By S. Mubashir Noor, New Age Islam
14 March 2017
Liberal internationalism is dead. Or at the
very least on death row awaiting execution should US President Donald Trump
push forward with his campaign promises. Why? Simply put, his declared
priorities as president are at complete odds with the fundamental feature
undergirding the post-1945 world order sired and steered by the US. Once the
continents emerged from the ashes of World War II, Washington as the only
standing superpower promised a benevolent model of international relations that
shunned the petty realpolitik of old Europe and its exploitative colonialism.
Positive social virtues like human rights and self-government would thenceforth
illuminate the twentieth century.
To sustain such highbrow idealism, the US
contoured a foreign policy that gave equal berth to strategic and moral
imperatives. They were yin and yang, two sides of the same coin, impossible to
separate. The earliest manifest example of this doctrine was the Marshall Plan
to rebuild a devastated post-war Europe and Japan. That thousands of American
soldiers had perished only a few years earlier while fighting its prime
beneficiaries Germany and Japan did not muddle the calculus. Erecting a stable
system of rules required sacrifices and for that the US forgave sworn enemies. Wilsonian
liberals still smarting from the League of Nations fiasco believed economic
interdependence coupled with shared democratic values would keep future wars at
This idealism, however, routinely failed
the Cold War stress–test as both Washington and Moscow sabotaged a slew of
foreign governments to satisfy economic or ideological interests. Most
famously, the CIA instigated a coup d'état in 1953 to depose Iran’s only
democratically elected prime minister and set in motion events that would
culminate in the ayatollahs seizing power two decades later. Going by his
policy tweets and public statements, Trump has little patience for playing ball
by rules he holds responsible for bringing America’s industrial heartland to
its knees. If he is successful in paring down US foreign policy to narrow,
transactional objectives as is his want, America’s longstanding role as the
global shepherd will be voided.
Trump may have lost the popular vote on his
path to becoming president but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a blip
in American politics. Or that the values he espouses are confined to a lunatic
fringe of ethnocentric Americans. The “alt-right” base that carried him across
the finish line against establishment darling Hillary Clinton has emerged as a
potent demographic gaining strength across Europe from Britain to the Eastern
Bloc. Ultranationalism is again sweeping through the continent propelled by
anti-immigration, anti-globalization sentiments and populist demagoguery.
Islamophobia is its most visible manifestation and anti-Semitism will soon
In short, the very erosion of everything
the post-1945 world order represents. When moral imperatives are squandered in
the pursuit of narrow, national objectives, a multipolar world sequestered into
various spheres of influence will re-emerge. Hedging and balancing against
regional and great powers will again define global geopolitics. It will be a
return to Otto Von Bismarck’s days, the kind that triggered two great wars and
indeed the next nuclear-tipped one may usher the end of human civilization.
Liberal internationalism will inevitably give way to illiberal ideologues like
Trump who preach democracy through the bullhorn of socio-religious identity.
Why else did he qualify his ban on Syrian immigrants to exclude Christians?
Most cynics would argue, perhaps
successfully, that the incumbent system of rules I refer to was an illusion
from the get-go. That US presidents who paid lip-service to a moral dimension
in international relations did so to camouflage militarism behind the facade of
consensus. And those US national interests always positioned the global moral
goalpost and not the other way around.
Hence, America’s 2003 military misadventure in Iraq that should have
been roundly condemned by the highest international forum of the UN was instead
given legal cover.
This line of thinking presents Trump as
novel, but ordinary. Provocative, yet expressing opinions shared by the
majority of his colleagues in Congress who hold their tongues out of political
correctness. Though pundits have long predicted the collapse of the post-1945
order, sensing a withering in Washington’s willingness to project power for
moral outcomes, the lack of alternatives keeps the US in pole position. Russia,
for example, emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union a battered country that
the Boris Yeltsin years further drove down the fiscal sinkhole. Today it
possesses the military muscle to flex and the will to do so, but not the money
needed to challenge Washington decisively in any war theater.
China has both, or at least is getting
there in military terms, but with no ideology to export. Communism in modern
China is synonymous with one-party rule, not a way of life. Additionally, since
ancient times, it has feigned little interest in lands beyond its sphere of
influence stretching from Indochina to the Sea of Japan. The so-called
“nine-dash line” defining China’s claims to maritime territory are modest
expansionism at best. Crucially, its foreign policy still holds shades of Confucianism
and the belief in a “mandate of heaven” which impels citizens to create a China
worth emulating by the world without going to war.
But without war, the status quo cannot be
upended and resultantly a China-led world order is highly unlikely anytime this
century. It will also never experience the singular set of conditions that
elevated the US to superpower status. When the sun finally set on the British
Empire after World War II, it conveniently passed to Washington a global regime
built on English as the lingua franca and ex-colonials infatuated with the
white man’s lifestyle. The transfer of power was thus smooth as one Anglo-Saxon
master merely replaced another.
Today, little good will come of Trump’s
mission to replace diplomacy with hard-nosed “deal making” that reeks of
mercantilism. If he shakes up the system hard enough, it will unlid antagonists
that liberal internationalism has kept bottled up for decades. Indeed, if Trump
lasts two-terms, Daesh may prove to be just the tip of a rather sinister
S. Mubashir Noor is an Islamabad-based independent journalist. An
occasional contributor to NewAgeIslam.com