The ‘Great Dismantler’ – Can A Liberal Order Be Rebuilt after the ‘Age of Trump’

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It has become clear where Trump’s policies are taking us – or as clear as one can be when it comes to interpreting Trump policy.  Trump is breaking the structures and  policy frameworks of America’s existing domestic and foreign policies.  The question is less whether he can accomplish some measure of this, then what will  it take future US leaders, assuming they are willing, to rebuild the institutions and policies that have been constructed over the past seven decades.  As Tom Friedman of the NYT recently declared:

Moreover, when you break big systems, which, albeit imperfectly, have stabilized regions, environments or industries for decades, it can be very difficult to restore them.

The litany of destruction by this President is now  all too familiar.  In his first day in office after his inaugurated, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  He now appears to be targeting for destruction the NAFTA before the rather hapless Mexican and Canadian leaders.  And the South Korea-US free trade agreement appears to be next for the chopping bloc, notwithstanding the need it would seem to maintain close alliance support in the face of the North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions and US efforts to force DPRK denuclearization.

On June 1st, Trump announced the U.S. would withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord though that formally requires four years. The roll call goes on from formal withdrawal from UNESCO to lukewarm security support for NATO, to apparent contention over leaders’ communiques at recent G7 meeting in Italy to the G20 Hamburg statement. My colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Stewart Patrick has described in a post in RealClear World titled in part the ‘self-defeating sovereignty obsession’ of Donald Trump, the aggressive, and I would suggest, his ill-considered policy making approach:

Trump sees the world differently, more cynically. The imperative is to screw over the other guy before he does the same to you. His diplomacy contains no idealism, no appeals to better angels of our nature. It is all about power, without purpose.

As Patrick suggests the approach may be what is done in in the real estate world but it is far from the general approach of officials and leaders in global politics.

It falls short when it comes to the global agenda. There is no unilateral or bilateral solution to transnational terrorism, global financial instability, pandemic disease, international crime, or nuclear proliferation.

In no way does he appear – or act – in ways that appear even remotely akin to his immediate predecessors, Democratic or Republican.  Maybe NYT columnist David Brooks has captured best Trump’s day-to-day actions:

He was not elected to be a legislative president. He never showed any real interest in policy during the campaign. He was elected to be a cultural president. He was elected to shred the dominant American culture and to give voice to those who felt voiceless in that culture. He’s doing that every day. … Trump is not good at much, but he is wickedly good at sticking his thumb in the eye of the educated elites. He doesn’t have to build a new culture, or even attract a majority. He just has to tear down the old one.

From the US as leader of the liberal international order the U.S. increasingly appears a rogue of the same. As Richard Gowan suggests in World Politics Review:

Trump may not realize that he is laying the groundwork for a major breakdown of the international system. Little steps like affirming America’s detachment from UNESCO are hardly world-altering in their own right. But Trump is weakening the international order nonetheless, and neither he nor the U.S. foreign policy machinery as a whole may be able to navigate the turmoil that results from the president’s retreat from leadership.


It is not hard to see that Tom’s story of global governance – beyond the immediate global financial crisis of 20008 – is a narrative of growing disarray in global governance and the rising tensions brought on by the return of geopolitical frictions. And sitting here in the hyperventilation of the Korean crisis – with rhetorical blow after blow from Kim Jong-un and then from his rhetorical equal – the President of the United States, Donald Trump – Tom may be on to something.

Now some observers suggest that pattern of decline and the loss of leadership, while it may have accelerated with the presidency of Donald Trump, actually has been apparent for some time.  Christopher Layne, and others, have been attracted by the consequences of a rising power, most evidently China:     

Writing in the Financial Times, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that London’s AIIB decision and its aftermath “may be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system.”


Summers was both right and wrong. The U.S. role as the hegemonic power in international politics and economics indeed is being challenged. But this did not start when Britain and the others decided to sign-up with the AIIB. America has been slowly, almost imperceptibly, losing its grip on global leadership for some time, and the Great Recession merely accelerated that process. China’s successful launch of the AIIB and its OBOR offspring merely accentuates that process. … Thus while OBOR and the AIIB don’t get the same attention from U.S. grand strategists as does China’s military buildup, they are equally important in signaling the ongoing power transition between the United States and China in East Asia. (Christopher Layne The American Conservative “Is the United States in Decline? August 8, 2017)

But the degree of dismantling is far beyond previous behavior.  It is not just that US power has declined, and other centers of power have emerged in a growing multilateralism – this is active destruction of the liberal international order. And while it is unquestionable that that geopolitical tensions have increased and China, in particular has grown powerful, both militarily and economically, and as Xi JInping has remarked at his opening speech to the 19th Party Congress – the unveiling of a ‘strong power’ or a ‘great power’. Yet in the international system, China remains, at least for now, a follower and not yet a leader. The realists are determined to see Chinese and Russian actions, combined with Trump’s erratic leadership, as the end of the liberal international order and the emergence, or a return if you like, of a great power ‘spheres of influence’ world order. Let’s hope not.   

Philip Stephens  of the FT  possibly has described America’s current leadership role best in his review of a recent book by two American historians examining ‘America First’:

The postwar international order — the framework of rules, alliances and institutions that, in broad terms, has kept the peace since 1945 — will not be so readily rescued from Trump’s foreign policy. The liberal internationalism that has defined the west has been rooted both in American power and in a shared commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. This president disdains at once US global leadership and the essential values that have underwritten it. …  To identify shards of consistency, however, is not to imbue Trump’s approach with logic or wisdom. Less than a year into his presidency, he now looks out at a world in which America’s standing has never been lower. By disdaining alliances he has weakened the US. By courting Putin he has damaged US interests. Washington is seen by friends and enemies alike as unpredictable and untrustworthy. Trump can rail against globalism but he cannot undo the reality that America’s security and prosperity is intimately tied to the international order he disparages.

The last sentence is particularly pertinent.  The global governance system is built on a highly interdependent world – economic and political, both for good and for ill.  In the face of active dismantling by the Great Dismantler’ what can be done? We start with patience, I’m afraid.  It is evident that the President is instinctive and transactional in his dealings, so the best, possibly the only approach, is to remain committed to the liberal international order principles built around open markets, rule of law and a commitment to a process of democratization for all. It gets the ‘blood to flow’  when one contemplates the notion of rising up defending one’s sovereign rights and walking away from the table.  But that won’t work, whether its the NAFTA table, the NATO table, the G20 leaders table, or any other table.  Leaders will be called on to continue act in concert with, or more likely, without Trump. They need to keep the ship steaming forward, if at a much slower pace.

And meanwhile all leaders, certainly in the established countries, but not just here, need to attend to their national economies.  The income inequality and wealth inequality gaps must be reduced or the politics of Trump, or the particular country equivalent,  will only grow and the dismantling will not stop.

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