Is the US the one to change the international order after all? Revisionism in Trump’s years
The post-Cold war period has been marked by the dominance of the US in economic, military and soft power terms, thus, characterizing the international system as unipolar. Under unipolarity, emerging rising powers compete with the hegemonic power for prevalence seeking to alter the distribution of power. China´s economic performance and Russia´s assertiveness in its near neighborhood alongside their continuously strengthening strategic partnership has initiated the great power competition debate while making evident the dissatisfaction of rising powers with the existing status quo. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions alongside the devaluation of democratic institutions in the country and the diminishing of international organizations among others raises questions on whether the US is the one seeking to revise the status quo. Drawing on these considerations, this article addresses the notion of revisionism from an alternative viewpoint that highlights a significant change to U.S foreign policy under Trump´s administration.
Revisionism is broadly defined as the willingness to change or end the current system as developed after the end of the Second World war and most importantly the end of the Cold war, with the US setting the rules of the “liberal game” as the most predominant supporter of the current international order built on democracy promotion, open markets and multilateral cooperation in international institutions.
Trump, from his first days at the White House, showed that he had a different vision on US foreign policy. His “America First” approach initiated a new page of US foreign policy which follows more assertive rhetoric while also following a tendency towards isolation rather multilateralism. He has even ascribed Twitter as its main diplomatic tool posting continuously on the administration’s decisions and personally attacking or criticizing his counterparts changing the principles of tranditional democracy. His policies reflect a dissatisfaction about the existing system that, according to Trump, operates hugely to the US’s disadvantage. This inward-looking approach diminished US influence in the international arena while fueling competition with other countries. The American president has used “unorthodox” foreign policy practices such as expressing support for the Saudi leadership after Jamal Khashoggi and ordering an airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad which have drawn backlash from the U.S. Congress and the country´s allies.
The Trump administration showed that it steers the US in a new direction, starting with a reevaluation of economic relations and interdependence with its partners. First on the list was the largest US trade partner, China. In August 2017, Trump issued a memorandum that called for an investigation in China’s intellectual property practices. Later on, Trump imposed various tariffs on Chinese imports as well as on specific products coming from any country such as washing machines and solar panels. This policy also included 5% tariffs on steel and 10% on aluminum imports from all suppliers. Throughout 2018 and 2019 China and the US engaged in a “tit for tat” of additional tariffs imposed on products imported from one another – constituting a trade war. In January 2020 the two states managed to reach an agreement signing a phase one trade deal.
However, the economy is not the only expression of Trump’s revisionist tendencies. He encouraged the UK to leave the European Union (EU) and proposed a lucrative trade deal under the condition of the UK severing all ties with the EU. Furthermore, Trump’s insistence on the issue of burden-sharing has threatened the cohesion of the long-standing Euro-Atlantic alliance, NATO, as he continues to stress that unless the alliance’s members start spending more on their defence – fulfilling NATO’s benchmark of spending 2% of GDP – the US would go its own way. In addition, the US administration has withdrawn from numerous treaties such as the Paris climate agreement, UN Human Rights Council, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the JCPOA with Iran (also known as the Iran deal) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty – an approach which, since 2017, seems to question the US’s leadership role.
This impression has been reinforced during the coronavirus pandemic. First reported in China in late December 2019, SARS-CoV-2 has erupted to an epidemic in the country. While Trump’s first response showed sympathy and support of the Chinese authorities’ efforts, the US once again reverted to more assertive rhetoric. As the virus started spreading across China’s border, resulting in numerous cases and deaths all over the world, Trump openly and repeatedly blamed China for the virus calling it the “Chinese virus“. Trump´s decisions to fight the pandemic took by surprise and imitated its closest allies. He decided to close the US borders without previous consultation with other countries, including the EU and its neighbours Canada and Mexico. In addition, his decision to restrict the export of critical medical supplies to Canada and Latin America led to a feud with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Ultimately, Trump even withdrew from the World Health Organization, claiming that the organization intentionally downplayed the threat the virus posed and was heavily influenced by China. The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus not only lacked a multilateral approach but even resembled “amoral” behaviour seeing that Trump tried to buy off a German company working on the coronavirus vaccine.
From the above-described policies, it is apparent that Trump seeks to revise elements of the international order selectively. To that end, the post-COVID-19 era would see a refueled great power competition that shows similarities to Cold war dynamics in terms of increasing one state’s capabilities and trade restrictions, more assertive rhetoric and the promotion of national interests at the forefront of states’ foreign policy decisions, at the expense of international cooperation and multilateralism. It can be argued that the US runs the risk of not only diminishing its international leadership role – built and sustained over decades – but also causing tensions and an augmented risk of conflict and confrontation.
Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou is a PhD Candidate of International relations at the University of Minho, Portugal and currently a visiting scholar at Newcastle University. She holds a Master of Arts in International Political Economy from Panteio University, Greece and a bachelor’s degree in International and European studies from Piraeus University, Greece. She has also been a visiting researcher at ICD in Berlin, Germany and University of Maribor, Slovenia.