Trump and the (Liberal) International Order
One year in, the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy continues to baffle American allies in Europe. Much of the European discussion over the past year has focused on the American retreat from its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal international order. Where can we expect continuity from Trump? And how much will this unconventional president disrupt before he leaves office? In calculating their answers to these questions, several prominent European politicians, including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, have suggested that the Europe should fill the void left by Trump’s “America First” agenda by redoubling its efforts to defend the liberal international order.
The liberal international order describes a body of rules, norms and institutions that govern international affairs. It encompasses security, economics and values. For decades, American administrations have waxed lyrical about defending this order—as in President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy—while frequently struggling to do so in practice. President Trump’s new version does not endorse the post–1945 American-led order. It depicts international affairs as a zero-sum game, and senior administration figures reject a Kantian “global community” in favor of a Hobbesian state of nature in which “nations compete for advantage.” Their language differs starkly from that of the Obama administration and from the EU’s vision of a “rules-based global order with multilateralism as its key principle.”
Trump’s preference for competition over cooperation does not mean that his administration will jettison entirely America’s established global-security role. Since coming to office, the Trump administration can hardly be accused of pursuing an isolationist or accommodating foreign policy. To the contrary, the new National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS) call for the assertive application of U.S. military, political and economic power. Both documents presume growing strategic competition from China and Russia. The NDS states that these two countries are “undermining the international order from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles and ‘rules of the road.’”
Even under the mantra of “America First,” the Trump administration seems willing to maintain what it calls the “free and open international order.” This entails a rejection of spheres of influence, the protection of an open global commons and the preservation of stability. The U.S. Navy still carries out freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Washington maintains its nonrecognition policy of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and has recently decided to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance, although undisciplined provocations of the North Korean leader, the weakening of the Iran Deal and the unilateral move to recognize Jerusalem imply an impatience with the status quo. This impatience may intensify over time.
The NSS acknowledges that allies and partners matter to “U.S. interests and help push back against U.S. strategic competitors.” The NDS declares that “the United States will always defend our interests and uphold our commitments to allies and partners.” Along the same lines, the NSS makes a case for active US engagement in Europe, noting that “a strong and free Europe is of vital importance to the United States.” It offers unequivocal support for NATO and for the alliance’s Article 5: this issue had plagued the transatlantic relationship ever since Trump’s campaign and his vacillation as president about publicly affirming Article 5. While allies were put off by Trump’s repeated criticism of NATO and his tough language on burden sharing, actual U.S. support for NATO remains unchanged. There was a $1.4 billion increase in defense spending in Europe in 2018, a new American-led battalion stationed in Poland and active American participation in major military exercises in Europe.