The world watched the US presidential elections with great anticipation, witnessing a historic showdown between two incredibly unpopular candidates. While in recent history the internal outcome of the elections is primarily an ideological win for either the conservatism of the Republicans or the liberalism of Democrats, this election carried tremendous importance for the world order. Americans essentially made a decision on the future state of the world we live in.
On November 8, Americans could have either voted for the continuation of the dogma of American exceptionalism, a hallmark of American foreign policy since World War II, whose scion is Hillary Clinton and under which the US has ambitiously exported its ideas of liberties through diplomacy and war. Or they could have voted for Donald Trump’s transactional view of international relations, one that is not benevolent but rather goes by the practicalities of balancing budgets. In voting for Donald Trump, they accepted the failure in the universal application of America’s liberal ideals.
Some trace American exceptionalism to the writings of French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he remarked that “the position of Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people ever be placed in a similar one”. In recent times, we have seen further expansion of the interpretations behind the role of the US in this world. The most notable example of this was the infamous essay titled ‘The End of History?’ written in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama in which he heralded the victory of the liberal world order with the destruction of the USSR. He claimed “we may be witnessing…the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. His thesis became the mantra of American politicians celebrating the defeat of the USSR, particularly the neoconservative stalwarts that took power under President George W Bush.
Fukuyama’s biblical prophecy hasn’t been realised just yet. The populism of the Right has risen remarkably in the Western world. Controversial, anti-immigrant, yet charismatic, leaders such as Geert Wilders in Denmark, Nigel Farage in the UK and now Donald Trump in the US have risen in power. The rise of the Right has also accompanied the US’ declining hegemonic influence around the world.
A stark repudiation of American ideals was also voiced strongly by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his 2013 NY Times article where he says that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional”. These changes have come despite the fact that the US remains committed to the defensive security of over 25 Nato signatories, and to the security of Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand in the East.
The current changes in global affairs raise a fundamental question: with China’s predicted rise to be the world’s top economy in 2050, and the resurgence of Russian ambitions, will the US heed to the macro political and economic trends, and allow for a new global power order tilted in favour of other nations? Or will it resort to hasty attempts at challenging the ambitions of rising powers based on the unique view it takes of itself?
Greater power imbalances are not new. The Athenian general, Thucydides, narrated a similar dynamic in the relation between Athens and Sparta in 411 BC – “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable”. With the many diplomatic deadlocks that exist around the world – in Syria, South China Sea, North Korea, Ukraine – the signs of rising volatility between global powers are visible.
Surrounding the structural changes is also the alarming rhetoric of leaders, the most recent being in October 2016 when Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said: “I announce my separation from the United States…I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia.”
Enter Donald Trump!
Trump’s radically different foreign policy stood out early in his election campaign and he continued to remain popular despite controversial and taboo foreign policy positions. There are two distinctions that make Trump’s point of view stand apart. First, he has shunned the notion of the US’ upholding of liberal values by singing praises for dictators and their authoritarianism, emphasising that their presence is a lesser evil.
Second, under the banner of ‘Make America Great Again’ he has reinvented ‘greatness’ in a tamed role for the US and its people in the global arena. In this, Trump has developed popular consensus around a foreign policy that will pander to the rising ambitions of other countries.
Will a gradual voluntary retreat by the US from its position as the dominant arbitrator of international affairs reduce the chances of conflict around the world? No. But will it reduce the chances of global conflicts resulting from this transition that we are likely to witness? Ceteris paribus, yes.
The purpose here is not to say that Donald Trump will be able to accomplish a drastic reorientation of the global order in the four or eight years he may get as president, but to suggest that he has already sowed the seeds for a reigned-in foreign policy. Furthermore, the purpose is not to imply that Donald Trump will positively contribute to global security by reducing the American footprint. But it is to say that in the failure of international institutions to uphold values of liberty and human security, the debate on the final form of government has once again been opened.
The pivot in American foreign policy that we might expect as a result of this election is the chess opening of a great game that will play out in the 21st century, in which we will see a rise in unhindered realism in international affairs, reorientation of alliances and the decadence of liberal internationalism.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: usmanmlumsalumni.pk