Among the most pointed criticisms of the presidency of Donald J. Trump is the charge that he has done serious damage to the remarkably beneficial global political, military, and economic arrangements that emerged from World War II, and that preserving them depends on his departure from office. The charge is not accurate. While it is true that Mr. Trump is no friend to the world order he inherited with the office, he has done only modest damage to it, and the most severe threat to it is not his creation and so will outlive his term in office.
For seven decades after 1945, America’s alliances, its military deployments, and its support for cross-border trade and investment helped to bring peace and prosperity to much of the world. The relevant policies originated in the Oval Office. The President proposed them, persuaded the Congress and the public to support them, and took responsibility for putting them into practice. Every post-1945 President, beginning with Harry Truman, was committed to this American global role.
Then came Donald Trump. He presented himself as the exception to that pattern—skeptical of alliances, opposed to free trade, and dedicated to the proposition that the peace and prosperity that the world had enjoyed had cost the United States too much and that the policies undergirding them should, therefore, come to an end. His election in 2016 seemed to portend the demise of the world order the United States had done so much to establish and sustain.
In fact, that is not what has happened. After three years of the Trump presidency, that order has suffered significant but not fatal damage. In Europe, the NATO alliance remains intact despite the President’s professed dislike of it and a contentious 70th-anniversary celebration in London earlier this month. True, Mr. Trump is as unpopular in the continent’s western democracies as he is in the deep blue states of his home country; but his Republican predecessors Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush were also, for various reasons, roundly disliked by Europeans and the Atlantic Alliance nonetheless survived.
Moreover, American policy toward Russia, despite the 45th President’s fondness for its authoritarian leader, has in important ways become tougher than it was under his Democratic predecessor. In the Middle East, America’s principal friends—Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, all of them supporters of the American-sponsored international order—regard Mr. Trump as a more reliable upholder of that order in their region than was Mr. Obama.
The sharpest departure from the norms of past American foreign policy in the last three years has come in the area of trade. The President has unilaterally imposed tariffs on friend and foe alike. Even here, however, he has given ground—negotiating a new accord with Canada and Mexico little different from the one he inherited, moderating his trade conflicts with Europe and Japan, and reaching a limited agreement with China.
Moreover, the tariffs he has imposed on China have received relatively muted criticism because of a consensus that includes virtually every country with economic dealings with that country that the Chinese have not been observing the global trading rules and that a response of some kind to their violations is warranted. While the way he has gone about confronting the authorities in Beijing has seemed to many ill-judged, Trump’s decision to do so can be seen as an effort, although not a deliberate one, to reinforce rather than subvert the post-1945 global economic order.
In general, therefore, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s comment on a rumor that he had died, the reports of the death of the American-sponsored global order have been greatly exaggerated. Why is this so? Why has a President who has made clear his opposition to the international political and economic structures that his predecessors did so much to build and maintain done so little to reform, transform, or destroy them? Partly this is due to the deep roots these structures have put down in America and elsewhere. Uprooting them would require energy, sophistication, and determination—not qualities much in evidence in Mr. Trump’s conduct of the presidency.
Relatedly, the international order that has existed for nearly three-quarters of a century has stalwart partisans everywhere—not least in the United States—many of whom are employed in operating it. The President has managed neither to win them over to his point of view nor to defeat or remove them. His and his supporters’ complaint about an unelected “deep state” that resists his wishes is not wholly fanciful. That said, the Constitution does not make the American political system a presidential dictatorship, so his wishes are not supposed to be translated into policy automatically; and within the Executive Branch, over which he does have constitutional authority, the most effective resistance has come from people he personally appointed to senior positions. In foreign policy, it is they, not the Democrats or the Never Trumpers, who have thwarted President Trump.
The fact that Donald Trump has had only a modest impact on the American-sponsored international order does not, however, guarantee its perpetuation, for reasons that emerge from the perceptive and provocative new book Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism by Colin Dueck, a professor of political science at George Mason University and the author of several well-regarded works on American foreign policy.
In this one he recounts the history of the Republican Party’s foreign policies over the last hundred years. In response to Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I introduction of liberal internationalism, with its emphasis on the possibility of reforming international politics to eliminate war and on the creation of international institutions for this and other purposes, Dueck writes, the Republicans developed three related but distinct approaches to foreign policy.
Those he calls conservative internationalism, noninterventionism, and hardline unilateralism. Conservative internationalists support an active role for the United States abroad but are skeptical of the value of international institutions. Noninterventionists oppose foreign military involvement. And hardline unilateralists are comfortable with defense spending and the vigorous use of force against obvious threats, such as terrorists, but dislike multilateral international commitments. The conservative internationalists are considerably friendlier to the foreign policies that have supported the post-World War II global order, and in particular, to overseas military deployments and expansive international trade, than are the noninterventionists and hardline unilateralists.
During the Cold War, conservative internationalism dominated the Republican Party; but with the end of that conflict, and especially in the wake of the unhappy American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the unequal impact on American society of the great post-Cold War wave of globalization, the other two approaches, with their skepticism about the policies that support the global political and economic orders, have resurfaced and gained strength. In 2016 Donald Trump appealed to adherents of these two approaches and succeeded in mobilizing them on behalf of his candidacy for the presidency.
Neither they nor their concerns, in particular their dislike of military engagement overseas and trade, will disappear when the Trump presidency ends. They will pose a continuing challenge to full-fledged American participation in, and support for, the 75-year-old international order. The ongoing danger to the world America did so much to build after 1945, that is, comes not from Donald Trump but from his voters.
It comes, as well, from Americans who did not and will not vote for him. Important sectors of the Democratic Party tend to be reflexively opposed to the use of force by the United States; and the Democrats include in their ranks the most resolute opponents of trade and trade agreements: labor unions. Moreover, almost all Democrats share a preference, when it comes to government expenditures, for butter over guns—that is, for directing federal spending to domestic rather than international purposes. That, too, weakens American support for the existing global order.
Dueck does not conclude that the postwar order, and in particular Republican support for it, is doomed to wither and die. Republicans, he shows by analyzing poll data, are divided on international matters, and a Republican President strongly committed to American international leadership, or an international event that galvanizes the country as did the attacks of September 11, 2001—or a combination of the two—would tilt Republicans (and not only Republicans) sharply back toward the strong support for international leadership of the Cold War era. While eminently possible, however, a renewed commitment to the policies of the past is not guaranteed. All this means that, while the domestic foundations in the United States of the global order that America and its allies established after 1945 remain in place, they are not as robust as they were for most of the past 75 years. Donald Trump will leave the presidency eventually, but his departure from the Oval Office will not necessarily ensure the survival of the American world order. While exaggerated for the moment, forecasts of the death of the post-1945 international arrangements may come true even after he has passed from the political scene.