Will Donald Trump abolish the mainstream world order?

Many predict we face the end of a globalized liberal era with Donald Trump in the White House. But he could take a pragmatic stance, paradoxically similar to that of Obama.

Mariano Aguirre
18 November 2016

The bust of President-elect Donald Trump is displayed at the wax museum in Madrid, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016.Francisco Seco/Press Association. All rights reserved.Trump's statements have oscillated between superficiality and ignorance in a constant change of opinion. His campaign was based on a domestic political agenda with some statements about foreign policy, indicating he will deal with the field from a ‘business’ perspective.

Those who want US protection, such as Japan or NATO allies, will have to pay for it, financially or with military engagement. At the same time, he put a question mark on allied solidarity (the "all for one" of NATO), indicating that US interests will be the priority, and then the rest. On key issues as the relationship with Russia, how to approach the Syrian war and the nuclear agreement with Iran he has been ambivalent, presenting opinions in sometimes opposing directions.

Among US foreign policy traditions, Trump seems to lean toward isolationism. That is, focusing on internal issues, not engaging in wars in which the US interest is not a priority, and avoiding compromising alliances. At the same time, some of the personalities of his inner circle, who could occupy positions in his future administration, have an aggressive and interventionist vision towards the world.

Last weekend a member of Trump's team, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director James Woolsey, told CNN that in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) perhaps "interference" in some countries would be necessary. On the other hand, the so-called neoconservatives, highly war-oriented and interventionist will try to influence his administration. The links exist between people around Trump and this group that encouraged the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who have criticized President Obama for not intervening militarily in Syria.

Authoritarian nationalism

Given the volatile and unpredictable personality of the future president, his lack of experience in international issues, and the fact that he is still naming his cabinet, it is difficult to make predictions. But various analysts are piecing together a looming perspective for the present world order. For some, this is the end of the Pax Americana because the USA will retract and abandon world leadership. For others, Trump will alter the Atlantic order and traditional alliances with Japan and South Korea. The Economist  argues that, “his protectionism would further impoverish poor Americans, who gain more as consumers from cheap imports than they would as producers from suppressed competition. If he caused a trade war, the fragile global economy could tip into recession”.

Almost all agree we are entering a new era. This creates major concern and has led NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, to publicly warn Trump that, for the benefit of all, the rules of the game of western security must be adhered to.

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who at the end of the Cold War predicted "the end of history" due to the triumph of liberal capitalism over other political formulae, announces that with the new President and parties of the far right in Europe, the era that now begins will be one of authoritarian nationalism and anti-liberalism.

This author sees two big dangers. First, Trump, and his European friends, as supporters of Brexit and Marie Le Pen (if she comes to power in France) will damage or even terminate international free trade agreements. Trump, says Fukuyama, is an economic nationalist and he can alter the international liberal order that, although unfair and a generator of excluded masses who now vote for the far right, has nevertheless been established over the past four decades. This danger is feared by other analysts who share the apprehension that in a world of flexible alliances and growing national interests, there will be an increasing danger of war between powers.

Second, the competition between nationalist powers – China, Russia and the United States – could generate serious tensions. Both Moscow and Beijing have territorial ambitions and conflicts with neighbors such as Ukraine in the first case, and a series of countries about the Sea of China and territories adjacent, in the second.

One possibility, sketched by Trump in his campaign, is that while Washington will look for economic and trade agreements with Russia and China, it will not interfere in their disputes or regional ambitions. However, this policy would put his administration in a difficult position with NATO allies, Japan and South Korea, as well as the hawkish anti-Russian sectors of the United States.

For Moscow, this pragmatism would be convenient. In Russian circles of power it is thought that the best, or maybe unavoidable, response to international instability must be a return to an economic and political bipolarity with the United States, Japan and Europe as one block, on the one hand, and a Russian-Chinese hegemonic bloc on the other. With both blocs projecting their influence over the rest of the world.  This vision is challenged by China, seeming to agree that the world system is moving towards bipolarity, but seeing China leading the ‘Eastern bloc’, not Moscow.

Crisis of long duration 

Almost all the analysis assumes that the direction the international order will move in will depend on the United States. However, it is not only up to this country to decide about global geopolitics. The world is now multipolar. No power has the ability to impose its wishes on others.

The states establish flexible alliances according to their interests.  Stability is a moving target.  Multi-polarity is due to the rise of others such as China and the so-called emerging powers (Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, India, Indonesia), in addition to a series of non-state actors, such as financial groups.

However, in addition to this ‘rise of the others’, the weakness of NATO and the European Union (EU) does not only arise from what Trump or the Brexit camp has decided.  Three interrelated crises create deep instability in the international system: 

  1. the crisis of US hegemony; 
  2. the EU legitimacy crisis;  
  3. the crisis in many post-colonial states (with different manifestations in a long series of Southern countries).

These factors generate different turbulences and are related as cause or consequence of a deep and extended inequality, the rise of far right-wing political parties, the deficit in democratic representation, massive North-bound and South-South bound flows of refugees and migrants, the lack of serious political responses to climate change, growing internal fragmentation in European societies and in the United States (rich/poor, white/black, Christians/Muslims, local/immigrant), and the rise of violent identity politics.  

Despite alarmist and melancholy remarks about the "end of an era," there could be a continuity between the Obama presidency and the period that Trump inaugurates. The Democratic president was the first to recognize that the US could no longer remain the hegemon and would need to operate within a multipolar and multilateral world. He also recognized some of the above problems as intractable from a unilateral perspective. These recognitions earned him harsh criticism, in which he was accused of defeatism and lack of  patriotism.

Trump, a synthesis of Bush and Obama?

However, Obama was right, the United States is suffering from a serious crisis of legitimacy and credibility, especially in the Middle East. Although it has the greatest military power on the planet, it cannot control either the politics or the economies of others, as it did after World War II. Even less can the US deal alone with some of the global challenges.

In the early 2000s and in the face of the hegemonic crisis, President George W. Bush made a unilateralist policy (supported only by Britain, Israel and a few others) of dramatic military initiatives (Afghanistan and Iraq), challenging International Law rules ( through the internationalization of torture and violation of International Law), which, paradoxically, exposed the weakness and lack of vision of the United States.

Obama tried to rebuild the economy within the neoliberal paradigm, with social reforms (health care) and infrastructure investments (systematically blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress). At the same time, he sought to restore the United States as a respectable leader (ceasing the use of torture, planning to close Guantanamo, recognising International Law) among peers in the multipolar system, and to replace massive military interventions with actions with a limited number of boots on the ground and intensive use of high military technology (drones).

Paradoxically Trump could be a synthesis of Bush and Obama. When the future president says "America will be great again" and affirms that the country is in crisis, he is repeating a recognition already made by Obama. When he says he will look primarily for US interests over international agreements and rules and when he claims the use of torture as his own, he is echoing Bush.

The question is whether he will lean towards the moderate and continuing policy that Hillary Clinton would have espoused, but without solving the internal and external problems of the United States. Or whether he will pursue a radical about-turn, either in terms of nationalist unilateralism, as Fukuyama and others fear, or as an aggressive interventionist. In both cases he would accelerate the steady crisis of an international system that continues to operate on the mistaken idea that Washington can lead it. And as Fukuyama and other analysts have said, he will not challenge the economic global neo liberal economic paradigm that millions of people worldwide are crushed by and criticizing.   

Negligence of the elite

Beyond Trump’s orientation, the United States is involved indirectly or directly in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries in which it maintains a limited but active military presence (for example, participating currently in the offensive on the Iraqi city of Mosul). Also the US supports armed groups in Syria, carries out military actions (with staff and high technology) in Africa (Nigeria, Somalia and the Sahel), Pakistan and Yemen and has huge military agreements with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Colombia, just to name some examples.

At the level of high politics, Washington will have to decide what type of relationship it wants to establish with Russia, on sensitive issues such as Syria and Ukraine, and what diplomatic moves to make in conflicts in the sea of China between Beijing, Japan and others countries.

A very special case is Iran. On the road to the presidency, Trump said the agreement on Iran's nuclear program reached by the members of the Security Council of the UN, the EU and Germany is the, "most disastrous never signed by Washington".  He can now re-impose sanctions on Tehran, challenging its western allies, confronting Russia, and giving excuses to Iranian hardliners to withdraw from the agreement.

On the other hand, Trump has indicated that his priority is fighting against ISIS and establishing alliances with whoever would be necessary. Tehran and Moscow, in fact, have the same priority and will be delighted to discuss an alliance with Washington.

It is unlikely that the new occupant of the White House will really be the end of an era, and less so the opener of a new one. Alastair Crooke, former member of the British intelligence services, director of the Conflicts Forum, believes that if we are on the brink of a new era it will be marked by political and financial volatility in Europe and a continuous state of shock.

Trump is a sign, a call for attention, the result of the negligence and lack of management by the elites (political parties, economic and financial leaders) of the major global problems - inequality, poverty, armed conflict, climate change, structural and growing unemployment, lack of opportunities for future generations. These  problems are all related but go far deeper and will survive beyond the end or not of the Atlantic and liberal orders. 

A first version of this article has been published in Spanish by esglobal

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