Syria troop withdrawal: Is Donald Trump burying post-war liberal order?

SrinagarWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: Dec 28, 2018, 06:42 PM IST

File photo of US President Donald Trump. Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

Clampdown on immigration into the US, pulling out from the Climate Change Accord, stemming and stanching free trade are all themes that not only reflect Donald Trump’s preferences but also his disdain for the post-war liberal order.

Donald Trump confirmed his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and said that his country cannot be the world's policeman. “We're no longer suckers, folks," Trump told the troops, warning that he is committed to bringing home US troops from foreign wars even over the objections of his administration's experts.

"The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world," he added. "It's not fair when the burden is all on us, the United States." Trump's remarks and the subsequent action(s) conform and correspond to the man’s campaign pledges and the nature of his presidency.    

The Syria pull out is portentous and suggests that Trump wants to upend the post-war liberal international order. The political and policy reviews that he has undertaken till now validate and confirm this. Clampdown on immigration into the United States, pulling out from the Climate Change Accord, stemming and stanching free trade and veering toward a mercantilist and protectionist political economy paradigm, disavowing America’s “civic nationalism” in favour of an inward-looking, narrow variety,  and insisting upon America’s allies to pay or share the burdens of alliances are all themes that not only reflect Trump’s preferences but also his disdain for the post-war liberal order.

Trump, some of his advisers and much of the Republican base believe that the liberal world order and its premises have not worked for the United States and that a review would restore the country’ greatness.  While these beliefs are debatable, but the question is: Did the liberal world order, the norms and regimes that underpinned it work for the United States?

An answer to this question warrants a brief exegesis on the nature of this order. Internationalism, promotion of democracy, integrating human rights into the foreign policy of the United States, an emphasis on freer trade, and international cooperation through institutions of global governance, roughly speaking, were central to the liberal order. By and large, these themes and focus on these worked for the United States and made the country’s hegemony secure.

But, interventionism, embedded in the liberal framework, as demonstrated by the second Gulf War, in the nature of a “War of Choice”, constituted a disaster for others. In terms of liberal economics, while globalisation and freer trade benefited the United States’ economy, but there were obvious distribution issues which led to gross inequality in the country that, among other things, paved the way for Trump. Insofar as human rights are concerned, the United States was always selective in terms of their implementation.

While the liberal order worked for the United States, it was also then laced with many hypocritical elements.

Donald Trump, in effect, wants to reverse and rewind this order and develop a new one instead. (In this sense, by taking on the United States’ foreign policy establishment, he is well and truly an insurgent)

The question now is: if Trump succeeds in decimating the liberal order, what will be character, shape and form of world politics?

The answer to this question remains in the domain of the “unknown unknown” but a few contours can be identified. As the United States will retreat into itself, international relations and politics will probably morph into a zero-sum competition, among and between states. This will increase the salience of security dilemmas which, in turn, will mean arms races between states, as they will increasingly look to fend for themselves. Defence and security needs will be elevated over economic growth and development which might even be diminished as mercantilism and protectionism become entrenched.

And, as there will be no one to mediate and arbitrate conflicts, these might exacerbate and intensify. New regional orders might evolve and develop with other major powers taking the lead in “regional complexes” of security and order. All in all, there will be fluidity and churn of nature which, given the nature of the 21st century, might have no clear parallel in history.

Will, the question is, peace obtain?

With states increasingly relying on themselves for security, defence and power maximisation, their national interests will be reformulated in very narrow terms. They will also become self-referential. The corollary to this will be militarisation and foreign policies. And, international politics, being anarchic in nature, the global conflict might also be on the horizon. The retrenchment of the United States will also mean more multipolar world systems which are, by the standards of history, unstable. The 21st century, against the backdrop of these developments, might see a Great Power confrontation and even war. But, this analysis, is largely speculative.

Much will depend on who occupies the White House and assumes power in the United States in the next elections. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)