Trump and World Order

The Return of Self-Help

A friend in need: U.S. soldiers in Zagan, Poland, January 2017. AGENCJA GAZETA / REUTERS

Since the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, 13 successive U.S. presidents have agreed that the United States must assume the mantle of global leadership. Although foreign policy varied from president to president, all sent the clear message that the country stood for more than just its own well-being and that the world economy was not a zero-sum game.

That is about to change. U.S. President Donald Trump has promised a foreign policy that is nationalist and transactional, focused on securing narrow material gains for the United States. He has enunciated no broader vision of the United States’ traditional role as defender of the free world, much less outlined how the country might play that part. In foreign policy and economics, he has made clear that the pursuit of narrow national advantage will guide his policies—apparently regardless of the impact on the liberal world order that the United States has championed since 1945. 

That order was fraying well before November 8. It had been battered from without by challenges from China and Russia and weakened from within by economic malaise in Japan and crises in Europe, including the epochal Brexit vote last year. No one knows what Trump will do as president. But as a candidate, he vowed to shake up world politics by reassessing long-standing U.S. alliances, ripping up existing U.S. trade deals, raising trade barriers against China, disavowing the Paris climate agreement, and repudiating the nuclear accord with Iran. Should he follow through on these provocative plans, Trump will unleash forces beyond his control, sharpening the crisis of the Western-centered order.

Some countries will resist this new course, joining alliances intended to oppose U.S. influence or thwarting U.S. aims within international institutions. Others will simply acquiesce, trying to maintain ties with Washington because they feel they have no other options, wish to retain certain security and economic benefits, or share a sense of ideological kinship. Still others will react to a suddenly unpredictable United States by starting

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