The election of Donald Trump is not only a surprise for many American citizens. It’s a shock to the international community. In fact, the shock might be so severe that it will be the death of the international community.
What has happened in the United States is not unprecedented. But, as with most things to do with America, the tragedy is on a bigger scale.
It was one thing for Hungary and Poland to move in an illiberal direction. They are relatively small countries. Even the path that Russia has taken under Vladimir Putin has merely reinforced a post-Cold War trend initiated by China to challenge the presumed hegemony of the United States and its European allies. Brexit was a shock as well, but the EU can continue without its forever-cantankerous island member.
Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory, on the other hand, is something else entirely. The most powerful country in the world just elected someone who is ignorant of foreign affairs and not apparently interested in becoming knowledgeable. He will be surrounding himself with advisors, like former UN Ambassador John Bolton and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who are actively hostile to a community of nations united around principles of peace, human rights, and environmental sustainability.
This international community of shared values has never been particularly robust. Its institutional representation — the United Nations — does important work on the ground, but there’s too much dissension among its ranks for it to be an effective implementer of international policy. More often than not, “international community” is just a convenient fiction. It is what the speaker wants it to be: a consensus of global opinion, an ad hoc coalition of willing nations, or perhaps a set of initiatives on climate change or nuclear non-proliferation or global economic development.
The international community is like San Francisco, of which the writer Gertrude Stein once said, “There is no there there.” The international community commands no army. It has no fixed center of operations. It has none of the perquisites of a nation.
Donald Trump believes in America First. He is not interested in any of the various definitions of “international community.” And he will take his revenge on all the world leaders who have expressed their dismay at his political rise.
One of Trump’s first acts of revenge against the international community will be to unravel the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump may not rip up the agreement on day one of his term. But he will give the green light to Congress to impose new sanctions. Iran, in turn, will retaliate, and the agreement will be as good as dead. And just as we have just elected our hardline nationalist, Iran will probably oust its reformist leaders in the next elections.
Trump will also defy the international community’s isolation of Russia for its conduct in Ukraine. He will ignore the near-universal condemnation of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. He will walk back the Obama administration’s position on climate change.
Alone, these are just specific policy positions. Taken together, they represent something more profound. There will be no more common ground between the United States and the other advanced economic nations of the world. Once the anchor of the international community, the United States under Trump will become its chief adversary.
The United States will not by itself deconstruct the international community. A number of hyper-nationalist leaders will help Trump in this effort. In Europe, hard-right Euroskeptics like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and Frauke Petry of the Alternative fur Deutscheland in Germany will lead the charge against the foundations of the European Union. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and India’s Narendra Modi are steering their countries away from internationalism. Racist and anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise throughout the world.
The international community is a fragile construct. It doesn’t require a lot to shake it up. A relentless, four-year onslaught by Donald Trump and his allies will have a terrible effect.
It’s very possible that Trump, in putting America First, will follow in the footsteps of Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader, too, wanted to put his country’s house in order. He wanted to scale back on Soviet commitments overseas. He wanted to focus on economic reforms.
In the end, Gorbachev inadvertently unleashed the forces of nationalism within the Soviet Union that ultimately spelled the empire’s demise — first at the margins in Eastern Europe in 1989 and then in the very center of the Soviet federation. The empire that he wanted to reform instead collapsed in 1991.
Those critical of the United States might be celebrating the victory of Donald Trump as the first step in the dissolution of America’s influence in the world. It’s possible, of course, that Trump will follow through on his promises to reduce the U.S. military footprint overseas (or at least force other countries to share more of the burden). I suspect, however, that Trump will prove as devoted to projecting U.S. power internationally as past American leaders. He’ll just do so in an unpredictable manner without consulting with allies.
But it’s also possible that by weakening the international community, by alienating key allies, and by realigning geopolitical relations, Trump will produce exactly what he doesn’t want: the collapse of American power.
But nothing as big and powerful as the United States is going to collapse without destroying a lot of the world with it. In other words, it will not be a soft landing. The United States is dependent on the global economy, after all, and its military power is effective only to the extent that other countries collaborate with Washington. America is inextricably linked to the international community. Destroy one and the other will go with it.
Hello, Donald Trump. Goodbye, international community.