some illustrative takes on the temporality of globalization: Peter N. Stearns, Globalization in World History, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2019); Nayan Chanda, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); A.G. Hopkins, ed. Globalization in World History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002); A.G. Hopkins, ed. Global History: Interactions Between the Universal and the Local (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); William H. McNeill and J.R. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003; Jürgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Petersson Globalization: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[11] Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell Remarks as Prepared: Campaign Press Release – Remarks for Night Three of the Republican National Convention – Part Two, August 26, 2020, APP.

[12] Milovan Djilas, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1957), 194.

[13] Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller, (New York: The Free Press 1938).

[14] Taking a giant step beyond Durkheim was the German philosopher/sociologist Niklas Luhmann,Theory of Society: Cultural Memory in the Present , 2 vols. Trans. Barrett Rhodes (Stanford University Press, 2012-2013). Luhmann started his work with the premise that global society was a fact.

[15]Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 3, 10.

[16]In saying this, Durkheim was asserting an early but still widely held view of social scientists that examining the interior lives of people was scientifically unproductive.  It’s more complicated than that, as social facts also include what goes on inside people’s heads. Then too, making sense of how social reality changes requires that one take into account the back-and-forth relationship between ideas and society. This topic, which sprawls over many academic fields, is too vast and complicated to describe in a few sentences.  In my case, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, reprint edition (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2013) first alerted me to the importance of interpretation in life (hermeneutics), which I have long sought to apply in seeking to understand the mental worlds of American policymakers.  The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1977) and other works took a major step forward when he realized that structures were internalized within our bodies (habitus).  Despite finding attractive sides to many other thinkers, I have settled on being a pragmatist after reading Richard Rorty’s works.  Given that I have sometimes been pegged as a postmodernist, I should stress that pragmatism, notwithstanding its low-rent reputation as an American philosophy, works brilliantly in explaining the operative logic of science of all kinds.

[17] Many people did not like it, but their objections were normally expressed in an elegiac manner, i.e., it is what it is.

[18] Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 108.

[19] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 131-39; Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[20] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpbOEoRrHyU at minute 10:25.

[21] I am not a fan of the idea of false consciousness.  This idea presupposes that the person leveling the accusation somehow has privileged access to the truth, which rubs me the wrong way.  Nevertheless, obliviousness to reality, or its outright denial, and rejection of science, easily clears the high bar needed to justify use of the term.

[22] Though I could cite various polls and surveys, no better evidence exists than comedian Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” episodes, which are readily available on Youtube.  For starters, try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_pw8duzGUg&list=PLKUC1BREer3y_k_eb3muCZagySJjjzJiW.  I rest my case.  Add to this the amazingly large percentage of Americans who deny global warming or neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology.  Unsurprisingly, two of Trump’s greatest sources of strength are white voters without college degrees and evangelical Christians.

[23] On various occasions Trump was under the impression that Frederick Douglass was alive, that Finland was a part of Russia, that Britain was not yet a nuclear power, that windmills cause cancer, and that British troops had landed at New Jersey airports during the revolutionary war: “Our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rocket’s red glare it had nothing but victory.” Dana Milbank, “The Case against Trump, in 600 ALL-CAPS WORDS AND 35 EXCLAMATION POINTS!” The Washington Post, October 20, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/20.

[24] For humankind as a disease, William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor Books, 1977), 41-42, passim.  For the record, McNeill was one of my thesis advisers.

[25] If we plow through the conventional checklist of foreign policy issues – NATO, China, the Middle East, trade disputes, and so on, I see no need to spell out how Trump’s policies have departed from those of his predecessors.  A multitude of commentators who follow current affairs can detail the changes far better than I.  For what it is worth, my foreboding that Trump would take a wrecking ball to the entire post-World War II structure was too alarmist.  Most of the changes have not been as radically Luddite as I expected and in a few instances may have been salutary for the long run by forcing his successors to address more seriously problems that had long been brewing – the United States’ role in Europe, for example, its interests in the Middle East, and its standing in China and the East Asia region more generally. Trump’s aggressive actions on trade and tariffs, however maladroitly handled and however little Americans have to show for them by way of jobs and income, can still benefit from some hard rethinking and rebalancing. Institutions that have been damaged can be repaired and even improved upon.  Restoring trust and patching up damaged relationships is more difficult, but not impossible.  In some cases, changes would require a greater willingness to change on the part of allies and foes than they would of the United States.  Paul Krugman has argued that “even with the best will in the world, this egg can’t be unscrambled,” but I disagree.  (See “Trump Killed the Pax Americana,” New York Times, October 29, 2020) For the most part, razing and rebuilding is unnecessary, only some expensive remodeling, guided by a steady recalibration rather than reconceptualization.  In short, the damage could have been much worse.  Overall, Trump has proved to be more like a prankster with a firecracker than an incendiary dynamiter.  As for the details of needed policy changes, I’ll leave that to the experts. See, for example, Anthony J. Blinken and Robert Kagan, “‘America First’ is Only Making the World Worse,” The Washington Post, January 1, 2019.  But it should be clear by now that this essay’s point is that a restoration will not be enough.

[26] I am not suggesting that a civilizational collapse is imminent, which, when it does occur, will likely be the result of forces beyond human control.  Ben Ehrenreich, “How do You Know When Society is About to Fall Apart?,” New York Times Magazine Nov. 8, 2020, Page 39 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Why Societies Fall Apart.

[27] See, e.g., “Iowa never locked down.  Its Economy is Struggling Anyway,” New York Times, October 22, 2020, 1.

[28] Remarks by President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, December 19, 2020, APP.

[29] An attempt to weigh the various risks confronting humans in the future is Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (Hachette, 2020).  Ord places plague at the top of his list of dangers.

[30] Clinton, Remarks at a Dinner for the Conference on Progressive Governance for the 21st Century in Florence, Italy, November 20, 1999; Clinton Remarks to Business and Community Leaders in Santiago, Chile, April 16, 1998, APP.

[31] The President’s News Conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, March 17, 2017, APP.

[32] Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the World Economic Forum, Davos, 17 January 2017, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/full-text-of-xi-jinping-keynote-at-the-world-economic-forum.

[33] David E. Sanger, “The End of ‘America First’: How Biden Says He Will Re-engage with the World,” New York Times, November 10, 2020, A1; editorial, “Joe Biden’s Climate Team Actually Cares about Climate,” New York Times, December 29, 2020, A18.

[34] Erna Walraven, “What Wild Animals Can Teach You About Leadership,” Financial Review, September 4, 1919, https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/leaders/what-wild-animals-can-teach-you-about-leadership-20190902-p52n64.

[35] Oddly, there is a globalist sidebar to all this, though it is not a point of view to which contemporary internationalists would subscribe.  Trump was open to a global version of nationalism, which was encouraged by a proselytizing Stephen Bannon following his unceremonious exit from the White House.  In some ways, this is reminiscent of the ill-starred Fascist International of the 1930s.  Then there was the pride that Trump took in how many foreign leaders, particularly autocratic types, appeared to have cast themselves in his mold.  But this only confirms that globalization is a social fact, in the sense discussed above.  See Henry R. Nau, “Trump’s Conservative Internationalism,” National Review, August 24, 2017, https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/08/donald-trump-conservative-internationalism-foreign-policy-protects-american-interests/. See also Mihir Sharma Donald Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist The Print, October, 2019.

[36] The problem with using the New Deal as an analog of war is that it did not end the Great Depression.  Only an actual war, World War II, managed to do so, and even the origins of that war remain controversial to the present day.

[37] Paul Krugman, “Cold War, Climate and the Power of Denial,” New York Times, Nov. 17, 2020, Section A, Page 22.  A recent Pew poll shows that 44 percent of Americans consider globalization to be a bad thing, a number that approximates the size of Trump’s base.  Go to https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/05/18.

[38] Roy Scranton, “We Want a ‘New Normal.’ It’s Not in the Forecast,” New York Times, January 25, 2021.

[39] Consider how some of Trump’s early foreign policy advisors deceived themselves into believing that their chief was a realist, which he was not, for how can one be a realist without having a decent sense of what reality is? But that’s another story.

[40] The enduring spell cast by realism is not the only problem.  One also needs to acknowledge the ongoing appeal of the market mentality.  Crudely put, this perspective envisions a future in which humankind’s destiny ought to be guided by market choices.  No matter how bad the situation may become, supply and demand will produce the best possible outcome.  But, by implying continued support for a process that contributed so mightily to our predicament in the first place, this would be just another form of fatalism.  What would a world dominated by a merger of market ideology and realpolitik look like?  In outline, it would appear to resemble the geopolitics of the nineteenth century.  We all know how that turned out.

[41] The reference here is to Marx’s oft-quoted quip about the rise of Napoleon III as an example of history repeating itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (International Publishers, 1994), 4.

[42] For imperialism as atavism, the classic source is Joseph Schumpeter, “The Sociology of Imperialism,” in Imperialism and Social Classes: Two Essays (New York: Meridien Books, 1955), 64-65.