Of all the charges against the Trump Administration, including the President’s obsessions and personal quirks, perhaps most damaging is the notion that he will eventually destroy world order as we know it. Nobody believes that he, like history’s tyrants — Bonapartes and Hitlers — will send armies across borders to occupy neighbors. Most believe that this will simply be the natural result of his personality and experience. Typical is the following by Stewart Patrick, Director of the Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations: “U.S. President Donald Trump has promised a foreign policy that is national and transactional … he has made clear that the pursuit of narrow advantage will guide his policies — apparently regardless of the impact on the liberal world order that the United States has championed since 1945” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017).
This is a reasonable and a rather consensus view by a reasonable and consensus intellectual. Yet the key word above is “apparently,” implying at least a degree of uncertainty or hesitation. But if Donald Trump is anything, he is above all a surprise package. Unpredictable, unorthodox, unprepared, and unsophisticated, he is a businessman with a history of improvisation and the accumulation of vast wealth from his own mind and resources. If he can become a billionaire, why should world order be too far a reach? Others, with fewer talents, have done so, with a number of disparate results.
But world politics is anarchy by definition. This has always been so, especially when guided by a concept of the classic “balance of power.” There has also always been some sort of balance; it just depends on who controls the pendulum. Since 1945, it has been the United States, but that is currently “under review.” Does Trump’s rhetoric to make America “great again” threaten this control? Apparently, or so most think. Is there a contradiction between nationalism and order? Again, apparently so.
But if the end of the “liberal” order is “apparent” why isn’t it “inevitable”? World Order has a long and confused pedigree. Few leaders speak of it openly and those few saw only rack and ruin. Hitler talked of a “thousand year Reich;” he was only 988 years short. Lenin and Trotsky saw a permanent world proletariat rule. That idea never even got off the ground, and Trotsky was later axed to death by one of Stalin’s men (Term Limits Soviet style). Napoleon’s control of Europe fell at Waterloo. And so it goes. What do the Islamic terrorists want? They’ve waited hundreds of years to run the world, but flying airplanes into buildings will not bring Sharia Law to Nebraska.
Americans have announced their share of order. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) put an entire hemisphere under U.S. tutelage. Woodrow Wilson stunned the 1918 world by proclaiming World War I as a war “to end war” and to “make the world safe for democracy.” His League of Nations was never endorsed by the Senate, but the idea of a “democratic peace” still resonates within the American political culture as the center of any renewed efforts to create order out of chaos.
Harry Truman was, like Trump, unprepared for the presidency. When FDR died, Truman was not even aware of the Manhattan Project to make an atom bomb. Four months later, he used both of them to end the Second World War. He was irascible, unpredictable, and unorthodox too, but created the Marshall Plan and NATO, the Korean War, and a treaty with Japan. The result was a world order still with us.
One of the brighter spots of the Bush I presidency came in 1990 when he told the UN General Assembly that the coming invasion of Iraq would introduce a “new world order.” The phrase overnight became a rallying cry for support of the invasion and the “coalition of the willing.” Needless to say, absolutely nothing came of it, and Bush lost the next election to the Governor of Arkansas (and his wife). So much for world order, as the Clinton presidency became absorbed with domestic priorities, “globalization,” and ultimately sexual scandal and impeachment. As an acknowledgement toward at least the need for a rhetorical foreign policy, Clinton invented the phrase “Assertive Multilateralism,” a term subject to probably a dozen interpretations. One of the frustrations from such emptiness came when then Vice-President Joe Biden told a 2001 audience:
Before the end of the Cold War, we would say, “if the Soviet Union does this, we’ll do this.” But who the hell can out-game Saddam Hussein? Who can out-game Slobodan Milosevic? Who the hell thinks they know what should have been done? Are you so sure about what was going to evolve?
Bush II entered Iraq and Afghanistan as “nation building” experiments. Sixteen years later, we are still experimenting. Obama may have hit an all-time low by proclaiming that the U.S. would “lead from behind.” Not only was this absurd, but it had the further indignity of being impossible.
It is easy to dismiss Trump as too far gone to behave intelligently on the world stage. But the historic record is mixed and, to say the least, he can’t do much worse than his immediate predecessors.