Walking Away From World Order: Weighing Trump’s First Year of Foreign Policy

Walking Away From World Order: Weighing Trump’s First Year of Foreign Policy

February 13, 2018 12:00 pm (EST)

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“Nobody really knew what to expect when Donald Trump became U.S. president. Would he disrupt the status quo or maintain it? Blow himself up or escape unscathed? One year in, the answer is yes,” writes Editor Gideon Rose in his introduction to the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.

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The issue’s lead package, “Letting Go,” explores the state of the world after a year of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

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If you squint, U.S. foreign policy during the Trump era can seem almost normal. But the closer you look, the more you see it being hollowed out, with the forms and structures still in place but the substance and purpose draining away,” writes Rose.

“Trying to rule the world by dominance rather than persuasion has not worked well in the past, and there is little doubt that if tried again, it will fail again.”

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Highlights from the cover package include:

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Carnegie Endowment Senior Fellow, former Barack Obama administration official, and former advisor to Hillary Clinton Jake Sullivan offers a case of qualified optimism. He writes, “Rumors of the international order’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The system is built to last through significant shifts in global politics and economics and strong enough to survive a term of President Trump.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Barry R. Posen argues that despite fears that Trump would prove to be an isolationist, in practice, he has been anything but. “Across the portfolio of hard power, the Trump administration’s policies seem, if anything, more ambitious than those of Barack Obama,” Posen writes. But Trump has deviated from traditional grand strategy: “He still seeks to retain the United States’ superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world, but he has chosen to forgo the export of democracy and abstain from many multilateral trade agreements. In other words, Trump has ushered in an entirely new U.S. grand strategy: illiberal hegemony.”

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“If the United States continues its retreat from economic leadership, it will impose serious pain on the rest of the world—and on itself. Unless the Trump administration chooses to launch a full-blown trade war, the consequences will not come immediately,” cautions Peterson Institute President Adam S. Posen. “But a sustained U.S. withdrawal will inevitably make economic growth slower and less certain. The resulting disorder will make the economic well-being of people around the world more vulnerable to political predation and conflict than it has been in decades.”

“All U.S. presidents have, to varying degrees, downplayed or even overlooked concerns about human rights in order to get things done with unsavory foreign partners. But none has seemed so eager as Trump to align with autocrats as a matter of course,” observes Human Rights Watch Washington Director Sarah Margon. “The harm goes beyond mere words. In country after country, the Trump administration is gutting U.S. support for human rights, the rule of law, and good governance, damaging the overarching credibility of the United States.”

In a pre-released essay, Johns Hopkins University Professor Eliot A. Cohen argues that Trump has gotten lucky during his first year, but  “there is reason to think his second will be considerably more difficult. Not only are foreign policy challenges beginning to pile up; a year of the Trump administration has left the United States in a worse position to handle them.”

Additional highlights from the issue include:

The political philosopher Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Study assesses the moral risk of government leaking and whistleblowing, noting that “democracies live uneasily with secrecy, and governments keep too many secrets. Greater transparency in government decision-making would certainly be a good thing, but it has to be fought for democratically, through the conventional politics of parties and movements. . . . Whistleblowers have a role to play in a democratic political universe. But it is an unofficial role, and one must recognize both its possible value and its possible dangers.”

Two former Obama administration officials, Asia Group Chairman Kurt M. Campbell and Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow Ely Ratner, admit that many of the fundamental assumptions U.S. policymakers have made about China have turned out to be wrong. “Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community have remained deeply in­vested in expectations about China—about its approach to economics, domestic politics, security, and global order—even as evidence against them has accumulated. The policies built on such expectations have failed to change China in the ways we intended or hoped.”

CFR Senior Fellow Amy Myers Jaffe characterizes China’s investment in green technology as a new form of energy power. “It is not only looking for domestic energy security but also banking on green energy products as major industrial exports that will compete with Russian and U.S. oil and gas. China aims to make itself the center of the clean energy universe, selling its goods and services to help other countries avoid the environmental mistakes it now admits were part of its recent economic growth.”

As concerns grow about President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric in discussing nuclear weapons, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellows Richard K. Betts and Matthew C. Waxman offer a bold new proposal for reforming the nuclear launch process: “any presidential order to launch nuclear weapons that is not in response to an enemy nuclear attack should require the concurrence of the secretary of defense and the attorney general.”  

Also in this issue:

CFR Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan examines contemporary appeal of “America first” and the inward turn it marks, revealing that the version of exceptionalism that has guided U.S. grand strategy since the 1940s is past its prime.

Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Dean Vali Nasr argues that Iran did not cause the collapse of order in the Middle East and containing it will not bring back stability.

Martin Meredith, author of The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence, writes that while Zimbabwe’s former leader Robert Mugabe may be gone, his state and its culture of corruption and violence live on.


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