We’re all familiar with “slippery slope” arguments. Allow Casual Fridays, and soon enough everyone will be coming to work in shorts and T-shirts. Ban assault weapons, and you’re on the road to repealing the Second Amendment.
In a way, the response of Western elites to the recent election reflects that kind of logic: as Donald Trump prepares to occupy the White House, we are about to see the collapse of the Western alliance and the breakdown of the post-World War II liberal international order. It’s the end of the West. We are closing the last chapter of the Age of Enlightenment.
But then, does anyone really believe that after four or eight years of a Trump presidency, the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan will turn into a new Trump Hotel (as recently proposed, tongue-in-cheek, by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer)? Or that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will shut down their offices in downtown Washington, DC?
In reality, Trump has pledged to do little that’s earth-shattering. He won’t pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the same commitment made by the liberal-internationalist Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. He’ll take another look at the North American Free Trade Agreement—a proposition supported by another liberal-internationalist Western leader, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He’ll embrace a tougher posture in trade negotiations with China—the same kind of approach President Clinton took when pursuing his trade dealings with Japan. He’s suggested that the ideas of “regime change” and “nation building” in the Middle East have created strategic disasters and humanitarian catastrophes—as almost everyone seems to believe these days.
And, yes, isn’t it time for Americans, the majority of whom weren’t even around when NATO was established in 1949 with the aim of containing the Soviet Bloc, to reassess the organization’s structure and goals? Or to consider that nationalist Russia isn’t the old Soviet Union and that improving relations with it makes sense on many levels—as both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have argued?
Are we on the slippery slope to smashing the international order, or are we debating pragmatic ideas that could lead to sensible changes?
In fact, contrary to the frenzied comments by policymakers and pundits in Washington and elsewhere, President-elect Trump has never challenged the proposition that the United States should continue to maintain its global primacy or the notion of liberalizing the international trade system. His nominee for the secretary-of-state job, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, asserted during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday that “American leadership must be asserted.”
Trump hasn’t called for overturning the post-1945 liberal international order or for bringing U.S. global leadership to an end. His main criticisms have been directed at the policymakers in Washington, their allies in think tanks and the media, and the trade strategy that Washington has been following since China’s entry into the international economic system.
That is to say, President-elect Trump hasn’t been concentrating his fire on the legacies of Harry Truman and George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, or Ronald Reagan and George Shultz—those responsible for the Cold War policies that ended in an American victory and years of economic growth and prosperity. Rather, he has criticized Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
He’s hit them for mishandling the relationships with Russia and other great powers. For engaging in costly wars in the Middle East. For launching disastrous regime changes and nation-building operations. For failing to protect American interests in the context of an international system characterized by a changing global military and economic balance of power.
What Trump seems to want to do is to make Pax Americana more cost-effective in terms of U.S. interests.
Those interests seemed compatible with the role of the U.S. as the Primus inter pares of the Western alliance for much of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath; hence the willingness of U.S. policymakers to pay the costs of protecting its allies in the Atlantic and the Pacific and ensuring their economic prosperity. This entailed costly wars in the Middle East in order to safeguard European, Japanese, and Korean access to the energy resources in the region on which their economies—not the U.S economy—were dependent. Similarly, Washington could tolerate the industrial policies and the protectionist strategies pursued by, say, Japan and Germany while keeping its markets open to their exports. Those costs were acceptable for an American economy that kept growing and growing, expanding its industrial base as its prosperous middle class became more prosperous.
It would be interesting to sketch an alternative history of Washington in the 1990s and early 2000s, one where policymakers tried to readjust America’s post-Cold War policies to the changing international balance of power. This would have meant reassessing America’s strategic goals in light of the rising costs of continuing to single-handedly support a stable liberal international order.
Such a reassessment could have led to the restructuring of NATO, and to the shifting of more security responsibilities from the U.S. to its allies, especially when it came to protecting access to energy resources in the Middle East. Washington could have made it clear that, at a time when Japan and other industrial powers were becoming global economic competitors, the U.S. needed to rebalance its trade relationship with them. No more free riding.
That didn’t happen. Instead, what proved most powerful was inertia. If anything, Washington policymakers took advantage of the so-called Unipolar Moment to expand the global responsibilities of the U.S. by enlarging NATO to the borders of Russia, transforming the U.S. into the hegemonic power in the Middle East, and allowing allies to continue free-riding on American global military and economic power. They even embraced new diplomatic and military missions, like spreading democracy worldwide, in the name of lofty universal principles that seem to override basic concerns rooted in the national interest.
Ironically, when Washington’s policymakers and pundits decry the rise of isolationist and protectionist trends among Americans, they don’t point out the obvious: the policies they devised, implemented, and sold to the American people—in particular the costly wars in the Middle East coupled with a growing lists of trade deals—explain why the public is in a more inward-looking mood these days. These policies are why voters turned to two unlikely presidents—a former community organizer from Chicago whose middle name was “Hussein” and a reality-show host with no political experience—who questioned America’s interventionist approach in the Middle East as well as its trade policies. They hoped to deliver a blow to the political establishment and to reverse these policies.
To his credit, President Obama did resist pressure to interject American ground troops into the Syrian civil war—pressure from liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike. Yet President Obama failed to translate these public sentiments into a new foreign-policy agenda that would maintain U.S. global leadership while serving U.S. interests. Instead, he seemed to be muddling through on issues of war and peace and trade, responding in an ad hoc and opportunistic manner to crises abroad: a half-pregnant foreign policy.
President-elect Trump has an opportunity to press for a meaningful, transformational global agenda. In other words, it’s not a concern over the future of the liberal international order that prompted a smear campaign against him, but a worry that he will undermine the interests of our reigning elites. He needs to demonstrate to them that their fears were justified.