Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of current disruption in the international system. Put the attention-seeker to one side, and instead focus on the underlying upheaval.
The Trump phenomenon has widened eyes. Yet with eyes wide open we remain distracted by his noisy, portly figure and neglect the panorama.
At international fora since November’s US Presidential election, more so since the inauguration in January, discussion has focussed on the Trump effect, and how, and how long it will take, to restore things to ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ being the status quo of relations prior to the Trump ascendancy.
‘Normal’ being a status quo that isn’t coming back. Ever.
Trump is a dangerous attention-seeking blip on the landscape. But he’s a symptom of deeper trends undermining the post-Cold War international order and presaging its re-constitution.
Take just one of those trends: the increasingly isolationist posture of the US.
This posture, abandoning its three-quarters of a century as ‘leader of the free world’ and guarantor of the liberal democratic tradition, coupled with its relative decline as the leading world power, means its mantle, the ‘primacy amongst equals’ of the US, once abandoned, will not be readily re-assumed. Having deferred to isolationism, should the US later decide to re-invigorate its international program, it will be welcomed into a loose association of liberal democratic states, no longer as their unparalleled leader but only as a member of that tradition whose former stewardship is recalled with respect.
Isolationist tendencies, on the march in the US and now ascendant, are disrupting the international system and shifting the modus operandi of the liberal democratic quorum in ways that won’t revert.
Those ‘in the room’ at international fora need take this on board: widespread disturbances, cracks and breaks in the system means things are never going back to ‘normal’. Not even back to a ‘re-ordered normal’. Perhaps a ‘re-structured normal’. Ultimately a ‘re-constituted normal’, but who knows when?
The period between the two world wars of the twentieth century illustrates this point. Not in a direct, substitute the US for the British Empire, China for the US, Russia for Germany, populism for populism, zany leader for zany leader way. But in the sense that the two periods have in common both widespread systemic disruption and an unpreparedness by many of those working the system (and the room) to accept or even acknowledge the shifts underway.
A century ago, ideologies, world views and world orders began a process of rapid and major change, as did many social orders within states, entering what Hobsbawm described as an 'age of catastrophe' that continued until the end of the second world war. Inter-state alliances pre-existing the first war were entirely re-ordered, and in some cases re-ordered several times, by the end of the second. And even where those alliances weren’t substantially re-ordered, the interests and ideologies, the reasons, underwriting them had shifted regardless.
The globalised ideologies that underwrote the ‘rules of the game’ were usurped, and the social systems which maintained them within states were exposed, dismantled, reconstructed, even revolutionised. The political and social potential of the masses was realised to an extent rarely if ever previously seen. Many entitlements of the ‘ruling classes’ were swept away, by social movements, political movements, economics, by the tides of war. New ruling cliques emerged, some briefly, some permanently. In the post-war period, vestiges of the old order which remained, the colonies for example, were unwinding and their sustaining ideologies in rapid and inexorable decline.
During the generation-long inter-war period, Carr's 'twenty years crisis', populism, parochialism, ideologies, came to the fore and thrust into the limelight states which had previously played peripheral or subsidiary roles. Fascism, Communism and other mass movements became foci for international relations and empire building, as did the enlightenment beacon of ‘liberal democracy’ illluminate another focal point. States rapidly or gradually slipped into and out of the orbit of one or another of these foci.
The ideological status and realistic impact of international institutions waxed and waned throughout.
This illustration is not a prescriptive analogy. The history of the current period is yet to be written, and won’t be written by me. However, if it begins with the rise of al Qaeda, it is unlikely to be conveniently bookmarked by victory in a ‘War on Terror’.
Any serious historian, I’m sure, could point to other periods of history similarly tumultuous as the inter-war years. That does not detract from the merit of the comparison drawn, which illustrates the irrevocable change underway. To understand current shifts in the international system, the inter-war period provides a useful lens.
In the annals of future historians, by time the contemporary upheavals come to an end, the international order of states and their relations, of interests, of ideology, will be written in terms yet to be anticipated.