Teaching international relations at the dawn of the Trump Era


In two weeks Donald Trump goes from president-elect to president of the United States. As I told the students in my introductory level international relations class at our first meeting yesterday, I feel like all my lectures should now be accompanied by an asterisk, at least for the foreseeable future.

I describe the study of international relations to my students as a search for patterns of behavior and an attempt to identify and understand the underlying dynamics that create and sustain those patterns. Donald Trump, when he assumes office, is poised to blow those patterns up. Figuratively, I hope.

First as a candidate, then as president-elect, Trump has put forward and repeatedly reiterated a series of policy positions on national security, alliance relationships, trade policy, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and more that don’t just undermine but essentially repudiate the fabric of international institutions and norms of behavior that have brought a level of stability and peace amongst the great powers, and order to the international system more generally, that is frankly unprecedented in modern history.

That these institutions and norms were largely created, maintained, and enforced by the United States in the years immediately after World War II, and strengthened and broadened in the years since the end of the Cold War, adds to the tragic irony and irresponsibility of the foreign policy that Trump seems about to unleash on the world. As the world’s dominant actor, with unrivaled military, economic, and political clout, we’ve run the show. And now we’re about to walk away from all that.

In short, the United States will no longer defend the liberal world order that it built. As my friend Bill Ayres writes, this puts us into uncharted waters:

So what happens when a Hegemon abdicates? Nobody knows, because we don’t have a lot of good historical parallels. At the moment neither Russia nor China is a serious Challenger – would either start to think about assuming the US role? Would Europe, cut loose by a feckless Trump administration, go its own way, perhaps taking over the institutions the US developed? Would the Euro become the new world currency?

It’s not that Trump’s ideas are without precedent, either in terms of US foreign policy or in the arena of international politics. It’s just that they’ve been out of circulation, some of them for more than a century. A year ago in an article at Politico, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution wrote:

One of the most common misconceptions about Donald Trump is that he is opportunistic and makes up his views as he goes along. But a careful reading of some of Trump’s statements over three decades shows that he has a remarkably coherent and consistent worldview, one that is unlikely to change much if he’s elected president. It is also a worldview that makes a great leap backward in history, embracing antiquated notions of power that haven’t been prevalent since prior to World War II.

It is easy to poke fun at many of Trump’s foreign-policy notions—the promises to “take” Iraq’s oil, to extract a kind of imperial “tribute” from U.S. military allies like South Korea, his eagerness to emulate the Great Wall of China along the border with Mexico, and his embrace of old-style strongmen like Vladimir Putin. But many of these views would have found favor in pre-World War II—and even, in some cases, 19th century—America.

In sum, Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II. He has three key arguments that he returns to time and again over the past 30 years. He is deeply unhappy with America’s military alliances and feels the United States is overcommitted around the world. He feels that America is disadvantaged by the global economy. And he is sympathetic to authoritarian strongmen. Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.

But can he do it? That we still don’t know. And that’s what I mean when I say that Trump is poised to blow up the patterns of international politics that we have known for nearly 70 years, and which I have taught my students for as long as I have been doing this.

Robert Jervis of Columbia University, one of the great senior scholars in the field of international relations, sees in the Trump presidency an opportunity to test some of the things we thought we knew about the underlying causal factors shaping the patterns of global politics we observe. For example:

  • How important is the individual head of state in shaping his country’s foreign policy?
  • How strong a constraint on the head of state’s decisions is the foreign policy bureaucracy?
  • Domestic political calculations are presumed to be important influences on a president’s foreign policy agenda. Will Trump prioritize the populist trade and immigration policies that so resonated with his voters? Will he pay a price for his embrace of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s meddling in the presidential election? (Survey data suggests he won’t.)
  • At the level of the broad international system, our theories point to a strong tendency of democracies to cooperate with each other while engaging in more conflict-ridden relations with non-democratic states. Will this pattern hold given the transactional way that Trump conceives of relations between states?

Right now we just don’t have enough information to answer these questions. But we will soon enough. Until then, I’ll have to slap that asterisk on my lectures.