“What is collapsing right now?” the journalist Ben Judah asked on Twitter late Tuesday night, as it became clear that Donald Trump would be elected president of the United States.
The thing is, nobody’s quite sure, and nobody knows what might happen next. In an interview last week, Thomas Wright, a scholar of U.S. foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told me he thought the international system that the United States helped establish after World War II might unravel over the course of a Trump presidency. This system, he explained, has been led by the United States—under both Democratic and Republican presidents—for seven decades, and consists of an open international economy, U.S. military alliances with Japan, South Korea, European NATO members, and other countries, and support for liberal rules and institutions that govern how countries conduct themselves. Wright argued that Trump has held a set of core beliefs since the 1980s that are hostile to this system: opposition to America’s alliance arrangements, opposition to free trade, and fondness for authoritarian leaders. The already strained system, Wright reasoned, might not survive if Trump implements what he pledged on the campaign trail.
Wright said he wasn’t sure what might replace the U.S.-led international order if it collapsed, but he didn’t think it would be good:
[I’m] arguing that when you get rid of the architecture that made this possible, a lot of the positive elements in the world today will be very badly damaged and will come to an end. But there’s no real way of proving that. We can’t say if the alliances went away tomorrow, you can say with certainty that Russia will invade the Baltics or anything else. To a certain degree, it’s an assessment based on what has happened before in history and an assessment of the intentions of others.
But I would say over a 10-year period, what would probably happen is that the world would become much more dangerous in terms of other countries coming close to conflict with each other, and that there would be a lot of revisionism—countries testing borders and trying to protect their own interests unilaterally. There would be an increase in security competition, and that may very well drag the United States back in at a later stage. Even if the U.S. said it wanted nothing to do with Europe, nothing to do with Asia, the history from the early 20th century is that that ultimately can get out of control and can drag the United States in.
I [also] think the global economy would take a huge dive. There would probably be a very severe recession because the U.S. would not be guaranteeing the openness of the global economy. Trump’s position basically is: For the U.S. economy to do well, other countries must do worse. But our experience over the last 70-odd years is the opposite. It’s that in order for the U.S. and any individual country to do well, the global economy has to do well.
Others disagree, however. One of those people, of course, is Donald Trump, who argues that America’s alliances, trade deals, and attempts to solve the world’s problems have essentially made the United States a chump, draining the country of its blood and treasure. He doesn’t subscribe to the Washington consensus that the longstanding pillars of U.S. foreign policy constitute a win-win for America and the world. Instead, he suggests that international affairs is an every-country-for-itself struggle between winners and losers. “We will no longer surrender this country, or its people to the false song of globalism,” he declared during the campaign. “The nation-state remains the true foundation of peace and harmony.”