Is trump upending the current liberal world order or inadvertently correcting it?

Laying down rules for co-existence and means to enforce them has been a perennial problem in human history. The concept of social contract and the state address this issue at a territorial level. The international equivalent of this is what's called the world order. World order simply is the "concept held by a region or civilisation about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world" (Henry Kissinger).

The ingredients of the current world order evolved post-WW-II, mainly as an attempt to prevent the mistakes of the past. This broadly includes sovereign equality, non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states, and promoting values of liberty, democracy, fostering free trade, protecting human rights etc. This is sought to be achieved through a range of institutions and agreements such as UN, IMF, NATO, World Bank etc. The US played a major role in instituting this world order through its support to war-affected countries (Marshal Plan), extending security cover to its allies and so on. Hence, the current world order is often termed as "US-led liberal international order".

Owing to the recent events in international relations, there is a debate on the status of the current liberal international order. While some scholars like Graham Allison argue that there was never such liberal order, to begin with, a vast majority argue that there is a threat to the liberal world order. 

Some attribute the cause of threat to the rising assertion of China, while some attribute it to the US's actions under President Trump. While Chinese aggression does certainly pose a challenge, in this post, I focus on Trump's actions. In short, I am going to argue that Trump's actions are not upending the liberal international order to the extent claimed, instead they are inadvertently correcting the aberrations in the current order that were posing threat to the ideal of liberal international order.

To examine this, let's consider the concept of world order, the way US's actions are posing threat to this, and suggestions by scholars to correct this. In the end, I point out that Trump's actions are exactly same as the suggestions by the scholars to correct issues of the current world order, albeit it's not a result of grand strategy but a mere coincidence or a side effect of his America First policies.

The concept of world order from the lens of power and legitimacy

Going back to the Henry Kissinger's definition of world order, it is a "concept held by a region or civilisation about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world."

Pranay Kotasthane, building upon Henry Kissinger's definition of world order, beautifully argues that power and legitimacy are two essential components of world order. 

Legitimacy is required in form of "common acceptance of rules that define permissible actions".  The various international organisations, norms and agreements help achieve this. These institutions and norms are further based on the values of liberty, democracy, free markets, free trade etc.

Power, more in terms of the balance of power in this context, helps to enforce restraint and "prevent one political unit from subjugating all others".

The threat to current world order

The threat to current world order can also be analysed in the power-legitimacy framework. The threat to the legitimacy of the current world order arises from the fissures in "common acceptance" to rules on economic, military, representation, and enforcement aspects of the world order.

On the economic aspect, the accumulated negative effect of globalisation is leading to pushback against the global free trade. Further, the lack of proper enforcement of the global rules, in the case of countries like China that openly flout rules, is a posing a threat to the fairness of the system. Trump's actions like initiating a trade war, moving out of multilateral agreements are seen as a threat to the current world order.

On the military aspect, US's overtures in form of expansion of NATO and intervention in foreign countries to impose democracy, without any consequences for flouting global rules through such actions is making countries like Russia question the justness of the current order. Trump's questioning of US's security cover to NATO, Japan etc, and US's withdrawal from its security responsibility, and withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and Syria are seen as a threat to the current order.

On the representation, the skewed representation of countries in UNSC, IMF, WB etc. that does not reflect the current economic power distribution of countries is making countries question the legitimacy of the decisions taken by the top few countries.

Correcting the issues of the current world order

In the context of arising threats to the liberal order, Michael J. Mazarr argues that "The United States would gain more traction if it consciously embraced a more mixed order and accepted some of the difficult compromises that came with it."

To do so, he suggests making global institutions more inclusive, "increase the military power of regional allies without massive US troop deployments", "scaling back the more blunt and intrusive methods, such as intervening militarily in defense of human rights or backing opposition democratic movements in countries important to other great powers". 

To prevent violation of norms that set a bad precedent, citing South China sea example, he suggests, a collaborative approach rather than US's unilateral approach.

Examining Trump's actions

Briefly, Trump's actions that are cited as a threat to the current world order, the liberal world order are: withdrawal from TPP, questioning NAFTA, initiating trade war, withdrawal of forces from Syria and Afghanistan, questioning US's spending on NATO and security cover to Japan, Saudi Arabia, withdrawal from Paris agreement etc.

Seen from a lens of liberal order that is supposed to promote free trade, free markets and security guarantees to US's allies, Trump's above actions seem like a threat to the liberal order.

But, if seen from the lens of emerging long term trends that posed a threat to the legitimacy of the current order, Trump's actions seem like the necessary corrections!

Trump's actions on the economy address the issue of hyper-globalization that progressed without addressing the concerns of those who lost from it, which was posing a threat to the legitimacy of the current world order. Though one can argue about the extent to which the rollback has to be done,  it addressed the legitimacy threat to a certain extent.

From the narrow lens of the liberal order, Trump's trade war seems a threat to free trade but seen from the lens of emerging threats to the legitimacy of free trade due to Chinese flouting of rules with impunity, Trump's actions look like a needed correction to the existing order.

On the military aspect, the US's overtures in military expeditions had posed a threat to the legitimacy of the principles of sovereignty etc. To address this, Mazarr argued for ending US's military interventions to impose democracy and strengthening regional allies instead of direct involvement. Trump's withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and Syria and his demand for more involvement of regional powers in Afghanistan do exactly this! 

Further, when a new threat emerges, like the South China Sea it is not remaining passive as one would expect from Trump's non-interventionist trend. The US is approaching it multilaterally in form of Quad, instead of intervening unilaterally, just as suggested!

Why is it then that Trump's actions seem like a threat from one lens but not from the other?

The confusion arises from equating "the current world order" with the "ideal liberal world order". Hence any threat to the "current world order" is seen as a threat to "liberal world order". Instead, if we consider the "current world order" as a non-ideal version of the ideal liberal world order, with deep fissures due to US's actions accumulated over a long time, Trump's actions will appear to be correcting the issues of the current world order, taking it a step closer to the ideal liberal order. This new corrected order involves other countries too, rather than imposing unilaterally, more reflective of the emerging situation.

It is not to suggest that there's a method to Trump's madness or that Trump is doing this with a larger ideal to enhance the liberal world order. He is definitely acting selfishly. But since some aspects of liberal order were overdone earlier, his rolling back actions are only inadvertently leading to the correction. The fact that Trump is doing this not with a vision to enhance liberal order can be noted from the fact that he is not advocating, at least as vigorously as in the other cases, the need to make UNSC, WB etc. more inclusive. It's because they may not benefit the US even if they enhance the liberal order.

It is also not to suggest that Trump poses no threat to the liberal order. The image of US as a free country served as an ideal to look up to, for many aspiring democracies. It helped promote the value of democracy, one of the ingredients of the liberal order. With the blatant bigotry, racist overtones and other similar acts, he is damaging the image of the US as a free country, thereby threatening the democratic values of the liberal order.

In summary, we should examine Trump's actions in the context of underlying threats to the legitimacy of the current world order, and not conflate the current world order with the ideal liberal world order. Trump's actions acquire a different meaning in this view, where his actions appear to be inadvertently correcting the current world order taking it closer to ideal liberal order, rather than appear to be posing a threat to the ideal liberal world order.

I leave the reader with a question: Are Trump's actions preparing the US to adjust for a multipolar world, where others take lead in resolving issues and not the US?

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