Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
The central fact about international politics is anarchy, the lack of a common sovereign authority able to settle disputes and establish order. This has meant that throughout history, states have been forced to fend for themselves, protecting and advancing their national interests as they see fit, embracing whatever policies and temporary partnerships seem expedient.
Life in such a self-help system is precarious. As Thomas Hobbes noted, “Without a common power to keep them all in awe,” the players in the game have to worry constantly and make sure the other players aren’t trying to screw them. In such circumstances, he observed,
...there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Over the centuries, this coordination problem has contributed to countless depressions, crises, and wars. Anarchy allows bad leaders and bad regimes to wreak havoc. But it also makes it hard for even not-so-bad regimes to cooperate with one another reliably enough for everyone to stop being so suspicious, relax a bit, and turn their attention to the business of living productively.
In the 1940s, as they suffered through yet another round of destruction and turmoil, policymakers in Washington and other major Western capitals finally decided that enough was enough. They recognized that the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century had emerged because their countries had hunkered down in the face of economic and geopolitical crisis, passing the buck rather than fighting together against their common enemies. So they swore not to repeat their mistakes and designed a postwar order based on mutually beneficial cooperation.
Acknowledging that anarchy would continue to persist, they sought to overcome the coordination problems it posed through sheer strength of will and reason. They chose to see international politics as resembling not Hobbes’s state of nature but John Locke’s—as a realm in which the players did not simply have to suffer or submit to Leviathan but could follow a third path, voluntarily binding themselves together for common advancement. They linked their countries to one another in international institutions, trade agreements, and military alliances, betting that they would be stronger together. And they were correct: backed by extraordinary and enduring American power, the system they created has flourished, underwriting seven decades of progress, great-power peace, and economic growth.
Today this liberal international order is a bit dilapidated. The structure still stands, but paint is peeling, walls are cracking, and jerry-built additions jut out from odd angles. Even at its best the arrangements never fully lived up to their ideals, and benefits have not always been distributed equally or fairly. Slowing growth, increasing inequality, declining social mobility, excessive bureaucracy, self-dealing elites, poor responses to transnational problems such as terrorism and climate change—the litany of current problems is long and familiar. And with its great ideological rivals vanquished, the authority of the order must now be judged by actual performance, not simply comparison with even more dysfunctional competitors.
Major renovations are clearly called for, and they will inevitably be slow, difficult, and costly. Still, most of the challenges involved are manageable, and the system has plenty of capacity and resources to deploy against the problems. And there are a number of sensible solutions that could be implemented successfully if the professionals across the globe responsible for managing economic, political, and military affairs were given more leeway to devise and implement upgrades to the system.
The new administration in Washington takes a different view, of course. President Donald Trump never mentions the order and seems not to understand what it is or why it is a good thing. He appears to see the world in zero-sum terms—international politics as a Hobbesian war of all against all in which there are only deals, not relationships, and in which only relative gains matter. He combines this, moreover, with an acute sense of grievance—a conviction that everybody is winning at the United States’ expense. “Every country takes advantage of us,” he says, and notes that he intends to reverse the process.
No U.S. leader has talked this way in several generations, and most responsible officials in most countries, including the United States, are flummoxed—for they understand that if the White House actually tried to turn its more extreme ideas into policy, the entire system on which global security, stability, and prosperity is based would collapse.
Particularly shocked are the other members of the team—U.S. allies that have spent more than half a century believing American promises of open-ended support and basing their national policies on it. Does the president believe what he tweets, they ask? Are they official U.S. policy or a harbinger of it? The administration can send senior officials abroad to soothe nerves, walk back the heresies, and reassure everyone that the hegemon is not, in fact, planning to take its marbles and go home. But now that the unthinkable has been said, it will be hard to fully dispel the suspicion that Washington cannot be trusted to hold up its end of the bargain.
It is still early days for the Trump administration, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Foreign Affairs will be covering this story in real time, both in print and online. But to set the stage for the ensuing drama, we offer this biography of the order’s life to date, so readers can understand the stakes.
The collection begins with a great but long-forgotten essay from early 1943 by then editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong, capturing the period when the foreign policy establishment realized what needed to be done to win both the war and the peace that would follow. Next come excerpts from articles by various luminaries showing how different concepts and components of the order emerged—all emphasizing the importance, as Nelson Rockefeller puts it, of “widening the boundaries of national interest.” Then (because life is short) the story jumps to the challenges and opportunities of the post–Cold War era, by which point the liberal order had spread around the globe and become the main game in town. The volume concludes with some discussion of what has happened since last November and what might follow.
Current global arrangements are not, in fact, “a mess,” and so there will be substantial resistance from many quarters to any attempts to overturn them. So far the new administration has talked much but done little. And many of its senior officials are impressive professionals who fully understand the order’s value. So the title and subtitle of this collection are exaggerated and alarmist. But they were chosen deliberately—to remind readers of how special and precious is the legacy today’s policymakers have inherited, and of the damage that will be caused until Washington recovers its bearings.