As the inauguration nears, President-elect Donald Trump’s Twitter bursts have revived judgment questions about the man whose finger will soon be on the nuclear trigger.
But the weekend’s news that Trump again denounced NATO as “obsolete” suggests a far more serious threat to international security than his Twitter feed. At risk, apparently, are the economic, political and security institutions that have undergirded peace in the postwar era.
As conflict scholars, our research is very much like that of seismologists. They can’t tell you when an earthquake will happen or how big it will be. But seismologists can tell you, based on plate tectonics, that Chile and California are a lot more earthquake-prone than Poland or Uruguay.
What does this perspective suggest for concerns about the fallout from Trump’s apparent unpredictability? Sure, unpredictability might raise the probability of conflict, as many American citizens now fear.
Or it might lower the probability of conflict if opponents grow more wary. This is what Richard Nixon famously believed when implementing his “madman theory.” We can speculate, but it’s hard to say anything definitive one way or the other.
International organizations are critical to peace
But we suggest that the true conflict-prone issue, in fact, is how a Trump presidency will approach international institutions that support global peace and stability.
As Bear Braumoeller argues in his book, “The Great Powers and the International System,” the complex interplay of the capabilities and preferences of the major powers drives the international system.
During the Cold War, the Soviet communist and Western liberal orders managed to reduce the incidence of conflict within their respective spheres, but increased it elsewhere, especially in the Third World. The dissolution of the Soviet order 25 years ago paved the way for the expansion and consolidation of the Western liberal order — while at the same time removing its primary raison d’être.
In the post-Cold War era, the landscape of peace remains heavily influenced by the nature of the Western liberal order. As Bruce Russett and John Oneal documented in their book, “Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations,” these three characteristics of the Western liberal order are especially conducive to reducing conflicts. But democracy, interdependence and international organizations also help create positive peace — when countries not only don’t fight one another, but live in expectation of cooperation.
How do you build peace with Russia? Lining up allied cooperation is a good plan.
This, in contemporary conditions, corresponds closely to Immanuel Kant’s 1795 vision of “Perpetual Peace.” In “Triangulating Peace,” Russett and Oneal, using statistical analysis of historical data from most of the 20th century, demonstrate that, just as Kant predicted, liberal democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with each other — and democracies that trade with each other and join international organizations are even less likely to experience military disputes.
From a Kantian perspective, the existing structure supporting peace between some of the big powers in 2017 is fragile. Russia now has a more internationalized economy than in earlier decades, but is far less embedded in international trade and global institutions than, for example, China.
While China is a top U.S. trading partner, Russia doesn’t even crack the top 25. Western sanctions, imposed after the Russian seizure of territory in Ukraine, have further depressed trade. And while Russia technically does hold elections, it’s fairly clear that they’re not free and fair ones. So recent deployments of NATO and U.S. troops close to the Russian border take place in a context in which the pacifying effects of trade and joint democracy are absent.
Trump apparently thinks he can trust his personal relations with Vladimir Putin, rather than NATO, to keep the world in order. But diplomacy among nuclear powers is too important to be dependent on close personal relationships between leaders of states with very different and inherently conflicting goals.
And what about China?
China’s GDP, by contrast, is nearly two-thirds that of the United States, and the two countries have become closely intertwined trading partners. A trade war would leave great economic losses on both sides. A major military confrontation would also come at a great price — and both sides know it.
Another important Kantian link, in contemporary terms, is joint membership in international institutions. Since 1978, both Washington and Beijing have agreed to abide by the One China concept — that Washington recognizes Beijing as “China,” and accepts China’s right to a seat on the U.N. Security Council. But Washington also continues to support Taiwan’s actual independence from mainland China.
Yes, this is a delicate fiction — but a necessary one to maintain peace in Asia. Rocking that particular boat would damage the U.S.-China relationship, and Beijing has signaled that this would be a huge problem.
That said, China is not democratic either and is very protective of its political and economic interests in Asia. If Trump continues to court Taiwan or otherwise pull the tiger’s tail, he cannot count on a fully functional Kantian triad of democracy, trade and institutions to prevent conflict.
Are global institutions under attack?
Citizens elsewhere are becoming disenchanted with precisely the same political and military institutions that have reinforced peace since the 1950s. Trump’s election win, the policies that he implements as president, and ongoing Russian attempts to undermine Western institutions are all likely to embolden European populist movements, which are generally illiberal, protectionist and distrustful of European institutions.
From a Kantian perspective, this is the worst possible combination: It represents a repudiation of the liberalism, openness to trade, and involvement in international institutions that have greatly enhanced the prospects for peace. With general elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands coming in 2017, the rise of populism represents a significant threat to the structure of postwar security.
Angry Trump tweets are more a distraction from these very real threats to peace. Nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, the political institutions that make up the Western liberal order are themselves at risk from a combination of historical myopia, populist sentiment and active Russian interference. Although institutions such as NATO, the European Union and the United Nations are not without problems, their weakening or dissolution would in all likelihood make the world a much more dangerous place.
Bear F. Braumoeller (@Prof_BearB) is associate professor of political science at Ohio State University. Bruce Russett is Dean Acheson Professor of Political Science and professor in international and area studies at the MacMillan Center, Yale University. Both were participants in the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s 2016 Symposium on the causes of peace.