WASHINGTON, DC – If Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election was an earthquake, then the transition period leading up to his inauguration on January 20 feels like a tsunami warning. The entire world is speculating about what will happen, and, depending on who has appointments at Trump Tower that day, the mood oscillates between concern and panic. But, rather than wallow in fatalism, we must take steps to avert the worst.
The situation certainly looks bleak. America’s commitment to its allies has long formed the bedrock of post-World War II security, just as its engagement in international institutions has underpinned global cooperation. This remains as true today as it was 50 years ago, despite some weakening of America’s global primacy.
Yet Trump seems to think that America’s commitment to its allies should have strings attached, exemplified in incendiary campaign declarations that the US would protect only the NATO allies who are “paying their bills.” And he is ready to renounce rules-based cooperation across the board, from trade (he has already rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal) to climate change (he has threatened to withdraw from the historic agreement reached last year in Paris). In short, America’s global engagement, in all its forms, can be expected to suffer substantially, posing a serious challenge to the liberal international order.
This represents a clear reversal from President Barack Obama’s second term, during which important progress was made in adapting America’s international role to a changing global environment. At a time when power is increasingly diffuse and organization difficult, Obama began to spearhead more flexible policy responses.
Informal was married with formal. Firm ties were replaced by complex regimes that created hundreds of weaker (and often lower-level) connections, rather than a few strong high-level linkages. The Paris agreement was the clearest and fullest example of this approach; but efforts in other areas, from disease eradication to Internet governance, reflect a similar philosophy.
This is not to eulogize the Obama administration; nor is it to lionize Obama himself. In fact, Obama’s reticence to engage in some areas has contributed to the breakdown of some components of world order during his tenure, most clearly in the Middle East. Nonetheless, under his leadership, hints of how to structure international cooperation in a new era began to emerge – hints that Trump seems determined to ignore.
Under Trump, the US appears likely to be a largely unilateral actor, focused on its own short-term interests. Without the US in the driver’s seat, the process of developing a new, more flexible underpinning for global cooperation will grind to a halt, at least for the next few years. This is bad news for the world, but there seems to be little that can be done about it.
There is, however, another potential consequence of Trump’s presidency that must not be allowed to occur: the deterioration of the structural integrity of the existing global system. Failing to make progress is one thing; dismantling the rules-based order that has underpinned relative peace and prosperity for seven decades is quite another.
Beyond being the indispensable power, the US is the interconnected power. It is the hub of the linkages holding the world together, from the dollar to security to law to research and innovation. As damaging as Trump’s unilateralism will be to the rules-based international order, its consequences would pale in comparison to the harm wrought by a truly isolationist and withdrawn US that fails to uphold these bonds.
Of course, in theory, another power could step in to replace the US. But no one really qualifies at the moment. Europe is depressingly far from the level of unity needed to assume a major global role. Russia fills the role of spoiler well, but lacks the vision and authority to act as a world leader. India is certainly not there yet, either.
Perhaps the most obvious candidate is China. And the Chinese government’s loud calls for continued climate cooperation and quick moves in the wake of Trump’s election to fill the void left by the TPP’s apparent abandonment indicate a will to assume a more central position in global cooperation.
But China, too, remains a long way away from US-style leadership, not least because of the serious and mounting domestic challenges that it faces. More regional authority, together with a gradual increase in global participation, provides all of the positive publicity and influence China needs for now.
If the US does take a truly isolationist tack, regional hegemony may become the order of the day. China, Russia, the US, and Germany would each lead their respective spheres. This raises the specter of conflict along the borders of these spheres: Russia would compete with China in Central Asia, and with Germany in Eastern Europe.
In regions lacking a clear hegemon, such as in Africa and Latin America, regional rivals would compete for primacy, perhaps backed by other regions’ hegemons in proxy contests, much like during the Cold War. As we know all too well, while spheres of influence can give the appearance of stability, they breed great power conflict.
We cannot sit idly by and allow such a future to unfold. The stakes are too high. Instead, we must step up now, while the Trump administration is still in its gestation period, to form connections with the US that keep it engaged and active.
In the short term, this will require a transactional, rather than a principled, approach; Trump is, after all, a dealmaker. But from this low bearing comes a high purpose. As hard as it may be to admit, Trump has a key role to play in saving the world. We have to make sure he is in place when the curtain goes up.