How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
U.S. President Donald Trump believes that America makes terrible deals—from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Why, according to Trump, do other countries take such advantage of the United States? Because our leaders and officials are stupid and incompetent and are terrible negotiators. “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people. But we have people that are stupid,” said Trump when he announced his decision to run for president. On immigration, he was similarly blunt: “the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning.” And during the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, he claimed that “we are making a terrible deal” because “we have the wrong people negotiating for us.” He added that “the Persians are great negotiators” and that “they are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear."
If the Trump Doctrine is to put “America First” by focusing on bilateral bargains—understood in terms of short-term winners and losers—then its corollary is the “Good Negotiator Policy.” In the president’s world, bad people make bad deals. The best, smartest people—most notably, Trump himself—always get the best bargains. He is right that personal attributes and interpersonal dynamics can make an important difference in international negotiations. But Trump’s focus on individual skill overlooks the most important factor that shapes political agreements in general and international ones in particular: the relative leverage of the parties involved.
In fact, smart negotiators pay close attention to the balances of power and influence. They try to enter into negotiations when conditions are most favorable to them. They create arrangements and institutions that lock in the results of their advantageous bargaining position. And they set up rules, procedures, and institutions that further shift the balance of influence in their favor—or at least insulate their influence from future declines in relative capabilities.
This is the story of the multilateral and bilateral bargains that undergird much of the contemporary international order. Many of these have their origins in years immediately following the World War II, when the United States’ relative power was at its historical peak. Europe and Asia’s military and economic capabilities lay in tatters. Most of the developing world was under colonial rule. The Soviet Union stood a distant second to the United States in nearly every measure of power—the sole exception being conventional ground forces.
Not only was the United States’ share of global power unprecedented, but also the emerging Cold War left states hostile to the Soviet Union with few alternatives to the United States. During the 1940s and 1950s, Washington created a network of alliances that, in turn, gave it enormous influence over its partners’ security policies. Washington led the development of institutions for regulating international trade, finance, and monetary relations. Unsurprisingly, these evolved over time and often in ways that reflected shifts in power away from the United States. Indeed, Washington generally recognized that it could gain even greater loyalty to the order by agreeing to concessions to its allies—acceding to more equitable terms in its military basing and access agreements, making NATO more genuinely multilateral, and so on.
Of course, Trump is not the first American president to believe that he can gain more by adjusting or skirting existing institutions—or even by creating new ones. Richard Nixon upended the international monetary regime—the Bretton Woods system—by deciding to end the dollar’s convertibility into gold. After the Cold War, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both expanded NATO. Both asserted the right to contravene sovereignty norms and Security Council authority, whether in Serbia or Iraq. Bush also withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, removed the United States’ signature from the Treaty of Rome, and abandoned the Kyoto Protocol. But most prior changes to the postwar order, including some of the aforementioned, took the form of gradual adjustments, institutional layering, or relatively minor tweaks. The more significant changes often turned out poorly, as Bush learned. But Trump is unique among American presidents in calling for fundamental and extensive alterations in both the substance and the process of America’s post-war bargains.
Some of Trump’s wagers reflect familiar—and paradoxical—“paper tiger” reasoning. Other states are eating America’s lunch, but if we push them, they will buckle. States relentlessly pursue their own interests but will kowtow and submit when pressed. In Trump’s rhetoric, this paradox is resolved by the claim that he, along with his team, is a smarter, cannier, and far-superior negotiator than are past American officials and foreign interlocutors alike. The gap between his brand and the reality of his career suggests the fundamental problem here. Born into wealth, bailed out multiple times by his father, and with a string of failures behind him, Trump somehow still attributes his success to his own abilities rather than to his considerable structural advantages.
Indeed, for Trump’s position to make sense, we need to believe two things. First, the United States is poorly served by the bargains and arrangements it built to avoid another Great Depression and world war and to create an American-centric alliance and trade network that included a large number of the world’s wealthiest states—and that it enlarged in the wake of the Cold War. Second, the Trump administration can negotiate a better set of bargains in 2017 than the United States could in past decades.
The case for the first is an extremely hard sell. It finds almost no support among scholars of international politics. Its logic depends on a fundamental misunderstanding of mercantilism, an economic paradigm that has been out of style for over 200 years, and of the realities of today’s global economy. Even the nineteenth-century economist Friedrich List, who advocated for protectionism to enable industrialization, understood that trade is a positive-sum game and that developed economies benefit from freer trade. The idea that the United States is poorly served by existing arrangements also notably suffers from the so-called vaccine paradox; as international-relations specialist Moonhawk Kim argues, “When an international order works—works really well, as it did in the post-war era—it becomes taken for granted.” Although many countries, including the United States, could do much more to fairly distribute the gains from globalization and, especially, compensate those left behind, that’s a far cry from what Trump seems to be aiming for.
The case for the second assumption is nearly as weak. As Figure 1 shows, Washington’s share of global capabilities (military, economic, demographic) decreased continually from the 1950s until the later 1980s, when the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, among other factors, led to slight upticks. Since then, that share has remained fairly stable.
Indeed, it may be that the end of the Cold War ushered in a “unipolar era,” insofar as the United States lacked any peer great-power competitors. This clearly made the United States more secure. It also enhanced American international leverage in important ways. But a focus on the number of great powers—the polarity of the system—masks qualitative and quantitative differences in the concentration of power in the hands of the great powers. When compared with crucial periods in the negotiation of the American-led order, economic and military resources are now much more dispersed throughout the international system in general and outside of the hands of the United States in particular.
Moreover, economic and security interdependencies are much more complex than they were in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. China, for example, is keen to throw its weight around. It offers many countries aid, trade, and institutions outside of—or parallel to—the old order. Russia remains in poor shape but is using its resources to compete for allies and influence. At the same time, the European Union—which often works broadly in tandem with American global preferences and to forward liberal order—faces severe challenges. Ironically, the Trump administration is busy sending signals that it would like to undermine this decades-long partner.
Given these conditions, any American attempts to restructure the fundamental institutions of global order will likely leave the United States with worse deals—or, in some cases, no deals at all. If Trump follows through on his “America First” agenda, it could cost the United States the critical international infrastructure that accounts for much of the country’s influence in the world. Already, Trump seems intent on undermining and alienating the alliance—NATO—that constitutes one of the United States’ biggest security assets. Within his first week in office, he picked a fight with Mexico by insisting that it would pay for an expensive campaign prop—the so-called Wall. Mexico is not just an important trade partner but also a neighbor with which the United States enjoys extensive cooperative arrangements vital to U.S. security.
It takes a rather naïve negotiator to attempt to overhaul relatively favorable deals from a position of comparative weakness. The United States will not get better bargains than it achieved when it controlled more than twice as much of global power as it currently holds. If Trump abandons long-standing practices of American-led liberal order for bilateral, transactional, and zero-sum relations, other states have little reason to prefer dealing with Washington to China, Russia, or any other country. Thankfully, we’re early in the new administration. The new secretaries of defense and state, among others, have shown a clear-eyed understanding of the importance of preserving American alliances and defending international order. Although reforms and adjustments are inevitable, massive change is not. We can only hope that the president and his more radical advisers soon realize that burning your own house down is never terribly wise—especially when that house is nicer than any new one you can afford.