President Trump’s European travels in July raised eyebrows across the world. From his criticism of NATO, to his labeling of the European Union as a “foe,” to his much-maligned news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump set off a frenzy of criticism about his motives, his goals and even his stability.
This short-term focus, however, obscures a critical aspect of what is unfolding around us. The story of last month is not simply about Trump and Putin and Theresa May. Nor is it about defense spending or national borders or Brexit. The biggest story is about the potential demise of the international alliance system that lies at the heart of the modern American success story.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States took the lead in constructing a new international order, sometimes called “liberal internationalism.” This system rested on two central pillars: The first was the creation of institutional structures such as NATO, the United Nations and the World Bank, designed to bind nations together in ways that might ensure relative stability and prosperity to those countries that participated in them.
More important was the second pillar, a shared commitment to certain ideological principles that underlay this alliance network. These tenets included a fidelity to democratic governance and the rule of law; a belief in a free media, civil liberties and basic political protections; support for the spread of capitalism and free trade; recognition of the sanctity of contracts and the centrality of international trade bodies; a pledge of nonaggression between participating states; and a belief in international bodies and multilateral agreements.
Liberal internationalism was envisioned by U.S. leaders as a path that could advance the causes of peace and prosperity both at home and abroad. “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in 1959. “It is not the goal of the American people that the United States should be the richest nation in the graveyard of history.”
Liberal internationalism did not always work perfectly, and its participants did not always adhere to its pledges. Some U.S. administrations were more devoted to its precepts than others, and sometimes promises about political rights were taken less seriously than promises about economic gain. The interests of the Third World in particular were often sacrificed in the name of anti-communism and U.S. profits.
Still, the system’s overall success for the United States is hard to deny. For the next half-century, the United States stood as the world’s greatest military, economic and cultural power, fulfilling Henry Luce’s famous call in 1941 to create the “American Century.”
Donald Trump rejected this system from the start.
He bluntly declared, “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”
To Trump and many of his advisers, cost-benefit analysis pushed them away from long-term development programs and sustained relations based on shared values, and steered them instead toward a more businesslike program with an emphasis on immediate financial returns and impermanent relationships at the expense of everything else. It is a vision of the world based on short-term self-interest rather than on long-term connections, and it has no room for an international order rooted in any set of core beliefs.
Trump’s policies have consistently reflected this worldview. The American commitment to liberal internationalism has been rejected at every opportunity, from the Paris climate accord to the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the multinational Iran nuclear deal. Trade wars, attacks on the media and even support for tyrants such as Kim Jong Un reflect the same path. The much-maligned moments from Trump’s recent travels, when he lambasted the British prime minister, lamented the collective defense provision at the heart of NATO and cozied up to a Russian dictator, thus need to be seen for what they are: not the simple mistake of an ill-informed leader but a blow at the very core of the modern world system.
Nothing embodies this challenge to the traditional order more than Trump’s approach toward South Korea (which I have elsewhere dubbed “Walmart Unilateralism”). The post-World War II division of the peninsula and the subsequent Korean War transformed the nation into a flash point of Cold War competition and made the South a central pillar of the liberal internationalist approach.
The Eisenhower administration announced a rebuilding program almost as soon as the ink was dry on the 1953 armistice. “We have won the opportunity to show that free people can build in peace as boldly as they fight in war,” the president declared. Overall, the United States would provide approximately $60 billion in grants and loans to South Korea between 1946 and 1978, while also developing successful cultural export programs and other soft power connections, all in the hopes of creating an American-oriented bulwark in East Asia.
If South Korea once stood as the archetype of the American commitment to liberal internationalism, it now stands, perhaps unsurprisingly, as one of the Trump administration’s central points of attack. Trump has repeatedly singled out South Korea as a nation that does not shoulder its fair share of the partnership and exploits its relationship with the United States “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman and them,” he lamented. “We get practically nothing compared to the cost for this” (a statement that is both incredibly shortsighted and empirically incorrect).
The administration has thus turned its back on conventional diplomatic efforts to maintain the relationship: denying a request to meet with a national security delegation shortly after meeting with Japanese officials, delaying the appointment of an ambassador and demanding the renegotiation of the Korea-U. S. Free Trade Agreement and an increased payment for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system. These actions, along with many other diplomatic missteps, have contributed to a weakening of this traditional relationship.
As a consequence, the United States — facing a collapsing negotiating effort with the North, tensions with an increasingly assertive China and trade wars springing up on multiple fronts — seems likely to suffer for this erosion of the traditional order that Trump’s vision has wrought. For many Americans, Korea in 1950 was just one example of a larger effort to defend and advance the American system. Almost 70 years later, it may stand as one example of the end of that very system, and as a symbol of the declining American influence that comes with it.
Liberal internationalism, of course, might continue without the United States, but without the traditional leader at the helm, the system’s long-term future seems gloomy. While every day seems to bring a new and more salacious headline about Trump’s most recent foreign policy misstep, we should not lose sight of what is really at stake: the potential demise of an international system that played a critical role in the emergence of the modern American nation.