Present at the destruction? - the liberal order in the Trump era

John Peterson / Mar 2018

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The 2016 election of Donald Trump sent shock waves globally. A year and half later, the shock has not worn off. Debates persist about whether his ‘America first’ agenda threatens the liberal international order: the system of international rules and institutions painstakingly constructed in the post-war period. They are further fuelled as foreign policy moderates such as Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and Herbert McMaster leave the administration. Often, Trump seems determined to undermine the hallmarks of that order: democracy, liberal economics and international cooperation. Are we – paraphrasing Dean Acheson – present at the creation of a “post-liberal” and “post-American” era?

The historical record shows that continuity usually trumps change in US foreign policy, even when a Republican replaces a Democrat (or vice versa). However, an exception that proves the rule is the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. The list of liberal principles that were abandoned by the George W. Bush administration in their aftermath was breath-taking. In Bush’s war on terrorism, other states were “with or against” the US, regardless of how Washington chose to prosecute it. Eventually, of course, that extended to the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. The subsequent election of Barack Obama occurred largely because he was the anti-war candidate, which always made it likely that he would leave office as the first post-hegemonic US President since the Cold War ended. As such, 9.11 more than Trump’s election marked a true watershed in US foreign policy. It is when US international power began to decline and – relatedly – the liberal international order began to fray.

The liberal international order thus was more fragile pre-Trump than we realised. Obama never made any secret of his discontent with Europe’s contribution towards its maintenance. Meanwhile, Russian military adventurism in Georgia and Ukraine signalled the dawn of a “new Cold War” before Trump’s Presidency seemed remotely plausible. Allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election were both astounding and unsurprising. Astounding because deploying a previously unthinkable authoritarian tactic to try to undermine democratic political life marks a major blow to the liberal order. Unsurprising because Vladimir Putin’s commitment to non-traditional, non-military methods of confronting western democracies is clear.           

Or, consider Xi Jinping’s China. At first, it reacted to Trump’s election by casting itself as a champion of globalisation, free trade and the Paris climate change agreement. Meanwhile, its Belt and Road Initiative promised huge investments across the Eurasian continent. Yet, China’s aggression abroad, especially in the South China Sea, has been accompanied at home by a ruthless crackdown on Chinese civil society, increased human rights abuses, and an economy firmly controlled by state-run enterprises. The result is a new competitor to liberal democracy: a Chinese model combining authoritarianism, state-led capitalism and nationalism. After all, no other system in human history has ever pulled so many people out of poverty.

That empirical fact looms large when liberal democracy itself is under siege. According to Freedom House, more states restricted than increased democratic freedoms every year after 2008. At least 25 fewer truly free democracies existed in 2016 than at the turn of the century. Trump-like nationalist-populists then made gains in 2016-18 in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Norway, Greece, Finland, the Philippines and Turkey. It is hard to know whether the trend is inexorable, let alone what collateral damage might be done to the international order. What is undeniable is that 2016 showed that liberal internationalism simply no longer pays domestically in US democratic politics.

If there is hope for the liberal order, it lies in a renewal of democratic politics in the US and beyond. There are stirrings in Trump’s America, as shown by recent gains by Democrats in staunchly Republican districts. US bipartisanship on foreign policy that facilitated the Marshall Plan, the United Nations and NATO, and stronger international law on trade and human rights will not reappear anytime soon, if ever. But the US domestic political system, with its checks and balances and robust civil society, means that where America positions itself in the liberal international order is not and will never be where Donald Trump would like to position it.


An extended version of this article can be found in the current (March, 53/1) issue of International Spectator (


John Peterson

John Peterson

March 2018

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