We completed this article in September 2021, just as the Taliban defeated the American-supported government of Afghanistan, and the United States worked to transport all of its citizens out of the country along with the people of Afghanistan who worked for and with its troops, contractors, and officials.  On the liberal internationalism front, this is a set-back for the United States.  Not only was an ostensibly aspiring democratic U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan defeated, but the withdrawal from the country was arguably undertaken without full consultation with the United States’ allies who had sent troops and aid in this American-led effort.  What, then, can we now say about the future of liberal internationalism (LI)?

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On November 9, 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his electoral victory.  Perhaps fittingly, news of this exchange first appeared on Twitter.[1] Subsequently, reports emerged in late November that then Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was in the United States to meet with members of Trump’s transition team.[2] Both the call and the visit were striking because they were a departure from the norm.  Usually, if U.S. presidents-elect speak to their Indian counterparts, it is after, not before, phone calls to U.S. allies.  Moreover, the Indian government has in the past tended to interact with presidential transition teams from Delhi or through its missions in the United States.

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Forewarned by a number of other world leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron was well-prepared for the infamous Donald Trump handshake.  On 25 May 2017 at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, the two world leaders met for the first time.  With cameras clicking and video rolling, President Trump praised Macron’s “tremendous victory” in the 2017 French presidential elections that the “whole world is talking about” and expressed his eagerness to work with Macron on “terrorism” issues.  Trump then extended his hand to the brand-new French president, which Macron gripped tight.  An awkward, white-knuckled struggle ensued, with Trump wincing and trying to disengage multiple times before Macron released him.[1] In the zero-sum game of testosterone laden death grip handshakes, the score:  Macron 1, Trump 0.

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The two electoral shocks of 2016 – the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States – left observers aghast or elated.  For those who found themselves in the former category, the outcome of the Brexit referendum represented a crisis that dwarfed any other challenge the European Union had faced in recent years, while Trump’s victory was seen as a “profound shock to the west, one that calls into question the future of its democratic model and the liberal international order.”[1] For the latter group, Brexit was an enormous victory over an “arrogant, out-of-touch political class.”[2] Similar feelings could be found across the Atlantic, as Fox News claimed that the result of the 2016 presidential election was a “national rejection of both the traditional media and the Hollywood elite.”[3] The one shared sentiment among the majority of observers was surprise. Before polls closed on 23 June 2016, even Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a key figure in the campaign to vote Leave, said he thought Remain would win the EU Referendum.[4] Only a small minority had the prescience to know that the conditions for both outcomes had been building for some time.  Jonathan Haslam was among the few who thought that Trump’s election was “likely” due to “burgeoning blue-collar resentment and dissentient opinion among longstanding Democrats.”[5]

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At the time of writing, it is only six months since Joe Biden became President of the United States.  Yet there is already one notable contrast between Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, that deserves more attention.  In a nutshell, Trump promised an overhaul of U.S. foreign policy but couldn’t deliver.  Biden is trying to overhaul it, only under the cloak of traditional language.  Any attempt to fathom the behaviour of both leaders must navigate this mismatch between words and deeds.

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Evaluating the significance and effects of economic sanctions is a serious challenge for scholars.  For one thing, appraising the outcomes of sanctions raises the question of perspective: from whose vantage point do we observe their use and effects?  While U.S. policymakers often change their approach to sanctions, to targeted countries the continuities in attitude are often more salient than the transfer of power in D.C. from one presidential administration to another.  At the same time, the impression among Western capitals and U.S. allies has been that the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 marked a serious strategic shift for United States foreign policy.  Any fully global assessment of sanctions must integrate these simultaneous perceptions of continuity as well as change.

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We cannot calculate President Trump’s “legacy” for United States foreign policy simply by describing his diplomacy while he was in power.  Virtuous fathers can fritter away family wealth, and Mafiosi can leave ill-gotten gains to charity.  It is still too early to know what long-term consequences might emerge, and it is difficult to sort out what trends would have prevailed even with a less disruptive leader.  Happily, a one-term presidency is less likely to leave durable wreckage in terms of our international reputation than eight years would have done.  My own admittedly non-impartial view is that Trump’s domestic legacy was more damaging and dangerous than his international one.  With his wanton disregard for truth, his use of social media to spread vituperation and contempt, whether for opponents or supporters who fell out of favor, his winking at practitioners of political violence, he simply trashed the norms needed for a functioning democracy – and that is not to mention the continual challenges to the 2020 election results.  Still, H-Diplo has asked about the consequences for foreign policy, and those remain the focus here.

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Throughout his years in the public eye, former president Donald Trump has frequently said things that reveal his belief that the construct of ‘race’ is a valid measure of human difference and human worth.  In countless public utterances, he has used racist, derogatory language to insult, belittle, and abuse non-white people.  He has also conflated whiteness with American-ness, implying that the United States is a racial community of white people whose non-white residents cannot be incorporated into the nation because of their race.  After all, he rose to national political prominence primarily through his prolonged racist campaign against President Barack Obama, claiming that Obama had been born in Kenya and was also a Muslim.  And his announcement in June 2015 that he would seek the presidency featured the defining comment of what might be called Trump’s “racial panic.” Speaking about immigration to a group of cheering supporters, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.  They’re not sending you.  They’re not sending you.  They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”[1]

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President Joe Biden has called the current moment an “inflection point,” both domestically and internationally.[2] In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, some forces within the Republican Party have made clear that they no longer believe democracy is in the best interests of their party.  Rather than adjusting their message and policies to broaden their base of support, many in the GOP have doubled down in support of baseless claims of electoral fraud to enact voter suppression laws in the hopes of increasing their odds of success at the ballot box in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.[3]

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“It’s the economy, stupid!” While this phrase was initially coined by Democratic Party nominee Bill Clinton’s campaign to emphasize the importance of a struggling domestic US economy in the presidential race of the early 1990s, today, it appears applicable to the international realm as well.[1] For several decades, IR scholars have drawn a separation between the economic and security realms.  Concretely, the established “neo-neo synthesis” in IR literature posits that whereas considerations about relative gains characterize the security relations between states, the prospect for absolute gains informs economic interactions.[2] Recent developments in international politics, however, are putting in question the continued relevance of the neo-neo synthesis in thinking about statecraft.  China’s growing economy, for instance, was long viewed through the lens of economic opportunity by American policymakers.  Today, in contrast, China’s economic rise is increasingly seen by Washington as a threat to (American) firms, workers, and consumers.[3] In a similar vein, narratives about weaponized interdependence – the practice of “leveraging global networks of informational and financial exchange for strategic advantage” – are becoming increasingly popular.[4] More fundamentally, policymakers and pundits have raised questions about the orthodoxies of “win-win globalization,” and the underlying assumption that increased economic interdependence promotes “peace and cooperation by increasing the cost of conflict between states.”[5]

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