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Among its many implications, Donald Trump’s election as president calls into question the open liberal international order this country has championed and defended for more than seven decades. The edges of that order were already fraying, thanks to disenchantment with the global economy and the return of geopolitical competition, particularly with Russia and China. Trump’s triumph will accelerate its disintegration, by undermining the network of rules, institutions, and alliances that twelve presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, have nurtured since 1945. The results of the election suggest that the main threats to the liberal world order are no longer foreign but domestic.
Trump won because he recognized and tapped into deep public anxieties about the direction of the United States and its role in the world. Specifically, he understood that a growing number of Americans mistrust globalization, are weary of overseas commitments, and are determined to reassert sovereign control over U.S. borders. The U.S. political and economic establishment consistently underestimated the strength of Trump’s populist appeal, in part because elites (including this author) were not looking in the right places or listening to the right people. In the wake of the candidate’s stunning victory, those of us who still believe that the United States has an international vocation abroad need to turn our gaze homeward.
Trump’s victory suggests just how hard it has become to reconcile U.S. politics with multilateral cooperation. To bridge this domestic-international divide, internationally-inclined Americans must confront three public attitudes on dramatic display during the 2016 election cycle—and which helped propel Trump to victory.
- Distrust of globalization. Trump rode to power on the backs of the losers of globalization. From the outset of his campaign, he challenged a core premise of past Republican candidates—namely, that international trade benefits both U.S. businesses and consumers. His relentless attacks on “awful,” “horrible” trade deals resonated with anxious middle class and blue collar workers, particularly downwardly mobile white men, who felt left behind by the world economy. The conviction that today’s world economy is rigged against average Americans gained steam after the “great recession” and was a theme that transcended party lines, helping to account for Bernie Sanders’s remarkable success and Hillary Clinton’s ultimate disavowal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Two decades ago, Patrick J. Buchanan’s “pitchfork populism” attracted no more than twenty percent of the Republican electorate. Today, his ideological heir is bound for the White House.
- Wariness of overseas commitments. Throughout his run for the presidency, Trump repeatedly described the United States as a victim of freeloading allies who were playing Uncle Sam for a sucker. Discarding decades of unflinching U.S. support for NATO, Japan, South Korea, and others, he advocated a transactional approach that would make U.S. alliance commitments contingent on whether foreigners began pulling their weight. He also excoriated Barack Obama—and George W. Bush before him—for entangling the United States in endless, pointless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere. Trump’s promise to lead a more detached, narrowly self-interested United States resonated with U.S. citizens no longer willing to accept international burdens as the price for U.S. global leadership.
- Restoring U.S. sovereignty. Trump’s most consistent applause line among supporters was his pledge to build a “great big, beautiful wall” on the U.S. southern border—and to have Mexico pay for it. This radical proposal was both ridiculously impractical and objectively unnecessary, given the Obama administration’s own crackdown on illegal immigration and reverse migration to Mexico. But like so much of Trump’s effective rhetoric, it benefited from a crude simplicity. It also resonated with an intuitive public understanding of national sovereignty. As the candidate’s online platform helpfully explained, “A nation without borders is not a nation.” Or as the candidate himself said, “Got to have a country, people.” This theme of restoring U.S. sovereignty will surely be central to the Trump presidency. It will influence not only U.S. immigration policy, but also the administration’s stance toward international organizations like the United Nations, which are easily tarred as alien and unfriendly terrain for U.S. national interests.
For U.S. internationalists, the election of Donald Trump poses a monumental challenge—albeit one with roots in U.S. history. What Trump proposes is essentially a return to what the scholar Walter Russell Mead terms the “Jacksonian” tradition in U.S. foreign policy. This populist strain in U.S. diplomacy, dating from the presidency of Andrew Jackson, depicts the outside world as an alien and dangerous place. Jacksonians tend to advocate an insular foreign policy, while lashing out with a “don’t tread on me” ferocity when challenged from abroad. This detached, unpredictable, and reactive style stands in stark contrast to the dominant strain of internationalism that has marked U.S. foreign policy since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman—and which has long reassured partners and allies.
The effort to rebuild a bipartisan internationalist consensus in the United States cannot begin soon enough. But it can only succeed if its would-be architects take seriously the popular anxieties that Trump has channeled and exploited in his rise to the world’s most powerful office. This means doing three things.
First, internationalists must seek a more humane world economy that provides tangible benefits not only to well-connected elites but also to working people. This implies forging a new social bargain at home to reconcile the world economy with protections for American workers and communities. Fortunately, there is a historic precedent here. When the Roosevelt administration, along with Great Britain, laid the foundations for the postwar world economy at Bretton Woods in 1944, they took it for granted that the global market needed to be tempered, and that national governments would need policy space to intervene in the market to pursue full employment and other social welfare goals. But that bargain—which scholars call the “compromise of embedded liberalism”—has largely disintegrated in recent decades. Global trade and capital has been liberalized and titans of finance have flourished, but too often the “little guy” has been left behind. Restoring faith in the global economy will require persuading U.S. citizens that new international trade agreements crafted to make them less vulnerable can help to deliver on the American Dream.
Second, internationalists will need to persuade a skeptical U.S. electorate that alliances are deeply in the U.S. national interests—and should not be transformed into a cynical protection racket. This will not be easy. For most of American history, the United States, following the admonitions of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, steered clear of “entangling alliances.” That pattern broke dramatically after World War II. The question now is whether the United States will go “back to the future,” adopting a policy of retrenchment or even isolation. That would be a disaster for both the nation and indeed the world, which depends on the United States to serve—out of enlightened self-interest—as the ultimate guarantor of global order. At the same time, international and domestic realities will force internationalists to scale down the scope of their globalist ambitions and advocate more prudent policies. The lesson of recent U.S. misadventures in the Middle East is that there are limits to U.S. power—and to the patience of the American people.
Finally, internationalists must come to terms with a sovereignty-minded public that insists on controlling the U.S. border, retaining freedom of action abroad, and safeguarding U.S. constitutional liberties from foreign encroachments both real and imagined. The United States was the first republic founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, which implies that governments reflect the consent of the governed and the will of the people. And in this election the people who supported Donald Trump had a lot to say. Some of it was tinged with an ugly nativism, and occasionally racism. But it boiled down to this: we want our country back—from illegal immigrants, from international treaties and organizations, and from global elites who neither understand nor care about us. For internationalists, this may be the hardest nut to crack: Persuading the American electorate that sustained international cooperation, rather than unilateral action, is the most promising path to U.S. security, prosperity, and well-being—and that entering into international agreements is not an abdication of sovereignty, but indeed its exercise.