Trump Age: New Possibilities for the New World Order [i]

  • By defencematters

Appealing to anxieties, Trump called for increased defence expenditures that could easily make the U.S. burden more lopsided than ever relative to allies.

Defence Matters launched an inquiry about the consequences of the American elections for the larger international system. In the first part of our series, Elizabeth Cobbs, professor of American History at Texas A&M University will discuss the potential impact of a Trump Presidency for the broader US engagement in the world, for NATO and the US allies in Asia as well as for the future of the rules-based liberal international order.

 By Elizabeth Cobbs

Donald Trump is the messenger. Allies need to listen. American weariness, confusion, and even self-loathing at the nation’s post-World War II security role are real and growing. Foreign policy elites have ignored popular sentiment too long. The president-elect unashamedly articulated citizens’ concern that “free-loading” allies have exploited their generosity and bravery.

This may mean nothing at all for American policy in the short run. Trump exploited inchoate resentments during his campaign, yet offered no specific remedies. In fact, the messenger spoke out of both sides of his mouth. Appealing to anxieties, Trump called for increased defence expenditures that could easily make the U.S. burden more lopsided than ever relative to allies. Trump criticised George Bush and Barack Obama’s expensive interventions in the Middle East but proposes a National Security Advisor (retired general Michael Flynn) who views distant terrorists in poverty-stricken countries as an existential threat to the world’s superpower. The Trump administration might turn up the heat in the region, committing even more lives and dollars.

Whatever the president-elect’s policies, the basic problem remains. American popular culture values self-reliance, yet the military dependence of allies has actually increased over the past seventy years, contrary to intentions at the creation of NATO. Despite a nagging sense of cognitive dissonance, America has tramped this path so long that it has trouble envisioning any other. So do allies.

But it is imprudent to wait for a burden to become unsustainable. How might a rules-based international order be maintained without U.S. Marines shouldering most of the weight?

Donald Trump has given no indication that he doesn’t believe in such an order. Like many Americans, he just doesn’t wish to pay a disproportionate share. That’s not a bad thing.

Norms “work” only if broadly shared. War has declined steadily over the past seventy years because the economic and security advantages of cooperation now patently dwarf almost any potential gains from armed conflict. Nation-states have thoroughly replaced world-encircling empires bent on conquest. A return to older norms of international relations is unlikely. Collective security will be enhanced if every peaceful nation learns to carry the burden, knowing it must. This is not a matter of allies abandoning one another, but pulling together.

Self-reliance empowers people. It is also realistic. Even tiny countries can and have defended their borders against great odds, as the histories of Vietnam and Finland attest. The profound and deepening global commitment to the rights of small nations over the past century makes this more feasible than ever.

The United States remains one of the world’s wealthiest, largest, most technologically advanced countries. If it even contributes “merely” its share to world security, it will provide a lot. Proportional contributions by others will strengthen, not weaken, the resilience of the current world order.

Elizabeth Cobbs in the writer and producer of the public television documentary American Umpire.


Read part II: Dr. Matthew Burrows, director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative writes: Trump Age: The implications of adopting an America First Policy Approach