RAMESH THAKUR. Trump’s assault on the liberal international order

There is considerable skepticism about U.S. President Donald Trump’s commitment to uphold the post-1945 liberal international order crafted under American leadership and underwritten by U.S. military power, economic heft and geopolitical clout. Trump’s pre-election statements on trade, immigration, alliances and nuclear policy in particular seemed to question these four critical pillars of established U.S. policy.  

While some lament “The End of the Anglo-American Order,” others are trying to discern the outlines of Trump’s new world order. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, jointly responsible for the peaceful end of the Cold War, thinks “the world is preparing for war.”

Clearly, history likes irony: The president with the least previous foreign policy interest and experience could end up having the biggest impact on global affairs in a century.

Trump’s election proved that a self-confident person can take on and win, despite near-unanimous opposition from the city-based mainstream media, by connecting directly with the voters in the hinterlands: a lesson that all Western politicians terrified of the 24-hour news cycle should heed. Trump took to heart and exploited the public’s 90 percent contempt for Congress and 85 percent distrust of the national press.

One way or another, the world order — especially its post-1945 normative, security, trade and immigration architectures — is at an inflection point. Although early indications suggest that relations with Russia could normalize, the risk of falling victim to the Thucydides Trap, whereby most power transitions end in war, could increase as China and the United States elbow each other to assert primacy in the crowded Asia-Pacific region.

China will step into the leadership vacuum as the stabilizing power in the Asia-Pacific region and — in another historical irony — as the custodian of the global commons in efforts to check the pace and impacts of climate change. Yet a question remains. International systems are more stable when the dominant power underwrites global public goods that many others access as free riders. In supporting the post-1945 order, the U.S. government functioned as the de facto world government in writing and policing global rules.

Will China follow Britain and America in accepting this burden and can the U.S. acquiesce to playing second fiddle?

Reversing more than seven decades of American policy, Trump has indicated fierce opposition to free trade agreements: Apparently only he can be trusted to negotiate deals that protect American interests. Soon after being sworn in, Trump issued an executive order pulling America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Free trade agreements have in fact turned out to be investor-friendly and worker-hostile deals that enrich a shrinking economic elite, with a sideways flow of benefits to political and bureaucratic elites, while leaving wages stagnant and shredding jobs. These include the North American Free Trade Agreement, which aimed to create an integrated market linking production and consumption in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. This explains the paradox of manufacturing output doubling over the past dozen years even while manufacturing jobs dwindled.

Trump heavily criticized both NAFTA and the TPP during the campaign, but because both have in fact been enormously beneficial to the U.S. — automation leading to increased machine-driven productive efficiency has shed more jobs than globalization — many assumed Trump would backtrack from campaign promises once he became president. Instead he has given every indication of intending to keep all his promises — a character trait so radical in contemporary politicians that it has shaken the entire Western world.

Trump has queried the costs and benefits of two decades of U.S. military interventions after the Cold War. NATO’s support in most has been less than decisive while it has become the institutional vehicle for multiplying U.S. liabilities in countries of no vital interest to America. Trump claims foreign industry has been subsidized by the American taxpayer “at the expense of American industry” and argues that the U.S. has “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.” Trump’s dismissal of NATO as “obsolete” and the promise to put “America First” and force allies to pay for their own defense needs, translates in practice into a policy of disengagement and isolationism: Fortress America.

Trump has reversed decades of U.S. support for an ever closer European Union, to predict and welcome its breakup instead as the death of an economic competitor to the U.S. He is openly hostile to the U.N. system and has threatened to cut funding to international organizations by up to 40 percent.

Trump’s order to suspend and then severely reduce immigration and refugee intakes is a repudiation of international conventions and arrangements governing the movement of peoples in favor of unilateral policies — and equally a repudiation of the history of how America was built (he need only look at his current wife). Concepts like human rights, protection of civilians and climate change are alien to Trump’s vocabulary. With no moral compass to guide it the U.S. cannot provide global moral leadership.

The tough rhetoric against the Iran nuclear deal and the tweeted promise to “greatly strengthen and expand (U.S.) nuclear capability” imply a rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as the globally legitimate framework for regulating nuclear policy. Trump might prove receptive to the recommendation from a blue ribbon Pentagon panel to expand U.S. nuclear options by developing an arsenal capable of “limited” nuclear wars, which further undermine the NPT. But this would jeopardize the entire basis of the existing global nuclear order, from safety and security to nonproliferation and disarmament, for which the NPT is the normative anchor.

Without the NPT, for example, Iran as a sovereign nation would have the same right to develop and test nuclear weapons and missiles as the U.S. Nor is increased bellicosity toward Beijing the most effective strategy for gaining Chinese cooperation to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program. There is also a total mismatch between Beijing’s minutely scripted utterances on any subject and Trump’s fondness for firing off tweets on impulse.

Globalization rests on and deepens interdependence of security and prosperity. The U.S. has historically led efforts to manage the process through global governance institutions. Trump’s approach to foreign security and economic policies is transactional and zero-sum. The administration seems determined to keep even career diplomats at a distance, dismissing many with a curtness that slights their decades of professional service to America in favor of a “know nothing approach” to foreign policy.

It is one thing to set out deliberately to try and bend the arc of history to one’s preferred direction. It is another not to know one’s history such that the world is compelled to relearn the worst lessons at great cost in general human misery.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.  

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