The mainstream American foreign policy establishment is aghast at the idea that a Donald Trump presidency may end the pursuit of a post-Cold War liberal world order and lead to a U.S. foreign policy centered on deal-making. But if we move past the hand-wringing and sky-is-falling rhetoric, such an approach is far more appealing than most in Washington are willing to admit.
The reality is that there isn’t, and has never been, an accepted post-Cold War Liberal Order. And worse, the false assumption that one existed has contributed to two decades of decline in American global influence.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the U.S. had tremendous power to shape international security developments. But this opportunity was squandered, under both Republican and Democratic presidencies, as they embraced unrealistic, even utopian, foreign policy agendas.
Both George W. Bush and Barak Obama aspired to transplant the American model around the world, toppling governments if necessary. The problem is, rather than birthing democratic regimes, this approach created failed states and vast areas of lawlessness which have become primary sources of international and regional insecurity. And because this utopian approach ignored that other world powers never bought into an imagined new world order, it has also amped-up tension between the U.S. and Russia and contributed to far-from-cooperative relations with China.
This clearly isn’t working. But, having won on a promise of fundamental change, President-elect Trump has an opportunity to dramatically shift the underlying assumptions that have guided two decades of foreign policy. If Trump is serious in his desire to restore American international power, there are some clear lessons that his administration must embrace.
First, the impact of geopolitics is not nearly as diminished as American foreign policy has assumed. The Obama administration frequently condemned Russian President Putin by asserting that he was acting by the rules of 19th Century geopolitics. In fact, Putin has recognized that geography remains both a powerful asset and constraint, while Presidents Bush and Obama each demonstrated a lack of geographic concern by pursuing pet projects that established new landlocked countries, Kosovo and South Sudan. The viability of both is highly challenged by their lack of sea access, while South Sudan is further challenged by its dependence on the agreement of the state it split from to transit its oil exports.
Next, avoid the idealistic assumptions that have led to failed states and ungoverned territories – the chief sources of current insecurity. Presidents Bush and Obama helped create five failed states by encouraging the downfall of hardline leaders, despite having no plan for what happens after. Bush did it through military means in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama through his “As’ad Must Go” policy that enflamed Syria’s civil war. These interventions, which relied on a misbelief that power voids would be filled by democratic movements, have led to far worse conditions for the citizens and neighbors of each state than before the U.S. sought each dictator’s removal.
Third, maintain cooperative relations with Russia and China – or at least one of them. The U.S. has long benefitted from the fact that its two main strategic rivals border each other, and thus, face more threats from each other than from the U.S. However, as has become clear over the last several years, when the U.S. has security conflicts with both China and Russia, the two nations are driven to cooperate more closely.
Fourth, examine the motivations of a state, not just its leaders. America’s options and understanding are reduced when it views Russia’s policies as being just about Putin or the Syrian regime’s actions as being entirely driven by As’ad. In recent years, the U.S. has even intervened in domestic politics abroad, believing leadership change could fundamentally re-shape a foreign states’ policies. In attempts to empower Medvedev over Putin in Russia, Davutoglu over Erdogan in Turkey, Rouhani over Khamenei in Iran, and more, the U.S. was not only unsuccessful, but also counterproductive – damaging relations and its leverage to change these states’ policies.
Finally, President Obama recently implored President-elect Trump to not “take a Realpolitik approach” and “cut deals” with Russia and other adversaries. But an examination of America’s decades-long assumption of an idealistic world order has made clear that it is the cutting of deals that can expand policy options and bolster security. Sanctifying some non-ideal situations may at times be distasteful, but it will lead to a far better reality than well-intended policies that create real nightmares, such as we see now in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and beyond.
Brenda Shaffer is a professor with the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown and a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.