Trump’s election can change the world a heartbeat
Early summer 1914 was tranquil, with international instability of the previous several years seemingly wearing down. When people opened newspapers and read that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had been murdered in Sarajevo on 28 June, few granted exceptional significance to that tragedy. By February 1848 conservative international order established after the fall of Napoleon had been in existence for more than a generation. It was difficult to imagine that it was just about to change in a most radical way. On 30 January 1933 Germany got a new chancellor – again. His name was Adolf Hitler and he came after a quick succession of several predecessors amid political instability. Hardly the kind of news that capture the readers’ imagination. The list can go on and on. Only with hindsight we can see the moment when the world around us suddenly becomes very different. But such changes do occur from time to time. And when they do, the results are dramatic.
Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States that can be just this kind of a turning point in our age.
The reason is not Trump’s brutal and divisive rhetoric. It is not his eccentric behavior. He is unlikely to favor foreign conquest and hardly capable of establishing the dictatorship in the United States. What he is likely to do, however, is to undermine the basic strategic tenets of the American foreign policy since the World War II.
Defining the world order
By the 1890s America was becoming the world’s greatest economic power. As a result, it gained the capability and felt the necessity to leave aside its hemispheric isolation of the previous 100 years and to actively participate in the global political affairs. The idea was first conceptualized by strategic thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan and put to practical use by Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. World War I, in which the great European states destroyed the very foundations of each others’ power, gave the United States an opportunity to not just actively participate inthe global order, but to design it according to its vision and needs.
Under President Woodrow Wilson the US did exactly that. To prosper, the United States needed (and still does) a liberal world order allowing the country to utilize its economic preeminence for maximizing both prosperity and security. When you have a unique economy that is unquestionably larger than that of any other nation, it is wasteful to make conquests or to carve out a geographically limited sphere of influence. The whole world is your sphere of influence, provided that you are permitted to have unhindered economic and political access to every part of it.
With this in view, Wilson first intervened in the World War I in 1917 (for fascinating details of President Wilson’s strategic thinking during and after the Great War see:Adam Tooze,The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931), and then did his best to design the liberal post-war world order. Some European allies marveled and many scoffed at the novel notions about international relations advanced by Wilson and his administration, but were by that time so dependent on America, most of all financially, that had no choice but to follow its lead.
Designing the new world order was not enough, however. It was also necessary to commit to its long-term survival. That was something that American political elite was not prepared to do in the 1920s. Still very inexperienced in the global politics, it did not fully appreciate the fact that the new world that was so beneficial for America had to be vigorously defended. This resulted in the relatively passive American foreign policy that did not pre-empt or adequately react to the growing international destabilization of the 1930s. While Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that America was heavily invested in the survival of the existing international order – which would not just preserve itself automatically – he could do little, because most of his compatriots failed share this understanding.
Britain and France alone stood little chance to contain the subversion of the international order launched by Germany, USSR, Japan and Italy. The international system crumbled to pieces. While the nations were said to “sleepwalk” into World War I, the start of World War II in September 1939 came as a logical result of instability.
Defending the world order
America learned the lesson. Even before World War II was over the US began to consciously assume the role of the global leader. When after the war the isolationists attempted to press their agenda, they were quickly rebuffed and marginalized. This time the mainstream of the American political elite understood that if they wanted the liberal international order to hold, they had to provide for it. And so they did, throughout the Cold War.
Extensive worldwide structure of the American alliances and overseas military bases was created to enable the United States to efficiently play this role. While the Soviet menace disappeared with the end of the Cold War, the United States has remained the chief protector of the existing global order, continuing to use its worldwide political and military network for this purpose.
Conceptually, American foreign strategy of the last 100 years can be summarized as smashing ambitions of all contenders for either global or regional hegemony. Americans checked Germans in World War I, Germans and Japanese in World War II, Russians in the Cold War, and are currently trying to do the same with Chinese, Russians, Iranians and the jihadist movement in their respective regions.
There is a reason why the US does this, spending enormous resources in the process. If another power succeeds in establishing hegemony over a large chunk of the world’s landmass, it will gain the ability to restrict America’s economic and political access to the regions it controls. The Cold War-era states in the Soviet sphere are a good example. So would have been the Japanese-dominated East Asia, if America allowed that to happen during World War II.
This means that the global influence, which America naturally enjoys because of its uniquely large economy, diminishes if some other major power succeeds to build up a large sphere of influence of its own. Moreover, command of huge resources from regions included in that sphere of influence might allow such major power to eventually break the American monopoly on the global economic and political leadership, endangering America’s long-term prosperity and security.
A perilous sea change?
There has been bipartisan consensus on these basic principles of American foreign strategy for a very long time. Now, however, this consensus appears to be in jeopardy. Utility of America’s alliances – both the NATO and East Asian ones – is questioned by some American politicians in a manner which was unthinkable until very recently. More broadly, American global policies aimed at maintaining the existing liberal world order are criticized with arguments rooted in narrow nationalism. It looks like a late comeback of the American isolationism, in a somewhat updated form. The weird part is that, unlike the 1930s, today American leaders are supposed have all the historical experience they need to know why exactly isolationism cannot work for the United States.
Donald Trump, however, does not seem to care about this stuff. Nor does his team appear to be educating him in this vein. Perhaps this is not what Trump wants to hear, and he just picks team members who would not annoy him with such abstruse notions. And so – at least verbally – he goes on to dismantle the elaborate structures that Washington has been building for many decades to keep the world the way the United States absolutely needs it to be. According to Trump,America does not need its alliancesall that much.The NATO is obsolete. Apparently,so is the WTO. And who cares about boring notions likedeterrence? . The list of Trump’s statements that illustrate this point is very long by now.
His words have already done damage, making the allies nervous and emboldening America’s enemies. If he wins the presidency, he might well move from words to deeds. The results would be momentous.
Trump has explained his ‘America First’ concept by saying:”We are going to take care of this country first, before we worry about everyone else in the world.” For more than a century America has been tied to the rest of the world by all kinds of links so closely, so inseparably, that it is utterly impossible to take care of America without taking care of the world order. This is what happens when you have the largest economy on Earth in the modern conditions. The present state of global affairsisthe American century. It can never get essentially better for the American interests. Things can, however, get substantially worse. As they most assuredly will if America dismantles the system it has created for the purpose of taking care of its national interests.
But it is not just American interests that are at stake. The essence of the modern international politics is America defending the existing global order. If America stops defending it, even just for a while, the world will change – unavoidably and drastically. All of us would then have a guaranteed opportunity to watch the spectacular show of the historical sea change. The drawback is that the process would be very dangerous, bloody and messy.
David Batashvili(@DavidBatashvili) worked for the National Security Council of Georgia in 2008-2013. He is an author of opinion articles in Georgian and Ukrainian outlets.