by Talia Jessener
On Tuesday 21st February the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Robert Kagan from the Brookings Institute to comment on the Trump administration one month in and how it related to the international order. Kagan began by stating that, although he would give a talk about what we do know about the Trump administration, there still remained more questions that have yet to be answered, and that may not be answered for some time to come, based on Trump’s characteristically unconventional approach to the Presidency.
He began by reflecting on the changes and continuities of American foreign policy since World War II and explaining, similarly to Sestanovich’s theory of Maximalism before him, how American Foreign policy goes through peaks and troughs of engagement in terms of levels of intervention shown in Foreign Affairs.
Before the war, Kagan elaborated, America had pursued an isolationist stance, showing indifference to the rise of Japan, Hitler and European nationalism until the war was brought to their doorstep through the bombing of Pearl Harbour. However, once they realised they could not rely on their two oceans to shelter them from events happening elsewhere in the world, they began to pursue a much broader range of foreign policy interests. Shaking up the existing international order, they no longer acted as mere citizens of the world; instead, they had decided to be its policemen. They pushed for the spread of democracy and free market capitalism, and began taking responsibility for the protection of allies even when their own interests were not directly threatened, signifying their change from offshore to onshore balancers.
However, as outlined, a trough must follow a peak of engagement and Kagan outlined America’s retreat from foreign affairs in light of the backlash from the Vietnam war. Similarly, he claimed that under Obama, a new trough had begun, in light of the financial crisis and the ongoing impact of the Iraq war, consequences of which, Kagan claimed, were far greater than that of Vietnam. However, where Obama had begun to retrench his support of the world order, Trump may yet want to divest from it altogether.
According to Kagan, Trump’s view of the world is much more radical than that of his predecessor: he sees the world, up till now, as having taken advantage of America, with rich allies refusing to protect themselves or provide return on America’s investments in global security. In this sense, Trump is very much the businessman rather than the politician, and Kagan claims his unflinching view of America’s need for withdrawal should pose a worry to Europe and to NATO, who must now step up.
Kagan claimed that the existing international world order is a fragile thing, and is easily disrupted and replaced with anarchy and chaos. Ultimately, if Trump allows American isolationism to leave a vacuum in the liberal world order, while American might indeed be great again, the same may not be able to be said for the rest of the world.