Looking back on the history of international relations over the past three decades it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the world fell into a kind of voluptuous state of relaxation after the end of the Cold War. For some reason, everyone decided that now the main security threat posed by the confrontation between the East and the West had subsided and humanity would go on to live in peace and tranquility.
At the same time, all the leading global players naturally had their own idea of what this peace and tranquility would entail. The United States undertook to impose its leadership onto the world, attempting to turn a “unipolar moment” into a unipolar world for the rest of time. Europe hoped to take full advantage of its successful economic integration efforts and edge its borders as far towards the East as possible. Russia, looking to distance itself from its “communist past,” was frantically searching for a new place in the world. China continued to implement its strategy of becoming a global economic and technological leader. And so on.
Meanwhile, very few people gave even a second thought to what the foundations of the emerging new world architecture should be. In terms of their public declarations, everyone reaffirmed their commitment to the norms of international law and existing treaties and agreements and professed their loyalty to a given set of values and the generally accepted rules of interstate communication. In reality, these rules, norms and agreements were broken with increasing brazenness.
The wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and the Caucasus and the Ukrainian crisis – all of these (and other) conflicts had their own history and specific features. But they also have a common denominator – they all occurred as a result of one or more of the sides committing a gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law. Everyone saw it, everyone knew it, but either kept silent or simply could not do anything about it. As a result, three decades’ worth of irreparable damage was caused to the foundations of the world order on which international security had been built since the end of the Second World War.
And then Donald Trump stepped onto the global political scene. Many see him as a revolutionary, a destroyer of the foundations of the familiar world order. But the fact is that Trump has continued to do the very same things that world leaders before him did with varying degrees of success. The only difference is that he tells us directly what he is doing or planning to do, without even attempting to dress it up as “political correctness,” removing the mask of concern for the interests of humanity to reveal nothing but national egoism.
Trump pushes “America First!” and he is trying his best to indiscriminately impose U.S. political, military, economic, etc. interests onto the rest of the world. But is this really any different to how other leading global players behave? Is anyone today prepared to do something that would harm their own interests for the common good? Of course not. Another question is: What do we mean by national interests, and to what extent can twisting the arms of one’s partners and opponents be considered the most effective way of protecting one’s interests?
When criticizing the actions of the U.S. administration – and there is definitely cause for criticism here – we should nevertheless be grateful for the fact that it has opened our eyes to many of the problems that had been brewing in the world and which we had chosen to ignore. Let us list a few of the more important lessons that Donald Trump has taught the international community during the two and a half years of his turbulent presidency.
First, we have a much better understanding today of how far the United States is prepared to go when their immediate interests start to come into conflict with the common interests of humanity. In fact, the White House is prepared to completely destroy the world order that it had a direct hand in creating, whether it be in security or global trade. In other words, nothing can get in the way of the United States carrying out its policy of “national egoism” today.
Second, the policies pursued by the Trump administration have exposed the extreme fragility of the international system as a whole. It took just a handful of decisions on the part of Washington to start a chain reaction that has resulted in the collapse of the system of bilateral and multilateral control over nuclear weapons that took decades to form. The same can be said of the numerous international organizations that have been unable to resist the aggressive unilateralism of the United States and are thus losing their former effectiveness before our very eyes.
Third, Trump’s presidency has very clearly and unequivocally marked a new historical milestone in the development of international relations. Before Trump came to power, there were still hopes that everything would somehow “work itself out,” that the outdated world order would somehow manage to stay in place and that some minor repairs would fix the old system. I think it is obvious to everyone today that minor repairs will not do the trick and that a fundamental restructuring of the entire world order is needed. Even if the current resident of the White House leaves politics eighteen months from now, the world will continue to be unstable, unjust and extremely dangerous.
Historically, new rules of the game in global politics and economics have always come into being following major crises and upheavals, whether it be the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century, the Great Depression of the late 1920s to the early 1930s or the Second World War of 1939–1945. Some analysts maintain that there can be no other way, as humankind only makes radical changes when faced with extraordinary circumstances, when it becomes clear that it is no longer possible to live the same way as before. Donald Trump’s presidency should serve as a shock for the international community, forcing it to arise from the sweet slumber of recent decades, take stock of the growing threats to security and take real steps towards the formation of a safer, fairer and more stable world before it is too late.
From our partner RIAC