Policy Series 2021- Introduction from the Editors4 min read

Introduction from the Editors

General Editors: Robert Jervis, Stacie Goddard, Diane Labrosse, and Joshua Rovner

Donald Trump’s election forced international relations scholars to reassess our views of international politics.  In the quarter-century between the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Trump, scholars took some big things for granted.  They assumed there was a durable bipartisan commitment to a large forward U.S. military presence, and that any U.S. leader—Democrat or Republican—would remain committed to the liberal international order.  Debates about democracy, trade, and institutions would go on, but no U.S. president would challenge the foundations of the post-World War II global order.  Politicians who tried to do so seemed destined for the fringes of American political life.

And then came Trump.  The new president did not accept these deeply embedded assumptions about international politics; he mocked them.  Trump criticized institutional cooperation, which sacrificed flexibility for predictability, and called for a transactional approach to foreign policy.  He blasted democratic alliances, which he saw as vehicles for smaller countries to exploit the United States, and heaped praised on authoritarian regimes. Perhaps most importantly, he took aim at the U.S. organizations that are responsible for implementing U.S. grand strategy, especially the intelligence community and the State Department.  Trump played on declining U.S. public faith in government.  Indeed, he encouraged Americans to doubt the legitimacy of their own institutions.

Critics worried that Trump’s campaign rhetoric foreshadowed a bleak future for international politics.  Undermining the liberal international order meant a return of the vicious great power rivalries of the early twentieth century, which had led to global depression and two world wars.  Hollowing out U.S. institutions would leave the country unprepared to compete in a multipolar world.  This was the worst of all worlds: a weaker United States in a more dangerous world.  A flood of commentary followed in the deeply unsettling months after the election.

In 2017, the H-Diplo/ISSF editors sought to broaden the discussion, commissioning a series of essays on the effects of the election on the liberal international order.  Our goal was to put Trump’s election in context by soliciting essays from a range of political scientists and historians.  We asked them to reflect on the state of international relations and America’s role in the world.  At a basic level, we wanted to know if theories scholars argued about after the Cold War were still relevant in the age of Trump.  A selection of those essays were published in Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2018).

H-Diplo/ISSF is now launching a second series of analyses that will focus on the effects of the Trump presidency on the United States’ standing in the world.  Did Trump weaken the liberal international order, or did he simply expose problems that were always lying beneath the surface?  Did he ruin the U.S. reputation by treating politics as a zero-sum game, or did he simply confirm foreign suspicions that the American-led order was always a façade for American power?  Will the Trump presidency have lasting consequences for international politics, or will we remember it as a bizarre and temporary detour?

We will also explore the prospects for the new Biden administration.  What do diplomatic history and international relations theory tell us about the future of the U.S. in the world?  What tools and insights can the H-Diplo/ISSF community provide to make sense of this evolving situation?  What assumptions about a range of topics – including alliances, multilateralism, nuclear policy, regional dynamics, international law, civil-military affairs, escalation, human rights, and globalization – demand attention in the aftermath of the 2020 election?  We do not seek instant analyses of the 2020 election; instead, we seek to put the Trump presidency in historical and theoretical context and to chart out the possibilities of the Biden administration.

The series will feature a range of essays.  Our original contributors have been invited to assess their contributions to the first series and to reflect on their first impressions of Trump, with the benefit of hindsight.  We have also commissioned new essays to address the effects of the Trump presidency, from a range of different perspectives, and in light of the events of the Trump years, including the rise of global movements for women’s rights, racial justice, and environmental protection, and a global pandemic that put international cooperation under tremendous strain and revealed the domestic structural damage that was done during Trump’s term.  Whether the international order can bear the pressure remains an open question.

—Robert Jervis, Stacie Goddard, Diane Labrosse, and Joshua Rovner