Trump’s America and About-turn in International Order

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Massoud Mousavi Shafaei
Faculty Member at Tarbiat Modarres University & Political Economy Researcher

What we currently know as international system is a collection of nation-states, which regulate relations among them under the existing anarchic conditions in such a way as to meet their most important national interests, which include survival, security and in later stages, prosperity. The emergence and evolution of this system goes back 200 years in history. During this bicentennial process, the European concert of powers, which existed in the 19th century and was based on the balance of powers among empires of that time, evolved through the end of the 20th century into a complicated international system, consisting of nation-states, international institutions, and non-state actors.

The factor, which has undergone the highest degree of change during these 200 years, has been the general understanding of international system as stabilizing distribution of capabilities and the way it has taken shape and become established. At the beginning of this process of change or evolution in the 19th century, we witnessed an order based on the balance of powers among empires. Under that anarchic Hobbesian atmosphere, in which everybody fought everybody else, countries tried to use war and diplomacy as their main two instruments to both survive and expand their territories. Such a rudimentary understanding of international order was so narrow-minded, temporary, self-centered, unidimensional and based on fragile and fluid forms of friendship or enmity that it basically did away with the idea of an international order and had reduced international relations to numerous and ephemeral periods of war and peace.

Following the second half of the 20th century, especially in the last quarter of that century, a new international system consisting of nation-states emerged. Although this new system was still plagued with anarchy and evolution of new forms of balance of powers, at the same time and due to complicated nature of international system, it had given birth to a relatively multidimensional, holistic, overarching, and long-term understanding of international system based on cooperation and rivalry. In this form of anarchic order, nation-states, which pursued their sustainable and long-term interests, also paid relative heed to such actors and phenomena as non-state actors, international institutions, globalization, mutual dependence, the climate change, principles of international law, complicatedness and intertwined nature of international issues and so forth. In doing this, they were trying to make sure about establishment and sustainability of international order and stability. During the past two decades, international relations must be considered as a function of the conflict between the first and second forms of orders because evidence indicating strengthening of each one of them has periodically emerged, especially since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.

After the election of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States, there have been signs of an about-turn to the first form (19th century) of international order in a world, which practically lacks a hegemonic power. The way Trump looks at international relations and his understanding of the national interests of the United States are reminiscent of darker ages of international order and the age of fascism and Nazism as well as chauvinistic forms of nationalism and other destructive ideologies. It seems that Trump has in his mind a very narrow-minded, unidimensional and self-centered image of the interests and national security of the United States and looks upon the international order through a totally non-globalized, inside-out approach. According to this misinterpretation of international order, international actions of the United States are seen to be merely focused on those regions and issues, which are directly related to the interests of this country. In the meantime, meeting those interests is pursued less through multilateral international institutions, regimes, mechanisms and trends, and is mostly pursued through balance-based agreements with each and every one of big global powers, which would be similar to fluid and fragile forms of balance in the 19th century.

As a result, America under the rule of Trump is a symbol of about-turn to an international system, which is narrow-minded, temporary, self-centered, unidimensional and based on nationalistic or ideological friendships and enmities in a world without a hegemonic power. This situation is reminiscent of the situation that existed in the later years of the 19th century or in the interval between the two world wars in which the two main tools of war and diplomacy were used alternatively, and of course, constantly. Under these conditions, the following outcomes could be expected at international level:

1) Retracting from an anarchical society, which is based on a complicated and relatively overarching combination of force + consensus building + mutual economic dependence, to a Hobbesian situation, which would be based on clear and increasing use of brute force within framework of the balance of mostly military power plus a nationalistic economic system. The final result would be increasing use of all kinds of war as an efficient and common tool to shape or change balances of power in an international order that lacks a hegemonic power.

2) Emergence of fluid and temporary forms of balance in various geographical and topical spheres instead of taking advantage of multilateral mechanisms and consensus building through international institutions.

3) Fragility of regional orders, which undergo constant fluctuations as a function of the fluid and temporary balance of power among big powers. As a result, regional tensions and conflicts will increase in frequency.

4) Limitation of actions taken by relatively independent actors. It seems that agreements on balance of powers among big global powers will put limitations on actions taken by relatively independent regional actors such as Iran and will, therefore, increase their vulnerability. Those relatively independent actors, which will not join any blocs created as a result of the balance among big powers, will be more and more used as bargaining chips for large-scale agreements among those powers and will, therefore, become more vulnerable.

5) Increasing inattention to those spheres and issues, which are not subject of immediate interest of big powers, such as the climate change, immigration, the North-South divide, contagious diseases, and so forth.

6) Renewed importance of high politics and hard power and relative reduction in importance of low politics and soft power. As a result, economic capabilities of countries will be redefined within a nationalistic framework and for the purpose of balance of powers, not according to mutual economic dependence.

7) To the contrary of claims about deterritorialization and demise of geography, which were raised during the past three decades as a result of globalization and erosion of national sovereignties, we will more probably witness increasing territorialization and importance of geographical borders in addition to revival of geopolitical viewpoints and games.

8) Within framework of a world order, as defined with the abovementioned coordinates and characteristics, the importance of international institutions and international law will most probably take a nosedive.

*More by Massoud Mousavi Shafaei:​
*Iran’s Foreign Policy Needs Paradigm Change: Transition from Middle Eastern Terror to Geo-economics of Asian Hope:
*Developmental Foreign Policy: An Iranian View:

*Photo Credit: CNN

*Source: The International

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.