Don­ald Trump’s revo­lu­tion­ary for­eign pol­icy

When a sta­tus quo power turns on its own sys­tem, con­se­quences can be pro­found

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - BRETT LINTOTT

Among the many dis­turb­ing state­ments — and now ac­tions — is­sued by U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was his ap­par­ent re­jec­tion of NATO and much of the post-Sec­ond World War in­ter­na­tional or­der — an Amer­i­can cre­ation nur­tured by ev­ery pres­i­dent since Harry Tru­man laid the ground­work be­tween 1945 and 1949. It has even out­lasted the Soviet Union, the orig­i­nal driv­ing force be­hind the Amer­i­can-led western bloc. Now, Don­ald Trump has ex­pressed a de­sire to re­vise the post­war state of af­fairs, based on Amer­i­can mil­i­tary might, mil­i­tary co-op­er­a­tion via NATO, and Euro­pean unity.

This post-1945 Western sys­tem, which ex­panded into a global sys­tem af­ter 1991, was driven and is sus­tained en­tirely by Amer­i­can power. Their money re­vived Europe with the Mar­shall Plan, and their troops sta­tioned around the globe en­acted the strat­egy of “con­tain­ment” against the com­mu­nist bloc. The vi­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion which held — and still holds — the U.S., Canada, and many Euro­pean states to­gether is the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion, founded in 1949 as a mu­tual de­fence pact. More im­por­tant now than at any time since 1991, thanks to Rus­sian ag­gres­sion on its old im­pe­rial pe­riph­ery, Pres­i­dent Trump has se­ri­ously ques­tioned its pur­pose, as well as that of the Euro­pean Union, which in its ori­gin was a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic par­al­lel to NATO.

Trump’s harsh turn against 70 years of U.S. for­eign pol­icy is sig­nif­i­cant. If he were to fol­low through on his for­eign pol­icy mus­ings — ad­mit­tedly a big “if ”, although his ac­tion on do­mes­tic pol­icy has been swift — we could wit­ness a re­mark­able event in which a long-term sta­tus quo power re­vises the very in­ter­na­tional sys­tem it cre­ated. The vari­a­tions in the in­ter­na­tional or­der, as they have evolved over the past sev­eral hun­dred years, typ­i­cally have sta­tus quo pow­ers — those con­tent with the ex­ist­ing bal­ance of power and na­ture of the sys­tem — and re­vi­sion­ist pow­ers — those who wish to al­ter the bal­ance and cur­rent na­ture of the sys­tem.

Rus­sia is clearly a re­vi­sion­ist power at the mo­ment as is, in a more sub­tle man­ner, China. U.S. and the NATO pow­ers are sta­tus quo pow­ers. As Henry Kissinger ob­served, an in­ter­na­tional sys­tem will be sta­ble if there are more sta­tus quo states than re­vi­sion­ists. This has been the case since 1991, in con­trast to the 1920s and 1930s, when re­vi­sion­ists coun­tries out­num­bered those who wished to up­hold the peace set­tle­ment af­ter the First World War.

When a sta­tus quo power turns on its own sys­tem, as Trump threat­ens to do, the con­se­quences can be pro­found. An ex­am­ple from an ear­lier post­war era demon­strates this. In 1815, af­ter 25 years of war launched by the French Rev­o­lu­tion, Bri­tain, Aus­tria, Rus­sia, and Prus­sia de­vel­oped an in­ter­na­tional or­der de­signed to re­strain France and revo­lu­tion­ary move­ments. This “Congress Sys­tem” was based in part on re­spect for treaties, mu­tual de­fence, and mu­tual con­sul­ta­tion on is­sues of im­por­tance. It sur­vived, although much al­tered, to 1914. The seeds of its de­struc­tion were sown when one mem­ber, Rus­sia, ab­di­cated its role as a de­fender of the or­der.

Up to the 1850s, Im­pe­rial Rus­sia worked to keep France boxed in, and to main­tain the state of af­fairs in Cen­tral Europe, where Italy and Ger­many were main­tained as a col­lec­tion of small in­de­pen­dent states. In the 1850s, how­ever, Rus­sia went to war against the sur­pris­ing com­bi­na­tion of France and Bri­tain, in a con­flict known as the Crimean War. Fought over sup­posed Rus­sian ag­gres­sion to­ward Ot­toman Tur­key, it left the Rus­sians bit­ter in de­feat and with the sense that they had gained noth­ing from their sup­port of the 1815 or­der.

The Rus­sians there­after aban­doned ef­forts to main­tain the sys­tem as it ex­isted, un­leash­ing France, which in­ter­vened in Ital­ian af­fairs, re­sults in the for­ma­tion of the King­dom of Italy in 1861. Most sig­nif­i­cantly, Rus­sia ceased to block the move­ment for Ger­man unity, al­low­ing lead­ing Prus­sian politi­cian Otto von Bismarck to launch three wars of uni­fi­ca­tion from 1864 to 1870, re­sult­ing in the for­ma­tion of the Ger­man Em­pire in 1871. At no time did Rus­sia in­ter­vene to stop these desta­bi­liz­ing events. Ger­many com­pletely de­stroyed the bal­ance of power among the Euro­pean states, lead­ing ul­ti­mately to the fi­nal col­lapse of the 19th cen­tury or­der in 1914.

The les­son of the Rus­sian turn from sta­tus quo power to re­vi­sion­ist is an im­por­tant one. Should the United States re­duce its sup­port for NATO, or its other mil­i­tary and diplo­matic com­mit­ments in favour of an iso­la­tion­ist “Amer­ica First” pol­icy, there is no short­age of modern day Bis­mar­cks who will see it as a per­fect chance to ad­vance their agenda, an agenda which may well dam­age the in­ter­ests of the United States, Canada, and the rest of NATO.

Brett Lintott holds a PhD in his­tory from the Univer­sity of Toronto. He lives in Hamil­ton.


Trump’s ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to turn his back on NATO could have far-reach­ing and dan­ger­ous ram­i­fi­ca­tions, writes Brett Lintott.

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