By Raffaele Marchetti
If not this Trump, some other Trump would have been elected as America’s 45th President. The reasons for this are grounded much more with the role played by the US in the international system than with American domestic politics. While most commentators have tried to contextualize his success with regards to shifts in American domestic priorities, this essay argues that perhaps more compelling reasons maybe found beyond America’s borders.
Trump’s election marks the end of the long era of American world hegemony. Despite the electoral slogan “Make America Great Again” and the great expectations it may have generated, his presidency will presumably be characterized by an overall retrenchment.
Different interpretations have been provided to explain Trump’s success ranging from his populist campaign to timely support from FBI, or to Russian cyber-interference. Contrary to mainstream debates, I see a more fundamental reason underpinning his victory; the changed costs/benefits balance in the US role in the world. The theory of hegemonic stability, an important paradigm that scholars use to understand America’s role in world politics, holds that at some point the hegemon, the leader that shaped the international system, will start declining due to the increased costs of the management of the system itself.
The cost of maintaining the global order has accumulated over the last four presidencies and now outstrip its benefits. During the two terms of George W Bush, the financial and political capital costs incurred with the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have, among others, badly damaged the US government. Equally, during the two Obama presidencies the costs of the economic stimuli and its subsequent debt have equally hurt the country.
As predicted by the hegemonic theory, the US has reached a point at which the costs of maintaining the global order have become too heavy for the citizens, or rather their perception of them became more evident, so that they started to protest and ask for a change. This mood was perceived by Donald Trump, much more than by Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response is to decrease the exposure of the US abroad, hence diminishing the costs of such international projection.
The so-called “imperial overstretch” which has accumulated much earlier than Trump’s campaign, led the US electorate to seek for an alternative that promises less international costs (and possibly, but less likely, more domestic benefits). Hence, the promised withdrawal from a number of Free Trade Agreements, the re-negotiation of the terms of NATO participation, the cancellation of the environmental deals and other American commitments abroad.
In sum, from this perspective Trump’s election is a culmination of a much longer trend of international order rather than the specific time-lapse of the electoral campaign, a trend of dis-engagement that had already begun during the Obama’s administration and it will be now more clearly visible with Trump.
The big picture is that of globalization and its ill effects. It is because of the global transformations in the production chain and the relocation of multinational corporation abroad (coupled with the possibility of re-importing goods) that a significant segment of the middle class in America lost its jobs. It is clear by now that the policy choices for globalization taken by the US leadership in the ‘80s (Republicans) and ‘90s (Democrats) generated immediate benefits but turned out to be detrimental to the American power in the long term. It is widely acknowledged that India and especially China are the real winners in the game of globalization.
The system in which we have been living in the last 70 years was created in large part by the US leadership. The UN system, the Bretton Woods Institutions, NATO, and WTO. These are all institutional arrangements that have been strongly promoted and sustained by the USA. Now all of this is jeopardized and indeed put into question by the reluctance of the newly elected president to engage in and with these multilateral organizations. President Trump will have a more unpredictable, possibly turbulent relationship with all of these institutions. This will lead to their transformation and perhaps for some of them to their demise.
A new multipolar system might emerge. One that is deprived of the overall Western grand design and is left to pure bargaining through self-interest transactions, which is very much Trump’s overall attitude to socio-economic engagement. Such dynamics might lead to relative instability due to micro-competition, but might also have a larger de-polarizing effect insofar as they might de-escalate the current world tensions that have grown so intensely in the last few years. Here I am thinking especially about the West-Russia split, the NATO expansion eastward and Russian military response. Without a dominant US pushing for a specific world order, a more balanced system might emerge through repeated ad hoc bargaining. This might not be ideal, but it is probably the best one can get in a era of declining hegemony.
Trump’s presidency might prove polarizing domestically, but as far as the international system is concerned, it might have a salutary effect of depolarization.
Dr. Raffaele Marchetti is senior assistant professor in International Relations at the Department of Political Science and the School of Government of LUISS, in Rome, Italy. His research interest concerns global politics and governance, hybrid and city diplomacy, transnational civil society, cyber-security and political risk, and democracy.