Do Trump’s cabinet full of generals, his openness to torture, and the “peace through strength” message from the White House all signal that he plans to rely on military power to achieve international objectives? Or do his protectionist policies, his executive order restricting immigration, and his threats to impose tariffs indicate that the US will become more isolationist?
While it’s difficult to determine what will happen in a Trump White House given these ideologically inconsistent policies, we can place them within the broader context of the present world order.
The early 21st century marks a new era of globalization. Today the world enjoys an interconnectedness that is unprecedented in human history. World markets, high-speed communication, mass migration, and remarkable wealth development have benefitted many people, but not all of us, and not equally. Periods of high global economic integration leave behind those whose jobs go to places with cheaper labor. And this integration can also facilitate the concentration of wealth in the hands of the richest individuals.
Presently, we are living through a backlash; in both the United States and Europe there is a rise of nativism and nationalism.
As any history buff could tell you, this period looks ominously similar to the early 20th century, before World War I. At the time, many thought the globalized world could not fall into the destructiveness of war due to the economic costs associated with that folly.
But it only took an individual Serbian nationalist, angered by the imperialism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to start one of the most destructive wars in Western history.
If you’re not concerned yet, let’s examine the state of international relations between great powers. Trump has distanced himself from NATO allies, cuddled up to Putin, eliminated the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and poked China in the eye by questioning the One China policy. One journalist describes Trump’s attitude toward China as “talk loudly.”
These new stances occur during a period when there is one dominant power — America — and one rising power — China. Political scientist Graham Allison says that, in 12 out of 16 times when there was a dominant and a rising power, those states (or empires) went to war. The 4 times they did not go to war “required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.”
Considering Trump’s attitude, limited political experience, and his military build-up, it is unlikely that he will engage in the hard work of fundamentally altering the “attitudes and actions” of the United States. These new factors make Allison’s views all the more concerning. As he puts it,
Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment… Moreover, current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the U.S.-China relationship contribute greatly to those hazards. A risk … is that business as usual — not just an unexpected, extraordinary event — can trigger large-scale conflict.
Needless to say, there are growing tensions between China and the United States. This occurs in an administration that wants to cut the State Department budget, which may cause a reduction in diplomatic efforts. Moreover, the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demonstrates a lack of diplomatic grace. With this in mind, I would like to leave you with a statement made in 2013 from the new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”