President Trump and his bloated Dr. Strangelove stand-in Steve Bannon have made it clear they are out to smash the current international system. One of the latest instances of this took place in Baden-Baden, Germany, when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin rejected a statement stressing the importance of free trade.
The U.S., home of Ayn Rand, Gordon Gekko and the No-Interest-No-Job-No-Problem loan, is embracing trade regulations and protectionism. Trump is trying to mold the U.S. in his image, one that embraces viewing every exchange as a zero-sum game. To do this, it appears he is willing to dismantle the current supranational organizations that govern international trade and cooperation, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This nihilist approach is a grave threat to the ability of the U.S. to project its power internationally at a time when the world needs it most.
The international stage is in a state of flux not seen since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. China, long the rising power, is having difficulty adjusting to a mature economy and is concerned about the continued flight of foreign capital from the country ever since its 2015 stock market turbulence. Russia, a power in decline, has mastered asymmetric warfare and media manipulation. It is also led by Putin, a dictator who has pocketed and doled out so much national wealth to his cronies that he can never step down, leaving him constantly in search of a foreign enemy to rally against. The European Union, long America’s natural ally, just lost a key member in the U.K. While it appears right-wing populism might be abating across the continent, key elections in France and Germany will decide the future viability of the union—and may face Russian interference of their own.
Add to this the coming effects of climate change, of aging and growing populations, job automation, and the diffusion of power thanks to the internet and technology, and the globe becomes a very Hobbesian environment without U.S. leadership and viable international organizations. Or, as Strobe Talbott, a former Clinton foreign adviser, recently put it in an interview with The New Yorker: “a dog-eat-dog world with constant instability and conflict.”
Madeleine Albright has called the U.S. the “indispensable nation.” Notwithstanding all the “U.S. in decline” think pieces, no other nation has the resources, the will and the credibility to act as a leader on the global stage.
Unfortunately, what Trump does not understand is that Washington’s power is not primarily derived from its military or economic might but from the fact that the U.S. wrote the rules of the game. The Bretton Woods Agreement, which created the IMF and the World Bank, placed the U.S. at the center of the international monetary system and made the U.S. dollar the universal currency. The WTO has helped the U.S. reach unprecedented economic heights in exchange for spreading prosperity to other nations by allowing them to access U.S. consumers. NATO has been the strongest military alliance since the end of the Warsaw Pact and has kept Europe peaceful. Should these agreements and organizations be revisited and updated? Sure. But to abandon them would be to throw away tools that have been vital for spreading stability, prosperity and liberal values over the past 50 years.
A fun pastime among historians is to argue dates. When did the Renaissance begin? Was it when Dante wrote The Inferno or when Ghiberti completed the bronze doors of the Florence Cathedral? A similar debate is taking place now. Have we exited the post-Cold War order? Is Pax Americana already over, is it ending or is the end just over the horizon? Only the future will tell, but the risks are clear.
Henry Kissinger once explained that there is no more perilous situation than transitioning from one international order to another. “Restraints disappear, and the field is open to the most expansive claims and the most implacable actors,” he wrote in World Order. “Chaos follows until a new system of order is established.”