Trump’s International System: A Speculative Interpretation


From 1945 to 2016, the American middle class supported the liberal international order crafted by the United States, mainly because that order was creating tangible benefits in the form of safety, markets, jobs, and rising incomes. Americans paid taxes, joined the military, and consistently voted for internationalist leaders who were proponents of that order. Others, from isolationist Republicans in the 1950s to isolationist Democrats in the following decades, were sidelined.

Then came Donald Trump, who put forward a type of isolationism that found an echo among some American voters. Interpreting an election is a perilous exercise, but many observers have pointed out that the rejection of “globalism” was key in Trump’s popularity and that this was particularly true among the 80,000 voters or so who gave him the edge in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Why would these voters from the Rust Belt continue to support the costs of Pax Americana? It is not working for them anymore. They have seen the destruction of manufacturing jobs and the decline of their standards of living, which they attribute to competition from China and trade deals like NAFTA. They have seen the U.S. homeland targeted by Middle East-imported terrorism. They have seen the cultural changes wrought by globalization and they do not like them. They have seen America use their contributions in taxes and blood to uphold an international order that benefits others, they believe, more than themselves. Why should America make the world safe for Chinese investment and Saudi well-being?

It is true that few middle class Americans would articulate their motivation as “the rejection of the international liberal order” and that many voted Trump for other reasons altogether — and indeed, millions more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump presented things in a more crude and colorful way. But, his speeches still amounted to the adoption of a very different international posture than the one followed since 1945. What he offered, and a large part of his constituency in the Rust Belt and elsewhere seemed to approve, is a foreign policy that will use America’s might for the direct benefit of the country in a unilateral and transactional fashion, instead of defending liberal norms and institutions in a multilateral or alliance setting. They correctly see America’s assets as formidable, from its energy independence to its domestic market, technology prowess, demography, geography, and the like. And they want to put these assets to work to extract more tangible benefits from the international system by playing rough — benefits that will need to be directed towards middle Americans rather than the liberal global elite.

In a way, that proposed shift evokes what Richard Nixon did on August 15, 1971, when he unilaterally changed the rules of the international monetary system because they were no longer working to the benefit of Americans. Until then, the United States was guaranteeing the full convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold at a fixed price for foreign central banks, making a world of fixed exchange rates possible. But, America’s relative power had declined during the 1960s. Europe and Japan were catching up just as the United States was paying for a costly war in Vietnam. The system was becoming unsustainable as many countries had repeatedly adjusted down their parity with the U.S. dollar and U.S. gold reserves has dwindled. Nixon suddenly put an end to it, letting foreign exchanges float and imposing a 10 percent tax on imported products for good measure. The world adapted to floating currencies. America regained market shares and exported its inflation abroad, facilitating the resorption of deficits. Somehow, America’s relative decline in the 2000s because of the emergence of China and others was also bound to be reflected in a change in its international posture — and that is what Donald Trump seems to aim at.

Now, it cannot be stressed enough that no one can predict what Trump’s foreign policy will be. There are many possible interpretations of the few and contradictory elements that are available. Some observers are even suggesting extraordinary developments like an impeachment procedure (scenario 1). Others think that Donald Trump’s excessive language and unorthodox posture — like his hostility to free trade and alliances, for example — will be limited by the checks and balances system and his responsibilities as leader of the free world. In this scenario, he would be somehow digested by the system and would end up with a fairly traditional Republican foreign policy (scenario 2). Others are predicting chaos. They point out that America’s governance system is inherently competitive, meaning bureaucracies have a natural tendency to fight one another absent a strict system of coordination. And they are skeptical about whether an inexperienced president who likes to put people in competition (like Reince Preibus and Steve Bannon), appoints officials not known for sterling managerial skills, and tweets his views on matters of vital security interest will be able to rein in bureaucratic infighting (scenario 3).

However, there is a — once again, speculative — case to be made that a fourth scenario will prevail, a scenario based on America’s new degraded position in the international system and on the above analysis of the 2016 election. In this scenario, Trump would do what he says he will do:  Washington would shed the role of benevolent hegemon and global sheriff in favor of a unilateral posture of a primus inter pares, taking advantage of its still mighty assets to get a better deal from its position in the world. Less favorably put, America would extract rent from others. Donald Trump has shown no interest in heralding liberal democratic norms and human rights, and he always criticized free-trade norms. He might not actively undermine the United Nations (which he described favorably as having “such great potential”), but it is uncertain how much he will want the U.S. Treasury to continue to pay for it. He might let others assume this responsibility, as he seems to no longer want to see the United States as Atlas, shouldering the world. And, he will do away with the costs associated with the Paris agreement on climate change, effectively killing the deal and pleasing his constituency.

America abandoning its role as guardian of the liberal international order does not mean there will not be a different type of order. President Trump, in this scenario, might get closer to a spheres of influence system in which major powers have some latitude in their neighborhood. If that view is correct, it might mean that Vladimir Putin no longer needs to worry about interference with its ambitions in Ukraine, while Xi Jinping could enjoy a new understanding about China’s influence in its vicinity. However, even in this scenario, there would be quid pro quos and there would also be limits. At some point, various actors will want to see how far they can push and how much they can get away with. If this were to happen, Trump could feel compelled to reassert America’s rank with a military intervention somewhere in a way that sends a message without risking a larger war with a rival great power like Russia or China. Perhaps, such an intervention might resemble what Ronald Reagan did in Grenada in 1983, or it might be on a larger scale.

Can this scenario lead to a successful foreign policy? At the very least, it could redefine American hegemony, and one can outline the possible gains from such a unilateral and transactional posture. Many Gulf allies, starting with Saudi Arabia, are probably willing to pay more for their continued security cooperation with Washington and the same might be true for South Korea and Japan (paying more does not preclude getting extra things in exchange). NATO allies are already raising their defense budget significantly, and a little existential pressure might only help. Mexico and Canada have responded to Trump’s accusations against NAFTA by smartly and pragmatically stating that, after all, there is room to negotiate.

If pressuring allies might work in a more dangerous world, what about competitors? China is a case in point. President-elect Trump surprised everyone when he accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan, upsetting a long-standing American policy vis-à-vis “one China.” Then two days later, he doubled down by criticizing Beijing in two tweets on the under-valuation of the Yuan and Chinese military installations in the South China Sea. But three days afterward, he nominated Terry Branstad, a long-time friend of Xi Jinping, to be his ambassador to Beijing. One can see this though the lens of scenario three (bureaucratic chaos and the lack of proper advice) or that of scenario four. Under the latter interpretation, Trump is only applying lessons from The Art of the Deal: Open new issues that were thought to be settled to enlarge the discussion, surprise your interlocutor, provoke him and raise the ante, then extend a hand to signal your willingness to negotiate.

Some might object that Trump is no grand strategist and that this interpretation credits him with too much foresight. Perhaps this is true, but no one should forget that Trump won the Republican primaries against the entire American establishment and then proceeded to win the presidential election against all odds and the predictions of most experts. His success means that, at the very least, he has a special talent for evaluating power relations, finding the vulnerabilities of his opponents, getting support from other actors, and the like. We do not know if these skills transpose well into international politics, but they just might. If that is the case, then this scenario four would unfold not because there is a Kissinger or a Brzezinski at the White House but because the president instinctively makes decisions that maximize America’s direct interests — even during a crisis.

Now, there are two major objections to the idea that this scenario could succeed. The first one is obvious:  International politics is not the world of real estate. Sometimes there is no good deal to be obtained, but only a menu of bad options to choose from with no possibility to abstain even when you want a lesser role for America. Worse, miscalculations or the misreading of other actors can result in being forced to choose between backing down or escalating. In other words, failed negotiations can mean humiliation or war.

The second objection is the more troubling one. If President Trump successfully pursues a policy along the lines of scenario four, this will have international system wide implications, to the point that after a few years, America will find itself operating in a very different, and potentially much more hostile, environment. Competitors might refuse the deals offered by the White House and raise the ante. They might also align more closely together, if only to get a better deal from Washington. Allies might consider that their security is no longer guaranteed by the United States, and they might either hedge their bets (isn’t it what President Duterte of the Philippines has been doing?). Or they might build up their own defenses, resulting in a more dangerous world of arms racing in which the issue of nuclear proliferation will acquire a new urgency. Other actors around the world might consider that new rules or no rules prevail and let their long-standing grievances or even their territorial appetites prevail at the expense of weaker players. The fight against terrorism, the top priority for Trump, might be hindered by frustrated players who will refuse to play along because they no longer see America as being on their side. These developments would only increase nationalism everywhere.

Whether it succeeds or fails, this type of foreign policy would only accelerate the trend toward a competitive type of multipolarity, leading to a degraded world order with less cooperation and even more tensions. It should be noted that Trump, in this scenario, would not create such a world. His actions would only accelerate and amplify a process well underway due to the relative decline in American power and President Obama’s preference for restraint. In the Middle East for example, such restraint and the resulting perception of a vacuum of power encouraged some actors to assert their interests more aggressively. After all, in recent years, and in spite of a few bright spots (like the Paris agreement), we have mostly witnessed breaches in the international order: one country invades its neighbor and annexes a province, another uses chemical weapons on its own population, a third builds artificial islands on disputed rocks it claims as its own, and the like. Whether Hillary Clinton, had she been victorious, would have been able to shore up the international liberal order is open to debate. Obama certainly had started taking a more pragmatic and modest stance, which reinforces the likelihood of scenario four.

In any case, this mutation of U.S. hegemony and the international system to which it will contribute is no good news to America’s allies, from Australia and Japan to the European Union. Even under scenario four outlined here, Donald Trump is unlikely to seriously jeopardize the NATO alliance — if only because it is an asset in his negotiations with Vladimir Putin. But the challenge to allies will be of a more general nature. They might be afraid to become chips in Trump’s global negotiation with other great powers. The United States might not abandon Taiwan, but Trump might decide on a different diplomatic settlement, less to the liking of Taipei in exchange for concessions from China on other fronts. And if Trump reaches a deal with Xi linking economic and security issues, Europe will find itself shorted. There are many possible scenarios here. For example, Trump could demand $50 billion more in U.S. exports to China to help his constituency in the Rust Belt, in which case Beijing might simply buy more Boeings and GE power plants rather than Airbus and AREVA plants. The same phenomenon might happen with Ukraine, Georgia, and other U.S. protégés. More generally, herbivorous powers like the European Union would not fare well in a world of carnivorous powers like China, the United States, and Russia. The European Union is not yet good at hard power, unilateralism, and mercantilism. It would have to build up its forces and shore up its unity to survive in a world of super-states.

No one, of course, can yet know how Trump will shape the world order.  Uncertainty reigns supreme. While these scenarios sketch out four possible outcomes, we might see a very different set of outcomes. However, power shifts in the international system and U.S. electoral dynamics are still likely to give rise to a strikingly different America than the one we have lived with for seven decades. The world will have to adapt and the net result might well be that, in Thucydides’ words, the strong will do what they can and the weak will suffer what they must.


Justin Vaïsse, a former Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution (2007-2013) and the author of Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement (HUP, 2010) and Zbigniew Brzezinki, Stratège de l’empire (Odile Jacob, 2016 — English translation, HUP, 2018), currently serves as Director of Policy Planning at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The speculative views expressed here are strictly his own and do not represent those of any part of the French state or government.

Image: Mstyslav Chernov, CC