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Trump's Presidency Spells Big Trouble For The World Order

ISIS may prove to be just the tip of a rather sinister iceberg.

15/03/2017 2:11 PM IST | Updated 16/03/2017 9:59 AM IST
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Liberal internationalism is dead. Or at the very least on death row awaiting execution should US President Donald Trump push forward with his campaign promises. Why? Simply put, his declared priorities as President are at complete odds with the fundamental feature undergirding the post-1945 world order sired and steered by the US. Once the continents emerged from the ashes of World War II, Washington as the only standing superpower promised a benevolent model of international relations that shunned the petty realpolitik of old Europe and its exploitative colonialism. Positive social virtues like human rights and self-government would thenceforth illuminate the 20th century.

When moral imperatives are squandered in the pursuit of narrow, national objectives, a multipolar world sequestered into various spheres of influence will re-emerge.

To sustain such highbrow idealism, the US contoured a foreign policy that gave equal berth to strategic and moral imperatives. They were yin and yang, two sides of the same coin, impossible to separate. The earliest manifest example of this doctrine was the Marshall Plan to rebuild a devastated postwar Europe and Japan. That thousands of American soldiers had perished only a few years earlier while fighting its prime beneficiaries Germany and Japan did not muddle the calculus. Erecting a stable system of rules required sacrifices and for that the US forgave sworn enemies. Wilsonian liberals still smarting from the League of Nations fiasco believed economic interdependence coupled with shared democratic values would keep future wars at bay.

This idealism, however, routinely failed the Cold War stress-test as both Washington and Moscow sabotaged a slew of foreign governments to satisfy economic or ideological interests. Most famously, the CIA instigated a coup d'état in 1953 to depose Iran's only democratically elected prime minister and set in motion events that would culminate in the ayatollahs seizing power two decades later. Going by his policy tweets and public statements, Trump has little patience for playing ball by rules he holds responsible for bringing America's industrial heartland to its knees. If he is successful in paring down US foreign policy to narrow, transactional objectives, America's longstanding role as the global shepherd will be voided.

Trump may have lost the popular vote on his path to becoming President but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a blip in American politics. Or that the values he espouses are confined to a lunatic fringe of ethnocentric Americans. The "alt-right" base that carried him across the finish line against establishment darling Hillary Clinton has emerged as a potent demographic gaining strength across Europe from Britain to the Eastern Bloc. Ultranationalism is again sweeping through the continent propelled by anti-immigration, anti-globalisation sentiments and populist demagoguery. Islamophobia is its most visible manifestation and anti-Semitism will soon follow.

Liberal internationalism will inevitably give way to illiberal ideologues like Trump who preach democracy through the bullhorn of socio-religious identity.

In short, the very erosion of everything the post-1945 world order represents. When moral imperatives are squandered in the pursuit of narrow, national objectives, a multipolar world sequestered into various spheres of influence will re-emerge. Hedging and balancing against regional and great powers will again define global geopolitics. It will be a return to Otto Von Bismarck's days, the kind that triggered two great wars and indeed the next nuclear-tipped one may usher the end of human civilisation. Liberal internationalism will inevitably give way to illiberal ideologues like Trump who preach democracy through the bullhorn of socio-religious identity. Why else did he qualify his ban on Syrian immigrants to exclude Christians?

Most cynics would argue, perhaps successfully, that the incumbent system of rules I refer to was an illusion from the get-go. That US presidents who paid lip-service to a moral dimension in international relations did so to camouflage militarism behind the facade of consensus. And that US national interests always positioned the global moral goalpost and not the other way around. Hence, America's 2003 military misadventure in Iraq that should have been roundly condemned by the highest international forum of the UN was instead given legal cover.

This line of thinking presents Trump as novel, but ordinary. Provocative, yet expressing opinions shared by the majority of his colleagues in Congress who hold their tongues out of political correctness. Though pundits have long predicted the collapse of the post-1945 order, sensing a withering in Washington's willingness to project power for moral outcomes, the lack of alternatives keeps the US in pole position. Russia, for example, emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union a battered country that the Boris Yeltsin years further drove down the fiscal sinkhole. Today it possesses the military muscle to flex and the will to do so, but not the money needed to challenge Washington decisively in any war theatre.

Little good will come of Trump's mission to replace diplomacy with hard-nosed "deal-making" that reeks of imperialism.


China has both, or at least is getting there in military terms, but with no ideology to export. Communism in modern China is synonymous with one-party rule, not a way of life. Additionally, since ancient times, it has feigned little interest in lands beyond its sphere of influence stretching from Indochina to the Sea of Japan. The so-called "nine-dash line" defining China's claims to maritime territory is modest expansionism at best. Crucially, its foreign policy still holds shades of Confucianism and the belief in a "mandate of heaven" which impels citizens to create a China worth emulating by the world without going to war.

But without war, the status quo cannot be upended and resultantly a China-led world order is highly unlikely anytime this century. It will also never experience the singular set of conditions that elevated the US to superpower status. When the sun finally set on the British Empire after World War II, it conveniently passed to Washington a global regime built on English as the lingua franca and ex-colonials infatuated with the White man's lifestyle. The transfer of power was thus smooth as one Anglo-Saxon master merely replaced another.

Today, little good will come of Trump's mission to replace diplomacy with hard-nosed "deal-making" that reeks of imperialism. If he shakes up the system hard enough, it will unlid antagonists that liberal internationalism has kept bottled up for decades. Indeed, if Trump lasts two-terms, Daesh may prove to be just the tip of a rather sinister iceberg.

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