Each American Presidential election in the past quarter of century has had the power to trigger the feeling, and sometimes even the certainty, that major historical shifts are underway in international affairs. The election of Donald J. Trump is no exception. Extraordinary in its complete bafflement of pundits’ expectations and pollsters’ voting statistics, the Trump campaign has been described by many as the sign of resurgent right-wing populism. Sweeping all over Europe, the ideological effect of the Right appears to strike unlikely discursive alliances among the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, with their “Take back control”, Donald J. Trump, with his “Make America great again”, Viktor Orban and Jarosław Kaczyński, with their slips towards authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland, as well as Frauke Petri and Marine Le Pen, with their anti-European Union platform in the upcoming German and French elections. Days before his inauguration on the 20th of January as the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump promised to bring back jobs to the American Midwest, convincing Ford Co., presumably, to relocate its planned factory from Mexico to Michigan. During his press conference on January 11th, the President Elect pledged to become “the greatest job producer that God ever created”[i], get back the drug industry, negotiate better trade deals, dismantle Obamacare which he called “a complete and total disaster”[ii], and build the wall with Mexico, for which the latter will pay. Mexico, China, and Russia were also featured in his speech. His “friendliness” towards Vladimir Putin, the charge of Russian hacking of the National Democratic Convention as well as alleged ties between his campaign staffers and the Kremlin were all questions which probed into the President Elect’s stance on international relations. For many international affairs pundits, this is one of the most unpredictable of the future President’s policies.
In an issue of the Atlantic Magazine, published in June 2016, before Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, psychologist Dan MacAdams drew his possible personality profile as the next American President. McAdams rated Trump very high on “extroversion”, a psychological trait characterized by “exuberance”[iii], “social dominance”[iv] as well as “relentless reward-seeking”[v], and very low on “agreeableness”[vi]. Drawing a comparison between the President-elect and Richard Nixon, arguably the highest ranked “disagreeable” American President to date, McAdams calls the latter “sweetness and light”[vii] compared to Trump, whose public battles of words against celebrities, politicians, and even the former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly are well known. The Northwestern University psychology professor attributes this unlikely combination of low “agreeableness” and high “extroversion” to anger, which he identifies as “the operative emotion”[viii] behind Trump’s personality, “at the heart of his charisma”[ix] and “political rhetoric”[x]. Insofar as personality traits can predict behaviour, McAdams sees a high likelihood of Trump, like Nixon, having the ability to take high-stake risks and act pragmatically in international negotiations. The “real psychological wild card”[xi] or caveat in this relatively innocuous tableau remains however Trump’s (dis)agreeableness, driven not by rational calculations, as in Nixon’s case, but by anger. Between Richard Nixon and another colourful figure in America’s presidential history, the equally popular and anti-Washington establishment Andrew Jackson, nicknamed “King Mob”[xii] for his perceived “demagoguery”[xiii], we are not left with too many certainties as to what Donald J. Trump’s mark on the world could be. Jackson won the 1828 American elections to become “the first nonaristocrat” US President. McAdams credits him with becoming a role model for the “common man”[xiv], a President who, rising up from humble circumstances, was able to expand American Presidential power at a time of emerging Southern secessionism. It was also Jackson’s influence that presumably mobilized Americans to support the Union[xv].
Only days after his January 11 conference, two interviews given by Trump to the German and British newspapers Bild and The Times brought both more clarity and bafflement to what exactly Trump’s world order vision might be. Choosing to refer to NATO as “obsolete”[xvi], to brandish the European Union as a competitor rather than a trade partner, praise Brexit, and call the EU a “vehicle for Germany”[xvii], the President elect followed in his international affairs foray the same schemata as in American domestic politics: a divisive identity line between “friends” and “foes” as well as a zero-sum approach to global competition. Ominously perhaps, these interviews, conducted for The Times by Leave campaigner Michael Gove, took place a day before the opening in Davos of the 2017 World Economic Forum, one of the most well-known informal meetings between private and public international actors. The “Davos Man”[xviii], originally a derogatory term credited to political scientist Samuel Huntington, is the “Other” for Donald Trump, a sum of attributes that the new Trumpian world vision defies: cosmopolitan, elitist, liberal, and a free trader. In an unusual twist of international fate, speaking in defense of economic globalization during the first Opening Plenary ever delivered in Davos by a Chinese head of state, Xi Jinping warned that a trade war would have no winners. The Chinese President laid the blame for the waves of Middle Eastern and African refugees on war, conflict, and regional turbulence, calling at the same time for peace, cooperation and stability[xix].
These are indeed unusual times in terms of IR orthodoxies. There are two dimensions on which an analysis of international relations in the Trump era could rest on: Constructivism and Realism in IR, or discourse and material factors. Donald J. Trump’s brand of Populism is similar to its British and European counterparts. For all the touted civilizational differences, the New Right’s ideological discourse in the US and across the Atlantic is remarkably similar: with nationalism at its core, this is an anti-globalist ideology which wants a revival of protectionism against the free movements of goods and people, a mercantilist conception of international trade, coupled with renewed emphasis on self-help through militarization. Simultaneously, the alleged involvement of Russian hackers backed by Kremlin in the American 2016 elections puts the limelight on a type of inter-state interaction reminiscent of Cold War tactics. However, well into the second decade of the 21st century, when the course of history can no longer be reversed, the following question needs to be both asked and answered: Is Donald J. Trump’s vision of America a new type of Right-wing populism or the Cold War talk often attributed to Vladimir Putin?
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that we are witnessing the resurgence of a Cold War narrative rather than a return to Cold War interactions. From this perspective, when we blame hackers, Russia, or in general Putin for electoral interference we are not simply identifying a return of Cold War politics; instead, we engage performatively in a discursive act which repaints the world in Cold War terms. Like “fake news”, a “fake” Cold War obscures empirical political processes afoot in the US and Europe and reassures everyone they understand the authentic reality of things going beyond media coverage.
Trump’s vision of international relations strikes some similar notes. However, it also forebodes a type of state interaction, different from the one characteristic of Cold War bipolarity. In his Foreign Affairs article, Cambridge University historian Stephen Wertheim offers an interesting discussion of the so-called “Trumpian Realism”[xx] and the traits of the President elect’s espoused nationalism. According to Wertheim, Trump’s campaign discourse rebrands America as a Third World country which “was once great, but […] would now have to claw its way back, first to first world standards and then, perhaps, to preeminence”[xxi]. During the Presidential debate, Trump’s comment about La Guardia Airport being a Third World country one by comparison to those of Dubai, Qatar, or China was widely reported in the media[xxii]: “All over the world, they’re laughing.”[xxiii] This is the expression, as Wertheim argues, of discontent towards what is perceived as an unfair share in shouldering the costs of international cooperation coupled with comparably lower than expected rewards. It also embodies a type of “insecure nationalism”[xxiv] that would create an identity clash in a country used to define itself as exceptional.
Donald Trump’s vision of the world is more egalitarian and competitive. Rather than a benevolent hegemon, America should re-engage more aggressively in international bargaining over resources. This is not Cold War logic, defined by bipolarity and relatively stable spheres of influence. Trumpian Realism belongs to a multipolar world where competition, not cooperation is the norm of international behaviour. Wertheim doubts that such a reinterpretation of American Exceptionalism, one that inverts its original meaning, would have much appeal in the long run. However, he agrees that Trump’s discourse may have “unintentionally invited the country to reimagine its place in the world”[xxv] and that “he [Trump] may provoke lasting political realignments”[xxvi]. Wertheim believes the Left will ultimately choose to support internationalism in order to contain the inward looking American President. Future ideological developments aside, this analysis does suggest one important idea: what Trump and Putin appear to share are not so much Cold War nostalgia or economic interests, at least not for now, but a discourse about the entitlement of a nation state to pursue them aggressively. Two other common themes recurrent in their speeches are the mistrust of international institutions and of Europe. The “Davos Man” seems to be juxtaposed to both of them. Moreover, Trump appears to endorse the “very very special relationship”[xxvii] between the US and UK, especially after Brexit.
But can superpowers, to quote the title of a 2014 article by Robert Kagan, really retire?[xxviii] Should we say goodbye to the American Century, as British historian and Columbia University Professor Adam Tooze argues in the German newspaper Die Zeit[xxix]? Searching for an answer to such questions one should also investigate the material factors of the international distribution of power, i.e. economic and military resources or, let as say, their appeal as markers of an international social status.
Hegemonic stability theory claims that cooperation in the international system is only possible in the presence of a benevolent hegemon, which pays for the so-called transaction costs. One of the main assumptions of this theory, in Duncan Snidal’s formulation, is that “collective action in the international system is impossible in the absence of a dominant state”[xxx]. From this perspective, America cannot and should not retire from its hegemonic position, since this move would endanger global order and stability, weakening international institutions as well as multilateralism. Neoconservative Robert Kagan does not believe this will be the case. Rather, he views this self-searching period characterized by a narrower definition of international interest as “a temporary pause before an inevitable return to global activism”[xxxi].
There is however a different story to be told, stemming from the same theoretical roots. Neorealism posits as one of its main assumptions the anarchic nature of international relations. Order would be here the by-product of a balance of power mechanism, whereby countries create alliances, balancing against a perceived common threat or bandwagoning in support of the stronger state. States in a self-help system, argued the father of Structuralist Neorealism, Kenneth Waltz, will flock to the weakest, not the strongest, in order to contain the latter’s power[xxxii]. Writing in 1998, John Ikenberry marveled, as did other political commentators, that the postwar order survived the end of the Cold War. According to Neorealist predictions one would have expected “the disappearance of American hegemony, the return of great power balancing, the rise of competing regional blocs, and the decay of multilateralism”[xxxiii]. Eighteen years later, this description seems to be very fitting for our international expectations. In 1993, Waltz predicted that “three political units may rise to great-power rank: Germany or a West European state, Japan, and China”[xxxiv]. Although publicly unassuming such a global position, Germany and Angela Merkel have been recently presented as the pillars of Western values. China’s economic rise, in a relatively short span of time, is equally remarkable.
Donald J. Trump’s discourse and world vision support the Neorealist prediction of multipolarity. On international trade, he all but suggests a return to mercantilism, a type of commerce in which the “winners” sell more than they buy. The new American Administration is expected to initiate some sort of protectionist policies, whether by increasing import tariffs or by offering subsidies, i.e. “good deals” to corporations such as car manufacturers. Less can be anticipated on the very pressing topic of international security. Quite a few political commentators have emphasized the demise of American Exceptionalism. However, all of them expect American military spending to increase. The “obsolescence” of NATO should not be therefore interpreted as the obsolescence of military power, but rather of international institutions. Trump, like Putin, has shown disdain towards the United Nations, and more readiness to embrace a case-by-case approach to international negotiations involving not multilateralism, but bilateralism. His attitude towards the UK and his promise of an international trade deal seems to point into that direction. Would discourse and a recalibration of assets, both economic and military, be sufficient however to fundamentally change our mode of international interaction? Can a few Populist world leaders, be it also of a superpower, change completely the structure of a decades-long international system? During the days following the inauguration of America’s 45th President these are some of the pressing questions that we are forced to grapple with.
Nota bene: A Romanian version of this article was published on Contributors.ro and can be accessed here.
[i]BBC News. (2017). Full Transcript of Trump Press Conference, 11 January 2017, p. 6. Retrieved on January 15, 2017 at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38536671.
[ii]Id., p. 20.
[iii]McAdams, Dan P. (2016). The Mind of Donald Trump. The Atlantic, June 2016, p. 7. Retrieved on December 15, 2016 at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/0...
[iv]McAdams, 2016, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 7.
[v]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p.8.
[vi]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p.8.
[vii]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 9.
[viii]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 9.
[ix]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 9.
[x]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 9.
[xi]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p.12.
[xii]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p.15.
[xiii]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p.15.
[xiv]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 34.
[xv]McAdams, The Mind of Donald Trump, p. 34-35.
[xvi]BBC News. (2017). Trump worries NATO with ‘obsolete’ comment, 16 January 2017, p. 2. Retrieved at:
[xvii]Id., p. 5.
[xviii]Wolf, Martin. (2017). Does Trump’s rise mark the end of Davos Man’s influence? Financial Times, 18 January 2017. Retrieved at: https://www.ft.com/content/1021e31e-b714-11e6-961e...
[xix]World Economic Forum. (2017). Open Plenary with Xi Jinping, President of the Peoples’ Republic of China. Retrieved Jan. 17, 2016 at: https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-foru...
[xx]Wertheim, S. (2017). “Trump and American Exceptionalism. Why a Crippled America Is Something New”, Foreign Affairs, 3 January 2017, p. 4. Retrieved at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2017-01-03/trump-and-american-exceptionalism
[xxi]Wertheim, 2017, Trump and American Exceptionalism, p. 3.
[xxii]The Huffington Post. (2016). Donald Trump said U.S. Airports are ‘Third World’. Here are 11 reasons he’s wrong. The Huffington Post, 28 Sept. 2016. Retrieved at: ttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-airports...
[xxiii]Wertheim, 2017, Trump and American Exceptionalism, p. 3.
[xxiv]Wertheim, 2017, Trump and American Exceptionalism, p. 3.
[xxv]Wertheim, 2017, Trump and American Exceptionalism, p. 7.
[xxvi]Wertheim, 2017, Trump and American Exceptionalism, p. 5.
[xxvii]Gove, Michael. (2017). What I found behind Trump’s showy façade. The Times, 17 January 2017. Retrieved at: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/looking-glass-fg...
[xxviii]Kagan, Robert. (2014). Superpowers don’t get to retire. What our tired country still owes the world. The New Republic, 26 May 2014. Retrieved at:
[xxix]Tooze, Adam. (2017). Goodbye to the American Century. Die Zeit, 13 January 2018. Retrieved at: http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2017-01/usa-heg...
[xxx]Snidal, Duncan. (1985). The Limits of hegemonic stability theory. International Organization 39(4): 579-614, p. 579.
[xxxi]Kagan, Robert. (2014). Superpowers don’t get to retire, p. 2.
[xxxii]Waltz, Kenneth. (1993). The Emerging Structure of International Politics. International Security 18(2): 44-79.
[xxxiii]Ikenberry, John. (1998). Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Power. International Security 23(3): 43-78, p. 43.
[xxxiv]Waltz, 1993, The Emerging Structure of International Relations, p. 50.