Leo Ribuffo should be writing this reflection on the four years since Donald Trump’s election.  Diane Labrosse kindly asked me to contribute after reading my 2017 remarks celebrating Ribuffo’s pathbreaking 1983 The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War.  Andrew Hartman put together the roundtable that took place just weeks before Ribuffo unexpectedly passed away and made sure the papers, including Ribuffo’s, were published.  But Labrosse’s kind invitation to contribute to H-Diplo gave me a chance to revisit the Old Christian Right, Ribuffo’s 2017 essay on Donald Trump and the uses and abuses of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” and what I wrote less than a year into the Trump Administration.[1]

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It is interesting to look back on the predictions made by contributors on the eve of the Trump administration.  They run the gamut from seeing him as a radical departure from previous presidents in his policies to someone radically different in style but not markedly different from his predecessors in his policies.  Most assume that he will to a considerable degree constrained and restrained.  Looking back on 2016 it is evident that I was both wrong and right.  I was wrong in thinking it unlikely that Trump would get elected but quite right in my expectation that he would deviate in the most dramatic ways from his predecessor in style and substance.

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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

The 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the tenth such event, will be held from 27 April to 22 May in New York. One of the most important and controversial pillars of the global nuclear order will be evaluated there. The NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Its ratification was a milestone in nuclear history and gradually developed into a centerpiece of the liberal international order.[1] The NPT was the first joint international arms control treaty signed by the Soviet Union and the United States. With it, the Soviet government led by Leonid Brezhnev turned definitively away from demanding a complete ban on nuclear weapons, which had informed Soviet nuclear policy between 1946 and the mid-1960s.[2] The NPT encompassed a threefold strategy that aimed first at preventing further proliferation, second at reducing existing arsenals, and third at the promotion of non-military nuclear technology under the condition of compliance with a safeguards system based on inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).[3]

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While campaigning for President in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump never missed an opportunity to attack the major foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, European Union, China, and Russia in June 2015 that halted Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Criticizing the deal had been popular among Obama’s detractors, but Trump’s denunciations were particularly vociferous. “My number one priority,” he declared, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”[1] He called it a “terrible” deal, one negotiated “in desperation,” which he vowed to rip up as soon as he took office.[2] Iran came up, again and again, as yet another area where the Obama Administration had surrendered U.S. interests and initiative.

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As the Trump administration’s second year in office rolls onward, what is the state of the transatlantic alliance? Writing for H-Diplo last year, I argued that Trump’s first year in office saw the emergence of a “Trumpian NATO policy.”[1] In brief, this policy encompassed significant continuity with the substance of prior U.S. policy towards NATO, coupled with highly conditional U.S. rhetorical backing for the transatlantic relationship. As Trump—in a break from his campaign rhetoric—emphasized through mid-2017, NATO provided value to the United States, even as he suggested the United States might exit the alliance should its allies not agree to U.S. demands in intra-alliance discussions.

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Authentic Trump

Authentic Trump…accept no substitutes

Donald Trump’s potential to be a disruptive force in both national and international politics was fully in evidence during the 2016 election campaign and has been more than realized since his inauguration. The extent of the eventual disruption that will mark his legacy will depend on a combination of intended and unintended consequences of his actions. The way he stirs the international pot may lead other states to look at problems with fresh eyes and consider possibilities that they might otherwise have dismissed.


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