President Donald Trump is often accused of destroying the postwar global order, but he may be saving it. Trump is pursuing a nationalist foreign policy that puts America first and downplays the prospects of reforming the world we live in. At the same time, he acts as a realist to preserve a status quo which is radically different from the world of the 1930s. It is largely democratic and open, not revanchist and xenophobic. As a businessman before and president now, Trump exploits this world to cut deals abroad. Rather than dismantling the global order, he is seeking to balance it better in two ways: to get U.S. allies to share more of the burdens of common defense and trade, and to get China to accept the basic rules of a market-oriented world economy. If neither happens, the liberal world order will probably deteriorate anyway--not because Trump has undermined it, but because the American people will never sustain it if allies continue to shirk burdens and China milk markets.
In short, Trump is providing a course correction for the postwar global order that may be the best hope for sustaining it. His approach may be shocking, especially because nations have not seen such openly nationalist policies since 1945. But it is also less damaging because the world is a much better place than in 1945. Trump's policies may moderate the radical changes of the past seventy-five years, but they are unlikely to reverse them.
What is Trump's strategy, and more importantly, what are the results? If one looks only at Trump's tweets and tactics, there appears to be no strategy. But if one looks at the direction in which events are moving, the picture is quite different, NATO and Asian alliances are spending more, not less, on common defense. Alliance forces sit on the border of Russia for the first time since 1991, supply Ukraine with lethal weapons against Russian invaders, and challenge Chinese naval expansion in the Pacific. Outside of Europe and Asia, America moves back toward a more limited role: toward an offshore strategy that targets terrorism; backs the only real democracies in these regions (Israel and India); and insists that allies and local nations supply the majority of boots on the ground in foreign conflicts. In trade, Trump exploits America's booming economy to renegotiate trade balances. In immigration, he buys time to let the country absorb an unprecedented influx of migrants.
Overall, Trump's nationalist/realist policies may be just what the doctor prescribed to sustain the global world order. I say that as an internationalist who would prefer a more value-oriented and less crude approach. Previous presidents talked about sharing burdens and rebalancing trade, yet did little to achieve them. Their internationalist approach reassured allies, and those allies, feeling no pressure, continued to free ride on America's leadership. Any real change required a root and branch approach. Trump ripped up the ironclad American commitment to global security and world trade--or at least convincingly threatened to do so--and allies and trading partners began paying attention. Now, in a way, the future of globalism depends more on what they do than on what the United States does. After seventy-five years under American tutelage, they will either accept equal global responsibilities in both security and trade, or nationalism will pull them and the United States "back to the future.
Trump came into office declaring: "NATO in my opinion is obsolete because it's not covering terrorism [...] and also you have many countries that aren't paying their fair share." But once in office, he said NATO was no longer obsolete. He called for reforming, not dismantling, alliances.
Yes, Trump thunders against NATO in words. But he strengthens it in deeds. He increased U.S. NATO spending by 40 percent for troop deployments on Russia's borders and sharply increased, not decreased, U.S. defense expenditures overall, from $586 billion in 2015 to $716 billion in 2019 (and a projected $750 billion in 2020). Moreover, Trump accelerated the trend toward higher contributions by other NATO members. NATO members agreed in 2014 to increase their defense budgets over the next decade from the then prevailing average of 1.42 to 2 percent of GDP. At the time, only three members met the 2 percent target; by 2019 nine members did, and fifteen are on track to reach that level by 2024.
The United States still accounts for 70 percent of all defense expenditures by NATO members, even though it accounts for only 50 percent of NATO's GDP. European members like to say that is because America is a world power: U.S. military spending covers operations outside Europe--in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. True enough, but Europe, too, is now a world power. That is the point Trump is making. Additionally, Africa and the Middle East are much closer to Europe than the...