Donald Trump’s revolutionary foreign policy
When a status quo power turns on its own system, consequences can be profound
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.