As with other aspects of the Trump presidency, it is impossible at this stage to predict how the day-to-day conduct of foreign policy will actually work out. But in his campaign rhetoric, and also in earlier statements over the years, Donald Trump made it clear that his predispositions are at odds with the orthodoxy that has shaped U.S. foreign policy for the past seven decades. The conjuncture of his accession to the Presidency with a decline in both America’s margin of economic pre-eminence and the public’s appetite for overseas military interventions raises the possibility that we are about to witness the most profound change in the structure of world politics since 1945. It is easier to understand this if we recognize that the nature as well as the scope of the global role that the United States has played in the last seventy years has been a departure from the norms of inter-state relations.
Making sense of the present is a difficult undertaking at the best of times. It seems more especially so at the current moment. The tumult of 2016 was of a kind not seen since the ‘spring of the peoples’ in 1848. Power no longer seems to be what it was and where it was thought to be. In the West, a wave of anti-establishment populism threatens to bring down the given order, and, in part, has succeeded in upending established verities. Elsewhere, the world seems in turmoil, too. Migratory movements along Europe’s soft Mediterranean underbelly are placing unprecedented strains on European societies and the continent’s political structures; a restless Russia is intent on a policy of imperial reconstitution, however partial; in East Asia, the rising power of China and a defensive United States are eying each other warily; and Islamist terrorism continues to widen the internal and geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and to export violence abroad. The speed and spread of change has left commentators perplexed at how what, until very recently, appeared firm and unshakeable has proved brittle and shallow-rooted. Some see Western democracy imperilled and point to parallels with the 1930s. Others draw analogies with the inquietude of Europe on the eve of the First World War. Whether any such parallels exist today, we shall know for certain in a hundred years’ time. Perceived analogies are never exact. Often, indeed, they are misleading, and reveal more about contemporary sensibilities than about ‘objective’ realities. But rather than look back wistfully at the simpler times of the post-1945 world, it is worth remembering that instability and impermanence are the hallmark of international affairs. They are, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed, “a fluid element, which will coagulate temporarily under certain circumstances but which, at a change in the atmosphere, will revert to its original aggregate condition.”
The election of Donald Trump seems to many to mark the death of liberal internationalism. Given the President-elect’s failure to give clear guidelines regarding what he intends to do in so many areas, however, we may be surprised by the things he chooses to do because he has yet to devote much time and attention to thinking about them. But one wonders whether U.S. relations with Latin America will change all that much. Latin America may have remained an area which the United States assumes it can dominate, but in general there has been a lack of a clear direction in U.S. policy for the most part.1
Donald Trump presents the most formidable challenge to the foreign policy consensus that has prevailed in the United States since World War II. We do not yet know what U.S. foreign policy will be like under the Trump administration, and it is possible it will exhibit greater continuity than many people now expect. Trump ran for president pledging a radically different approach towards the rest of the world, however, and some of his early appointments and pronouncements suggest that this is what he will try to do.
I am only guessing, since no one has said as much to me, but I suspect that I was asked to participate in this policy roundtable because of my remarks about Donald Trump to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, which appeared in the 26 September 2016 issue: “I think we’re just at a point in our history where he’s probably the right guy for the job. Not perfect, but we need someone different, because there’s such calcification in Washington. Americans are smart collectively, and if they vote for Trump I wouldn’t worry.” Yes, there it is, I am an academic who, like sixty-three million Americans, supported Trump for President. Indeed, as both a Republican and a political realist, I am not only untroubled by his election, I look forward to the next four years with great expectations. “This is,” as Daniel Drezner put it, “realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.”
Can IR theory help us understand what is about to happen? Can it help get us through the Age of Trump? Or, will Trump destroy IR theory in the same way that he eviscerated most accepted theories of electoral politics? In a cage match between Trump and Theory, the smart bet might be on Trump, but perhaps this says more about the fragility of IR theory than it does about Trump.
Is this how the Pax Americana ends? Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, countless commentators have answered in the affirmative. Four years after dismissing American decline as a myth, Robert Kagan now says he glimpses the “end of the 70-year-old U.S. world order.” In the New York Times Magazine, Ian Buruma delivered an elegy for the Anglo-American partnership that won World War II and led the world ever since, until Brexit-Trump voters opted to “pull down the pillars” of the whole project and retreat to isolation. The liberal commentariat is sounding the alarm, warning that making America great again will actually make America small in the world.
“When a commonwealth, after warding off many great dangers, has arrived at a high pitch of prosperity and power, it is evident that, from long continuance of great wealth, the manner of life of its citizens will become more extravagant; further, rivalry for office and in other spheres of activity will become more and more fierce. And as these conditions continue, the desire for office and the shame of loss, as well as the ostentation and extravagance of living, will prove the beginning of deterioration of the state. For this change the people will be credited, when they become convinced that they are being cheated by the elite out of avarice, and are puffed up with flattery by others of the elite who act out of love of office.”
California and Canada have some things in common, extending far beyond the trivial fact that each political entity sports in its name the same two first letters. They are, for starters, similarly sized demographic entities, Canada’s 35 million or so people nearly matching California’s 39 million. They are each considered, with reason, to be multicultural, meaning basically that within their boundaries live a multitude of folk of differing ethnicities, not infrequently speaking languages other than English. They both have been regarded, again with reason, as ‘outliers’ from mainstream tendencies, social as well as political: California is often heralded, by friends and foes alike, as the harbinger of trends yet to unfold elsewhere in America; Canada is taken, in this age of populism marching triumphantly through one political system after another in the Western world, to be one of the remaining unambiguous bastions of ‘liberal democracy.’ Finally, Canada tends, in American elections, to ‘vote’ very much the way California does. Indeed, had Canadians possessed the right to cast a ballot in the most recent presidential election, their preference for Hillary Clinton would have been registered at least as strongly as was Californians’ own preference for the Democratic candidate.
Those that did not foresee the likelihood or even the possibility of Donald Trump’s victory are going to find it hard to discipline themselves to a balanced projection of his forthcoming first term. To ardent liberals in the United States – not least most of those at the leading American universities – at worst it represents a conspiracy hatched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and at best a ‘Black Swan’ event that could not have been foreseen.